Reform, Conservative, Orthodox leaders tell all

“Where are we as a people?”

On Monday, the three heads of the leading Jewish seminaries tackled this question, as well as the challenges of teaching a new generation of Jews in an hourlong plenary session that stepped outside the overriding focus on Israel at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly.

Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University (YU); professor Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and Rabbi Norman Cohen, provost of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) spoke about training the next generation, led by moderator Dr. Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president, policy development, of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

It was the first time that these Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders have appeared together, a reflection, perhaps, of the changing of the guard at the seminaries. Joel, the former director of Hillel: The Campus for Jewish Life, is three years into his job at the Orthodox YU, and Eisen, chair of the department of religious studies at Stanford, is the newly elected chancellor of the Conservative JTS and will begin there in July. Both appointments have been hailed as indicators that the institutions are moving in new directions.

Although it was not a “Kumbaya” session, where the three leaders of the universities “waved candles and sat together,” as Joel said in a post-meeting discussion with the three leaders and The Journal, that was not his ultimate goal. Instead, they focused on their common challenges and goals, while still delineating their differences.

They share the aim of trying to create seminaries more in touch with the outside world or, as Eisen said, “The sociological understanding of the realities of American Jewish life.” They all are seeking to educate Jews of all ages about Jewish life and Israel and, most importantly, exploring how to create meaningful experiences that will engage the younger generation.

“There’s no doubt that the young people today will not be just like us,” Eisen told the thousands of people at the morning plenary. “There’s a lot that’s not working, a lot that’s not worth joining and there’s a lot that’s not directed at them. We can’t really look at 18-year-olds and 25-year-olds as future propagators of the Jewish people. We have to work with them as individuals with hearts and souls and minds that we need right now; that we have something to say to right now.”

Joel said he was having “deja vus all over again,” because in 1969, at a similar meeting, the younger generation disrupted the meeting, saying the elders didn’t understand them, and they wanted their voices heard. They said, “If only they would be allowed to join the conversation, it would be different!” Joel said, “They were allowed in, and it is different.”

But also, in many ways, he said, it’s not different.

“Young people are young people,” he said. “They would like to matter in the world.” The challenge, he said, is not understanding them but “feeding them” by educating them.

This next generation, said HUC-JIR’s Cohen, is “searching for answers. If we can provide communities of meaning that can draw them in, that will enable them to struggle with the enduring question of life that we all have; they will ultimately be drawn in.” Cohen discussed the synagogue as the way to engage the younger generation.

Overall, the three expressed hope and optimism that there are ways to engage the next generation, although during their public discussion, they were light on specifics. JTS’s Eisen brought up Birthright, the fully sponsored free trips to Israel offered to people 26 and under. He called it the most successful program for the Jewish continuity “since the bar mitzvah” and suggested that the community do something similar for older people.

After the plenary, the three discussed ways that they are implementing change within their seminaries. “The training at the colleges is radically different today” than it was 20 years ago, Cohen said.

For example, he said, instead of simply taking classes, students are mentored, and they work in the community.

Eisen said that from his perspective at Stanford, he sees the JTS students as living in a cocoon “surrounded by people committed to Jewish professional careers,” and he wants to get them into the real world. “I think that all of us have a problem that a huge portion of the rabbi’s job is something they’re not prepared for,” he said, referring to everyday problems, such as dealing with synagogue boards. Joel added that YU has now begun tracking its rabbinic students to find out which ones plan to go onto pulpits, into education or other professions, so they can tailor their education accordingly.

Cohen of the Reform seminary said one of the biggest challenges is to create collaboration between the denominations.

“We are tremendously fragmented,” he said. “How do we begin to see each other as partners?”

During the plenary, Cohen encouraged the federation system to be the mediator and unifier in bringing synagogues and institutions of different movements together.

“Our mere presence here is a statement of unified vision,” Cohen said.

But Joel was quick to point out both publicly and privately that their vision is not exactly unified.

“Let’s acknowledge some clouds,” he said. “We have huge differences between us that will never be overcome. There are boundaries we can’t bridge. Good will will not overcome those boundaries.”

The Reform and Conservative movement share challenges that are different from the Orthodox, such as intermarriage, assimilation and engaging the next generation. The Orthodox are grappling with how to apply the Torah and moral learnings to the secular world and how to engage their Jewishly educated children in the world, while the Reform and Conservative are looking at how to apply the lessons of the outside world to educating their children Jewishly.

For example, Reform and Conservative congregants and students focus on social action programs, such as helping people in Darfur, to which they apply accompanying texts from the Torah and rabbinical teachings. YU students, on the other hand, might have studied at yeshiva in Israel and learned the “Ethics of the Fathers” but don’t know how to apply it in their own communities or other communities.