Jewish Movement's Surprise New Head

Stanford University professor Arnold M. Eisen, right, who has been chosen as head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism, is welcomed by Mayer Rabinowitz, associate professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the seminary at an open house at on Monday, April 10, 2006 in New York City. (photo by Leah Volynsky, courtesy of JTS)
Leah Volynsky/JTS
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.