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Jewish Movement's Surprise New Head

By's Amy Sara Clark

When Nancy Fink joined Brooklyn's Kane Street Synagogue in the early 1970s, the congregation had so few members that it couldn't afford to heat the sanctuary. Today it has nearly 300 households, and a typical Saturday morning draws more than 200 people for such offerings as traditional and children's prayer services, torah study groups, discussions for interfaith families and yoga and meditation prayer services.

Some of the growth is due to the influx of young families to the area, Brooklyn's Cobble Hill. But the increase is also due to the Conservative synagogue's variety of options, emphasis on in-depth Jewish learning, active membership and inclusive atmosphere.

Kane Street Synagogue is not unique. It's one of many congregations across the country that's revamping its offerings in an effort to inspire current members and attract new ones.

It's just the type of synagogue that Arnold Eisen — who was just named head of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary — hopes will invigorate a flagging movement.

"We know that Jews respond when they are part of a community," Eisen explained during a telephone interview from his office in Palo Alto, Calif. "They respond to messages that are profound. People want values to live for. They want something to carry them through life. They want meaning. We know whenever we provide this — whether it's a (synagogue) congregation or school or church — people come back for more."

Eisen, who is not a rabbi, currently chairs the religion studies department at Stanford University. Conservative rabbis have called his surprise appointment — to a position that is generally considered the de facto head of the Conservative movement — everything from bold and creative to "a slap in the face."

The seminary trains the majority of the world's Conservative rabbis, graduating an average of 24 rabbis a year from its five-year training program in Manhattan. The seminary, which has 715 total students, also has schools for undergraduate, graduate, music and education students.

Still, in the seminary's 120-year history, there has only been one other non-rabbi in its top position. Some rabbis in the movement were more than a little upset at the choice.

"It's definitely a slap in the face to the rabbinate," one New York pulpit rabbi, who asked not to be identified, told The Jewish Week newspaper. "Because the seminary is so intimately connected with a religious movement, and because the rabbinic role for the movement has been such a big part of this job, the fact that the new chancellor is not (a rabbi) could be read to suggest that it's not something that is valued."

But not everyone is upset that Eisen is not a rabbi.

"I really believe that it does not necessarily have to be a rabbi. It could be a rabbi, but the prime requirement is that he has the necessary background," says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the movement's rabbinical arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Few would dispute that Eisen has a thorough background in Jewish learning. He grew up in the Conservative movement and regularly lectures on Jewish texts.

"I think he himself is a highly traditional Jew and an active one. He has written about Jewish law and understands it. If anything, I think the Conservative movement has once again turned to one of its greatest scholars," says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Some seminary students were disappointed at the choice because they had hoped that Rabbi Gordon Tucker, a White Plains, N.Y., rabbi and former seminary dean, would get the position, says Dan Dorsch, who has spent five years at the seminary as an undergraduate and rabbinical student. "But as people recognize his credentials and meet him they've totally warmed up," he notes. "I think he's somebody with real vision and someone with a real handle on what the greater problems are in our movement and a sense of what needs to be done."

Plus, Dorsch says, "He was such a kind warm person. He was already introducing himself to us by his first name as Arnie."

Eisen steps into the position just as the Conservative movement is struggling with whether to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis, something the Reform movement has been doing since 1990. Eisen favors ordination; his predecessor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, is strongly against it.

But Eisen stresses that this is a question for the rabbis to decide. The movement's Rabbinical Assembly's committee on Jewish law says it won't consider the matter until at least December.

"I don't want to circumvent the (rabbinical) process or dilute it or manipulate it in any way," says Eisen. "I don't get a vote on the RA law committee. I don't seek a vote. I'm not qualified."

Still, Eisen's opinion does make a difference, says Epstein, because the law committee only decides whether such ordination can be allowed under Jewish law, not whether the seminary should put its decision into practice. That's where Eisen's personal viewpoint could have some sway.

However, ordination of gays is not nearly as pressing an issue to most congregations as dwindling membership, says Epstein.

The Conservative movement grew rapidly from World War I to the early 1970s, says Sarna. Through at least 1990 it was the largest Jewish movement in the United States. But it has been losing members in recent years, while the Orthodox and Reform movements have been growing.

Between 1990 and 2000, Jews identifying themselves as Conservative dropped from 43 to 34 percent, while Reform grew from 35 to 38 percent and Orthodox from 15 to 22 percent, according to a study by the Reform Movement. The Conservative movement now has just over 1 million adherents, while the Reform movement has 1.4 million.

One reason for the shift is that the Reform movement is more welcoming to Jews who are married to non-Jews. Unlike in the Conservative and Orthodox movements, Reform rabbis are allowed to perform mixed marriages. The Reform movement also considers children Jewish if either parent is a Jew; in the other two movements, the mother must be Jewish.

"Clearly the Reform movement has established itself as the address for mixed-marrieds," says Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee.

But mixed marriages are only one reason for the decline; another is a perceived lack of passion. The Conservative movement sits ideologically between the more liberal Reform and more traditional Orthodox movements. It is often seen as a compromise rather than a strong ideological stance.

"There's been a lack of passion outside the inner core," says Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a longtime friend of Eisen's who was the first woman to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi. She now co-directs the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction in St. Paul, Minn.

Bayme agrees. "It's a lot easier to be passionate on the right wing or the left wing. The 'moderate middle' has challenge of getting enough energy and passion."

With his exuberant personality and passion for renewing American Judaism, Eisen was brought in with the hope that he could help inspire the next generation.

"What the appointment of Arnie Eisen really symbolizes is that there's no apology for being in the center," says Bayme.

Eisen, 54, is married to a biblical scholar and has two children. When he's not teaching, he's crisscrossing the country lecturing on the revitalization of Jewish tradition. He has written several books on Jewish identity and practice including "Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community," and co-authored "The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America."

"I realized I wanted to spend my days and not just my spare time working on the issues I care most about in life," says Eisen.

One of those issues is that for most of their 5,000-year history, Jews have been forced to live in Jewish enclaves, says John Ruskay, CEO of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York. "Now we live in one of the most open societies that Jews have lived in. What does it mean to be Jewish when it's a choice?"

Eisen has spent the past three decades studying this very question, says Eilberg. "Precisely because Arnie's field of study is modern Jewish thought. He is an expert in the thinkers of the last 200 years who have focused on the question of modernity and what encourages Jews to choose a Jewish life."

Eisen was also brought in because he is a particularly inspiring teacher.

"You almost feel like (Rabbi Abraham Joshua) Heschel is in the room with you. He has an absolute command of the material. He simply has internalized the sources," says Rabbi David Ellenson, a longtime friend of Eisen's and president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "His words really penetrate the soul. He has a traditional passion for the material, and he's able to convey that in a manner that's generally infectious."

Colleagues say Eisen can relate to students on any level, whether it's a roomful of rabbis, college students or elementary school students.

When Eisen's daughter graduated first grade, Eisen gave a talk at graduation. He said a traditional Jewish blessing over the students and then explained the text, says Eilberg, whose daughter was also at the ceremony, at one point telling them to look around and see the light of God shining on each other faces. "He drew out the meaning of those words in a way that was riveting to those 6-year-olds."

Bayme remembers adults being just as riveted at a lecture Eisen gave on modern Zionism at an international fellowship program in Australia. Afterwards, so many students wanted to talk to Eisen that he scheduled an extra session. "He gave up his free time just so he could talk to them, I was taken by that," says Bayme.

Eisen brings to the seminary several concrete ideas to re-invigorate the movement. For one, he thinks synagogues need to work on building community. "Give them face-to-face contact with people who care about them," says Eisen.

Conservative Jews also need to do a better job of reaching out to other faiths, he says.

Eisen also argues that Conservative synagogues are too often led from the top down. He plans to tell his future students they need to listen more to the people in the pews. "Lay people have a lot to offer. They want to be active, they want to give."

Eisen might even suggest his students visit a synagogue like Kane Street, where members do everything from leading services to teaching classes on Jewish texts to lecturing on art and literature.

"There's no cantor," says Weintrab. "We rely on members to lead torah and haftorah. It's a great attraction to new members that, in both appearance and reality, it's a nonhierarchical environment."

Because Eisen's son is a high school junior, Eisen will not move to New York until 2007, after his son's graduation.

But graduate students like Dorsch can hardly wait. "It's nice to have somebody who really gets what the problems are and comes with a whole bag of strengths. Some people have had a lot of pessimism for a long time and he strikes me as being full of positive energy."

By Amy Sara Clark

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