Denounce Muslim group, UC Irvine chancellor urged


Nearly 2,700 people have signed an online petition encouraging a California university chancellor to publicly condemn an annual Muslim student event.

The document urges University of California, Irvine’s Michael Drake to denounce the Muslim Student Union’s “Israel: The Politics of Genocide” event, which began May 5 and runs through May 21.

“As an American, you have the right to speak out and explicitly denounce anti-Semitism, especially when it occurs on your campus,” the petition reads. “As an educational leader, you have the moral obligation to speak out.”

The petition also calls on Drake to condemn the Muslim group as a whole, alleging that it consistently violates a campus pledge to create “a learning climate free from expressions of bigotry.”

The Irvine campus has been a hotbed of pro-Palestinian activism, and Drake himself has drawn fire in the past from some Jewish groups who have urged him to publicly denounce activity that is said to cross the line into anti-Semitism. Drake thus far has declined to denounce specific activities, speaking out only against hate speech in general.

The two-week program features lectures from noted Palestinian activists such as British Parliament member George Galloway and former Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, among other events, according to the Orange County Weekly.

UCLA chancellor Gene Block tackles economy, civic responsibility


UCLA’s new chancellor, Gene D. (for David) Block, got an early lesson in both hard work and Jewish tribalism when, during summer vacations, he helped his father, a dairy products distributor in Monticello, N.Y.

“I had two milk routes along the Borscht Belt in the Catskill Mountains,” Block recalled. “I got up at 4 a.m. for my wholesale deliveries to the large camps. In the early afternoon, I’d switch trucks to service the retail customers in the bungalows.”

The tough part of the job was to keep milk labels apart for the different Chasidic customers.

“I had to juggle six kinds of kosher milk,” Black said, “because the Lubavitchers needed a different kind of certification than the Satmars, and so did the Belz, the Ger Chasidim and so on.”

Still, the job had its compensations. Delivering milk to the great Borscht Belt hotels — The Concord, Grossinger’s and others — Block caught the last of the legendary comics of the era.

Block, 59, has completed his first year as UCLA’s top man, after spending most of his career — from assistant professor to vice president — at the University of Virginia.

He earned an international reputation as a physiological psychologist and continues to focus his research and teaching on biological clocks, the brain’s electrical time-keeping system.

Block is known to his colleagues as a workaholic and multitasker but also wins praise for his patience and optimism. He displayed his patience and humor during an hour-long interview at his UCLA office and needs all his optimism to tackle the problems at hand.

These include a shaky state budget, which provides about 30 percent of UCLA’s funds; continued efforts at student diversity within legal parameters; and, lately, protecting researchers working with animals from politically motivated physical attacks.

He prides himself on good communication with students, and the campus has been largely spared ethnic or religious friction. Of some 37,500 undergraduate and graduate students, 36 percent are white, non-Hispanic; 33 percent are Asian and Pacific Islanders; 12.5 percent Chicano/Latino, and 3.5 percent African Americans. The remainder chose not to identify their ethnicities.

According to the best estimates, there are some 3,500 to 4,000 Jewish students, or roughly 10 percent of the student body.

Block’s grandparents on both sides came to the United States from different parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, mainly from the Czech, Hungarian and Transylvanian areas, in search of a better life.

The chancellor relishes talking about his paternal grandfather, who served 25 years in the U.S. Navy under the name of Frank May and saw action in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901.

After discharge, he decided to buy a farm in the Catskill area but found the going tough. So his wife opened a boarding house for New York summer visitors, and when all the rooms were rented out, Block’s grandparents slept in the barn.

Block’s parents were Reform Jews, but young Gene (his real given name) celebrated his bar mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue.

“We were sort of the typical American Jewish family in transition,” Block remembered. “We didn’t keep a kosher home, but my mother had two sets of dishes and never served shrimp.”

His father spoke Yiddish, of which Block has retained a smattering.

When Block was a biology professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, he made what he smilingly described as his greatest contribution to his faith.

“I had a post-doctoral student, who, it turned out, was also a cantor. So I ‘volunteered’ him to the local synagogue, and even after he moved elsewhere, he always returned for the High Holidays.”

At UCLA, as in Virginia, Block attends High Holy Day services at the campus Hillel Center.

Block married his high school sweetheart, Carol, 38 years ago, and they are the parents of two adult children. Among his hobbies are tinkering with cars and his collection of 50 antique radios.

Block seems to be enjoying his new job and is high on UCLA, especially its “remarkable students — they’re dazzling.” When they graduate, he predicted, “they will be a transformative generation, crucial to the technological and economic development of California.”

In the interview, Block stressed UCLA’s responsibility to the larger Los Angeles community, especially in improving the public school system.

A major project is working together with the Los Angeles Unified School District on a future community school, on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel, whose students, mainly from minority groups, will be in small classes, with an emphasis on science and information technology.

Also getting under way is an interdisciplinary research center on the UCLA campus, dealing with acute civic problems, including childhood obesity, homelessness and gang violence.

All of this will take money, not the least from private donors, and Block knows that one of the main tasks of any modern university head is to spearhead fundraising efforts.

He does not discriminate against donors of any race or creed, but he is well aware that Jews have been among the most generous of UCLA supporters, as the names on many campus buildings and labs testify.

“I feel certain that the Jewish community will continue its traditional support of higher education,” Block said in parting.

New Conservative seminary leader outlines goals


Long before he emerged as a leading scholar of American Jewry, and decades before he would be looked to as the potential savior of the Conservative movement, Arnold Eisen was gunning for a journalism internship at the Washington Post.

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Eisen was in the running for editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian — the position brought with it an automatic summer job at the Post.

Eisen lost the election in what he says was then the greatest disappointment of his life.

That election diverted Eisen’s career path from journalism to academia and initiated a journey that culminated Wednesday when he was inaugurated as the seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism.

But even as he settles into his new post as head of the movement’s chief academic institution, it is the values of the profession he did not pursue more than those of the academy that are figuring prominently in his plans.

In describing his vision for the coming year, Eisen speaks of dialogue rather than direction. He intends to spark conversations within the movement, facilitated by JTS, in place of “canned lectures.” And he believes being a Conservative Jew is largely about what journalists — and Jews — love most: talking.

“To be a Conservative Jew is in large part to want to be part of a certain conversation in word and in deed,” Eisen said recently in a wide-ranging discussion in his JTS office.

As workers made final preparations for the inauguration seminary in the courtyard below, Eisen described Conservative Judaism not as an ironclad ethos or series of principles, but as “a constellation of attitudes and behaviors and commitments that are coherent and that distinguish this movement from others.”

Eisen takes the JTS helm at a time when the Conservative movement is being seen by many as floundering, its numbers in decline and its ideological clarity muddled.

His predecessor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, in his parting message said the movement suffered from a “grievous failure of nerve.”

Once the largest synagogue denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has fallen into second place behind the Reform, and it has become routine to speak of the movement’s lack of direction and coherence.

All those challenges were awaiting Eisen when he arrived at his new office on Broadway and 122nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what concerns the incoming chancellor most is not the supposed apathy within the movement — a notion he says is “nothing less than absurd” — or even the decline in its numbers.

“Numbers don’t keep me up at night; Israel keeps me up at night,” Eisen said. “I’m worried about the security of Israel, and I’m worried about the apparent decline in attachment on the part of American Jews to Israel. This literally, from time to time, keeps me up at night.”

In the coming year, Eisen plans to focus his efforts on building stronger ties between American Jews and the State of Israel. It is part of a commitment by JTS to the Jewish people, one of three constituencies — along with the Conservative movement and the broader North American society — that Eisen wants the seminary to serve.

He also plans to promote dialogue between Jews and Muslims similar to the Jewish-Christian dialogue begun by Louis Finkelstein, the seminary’s legendary leader from 1940 to 1972.

It is the third constituency, the Conservative movement, where expectations for Eisen’s tenure are the greatest. In addition to declining numbers, the movement has been through a bruising year in which a controversial decision to ordain gay clergy polarized the rabbinic leadership and sparked fears that the denomination in the center of the ideological spectrum could not hold.

Eisen has said that the movement’s historic commitment to religious pluralism — the notion that competing views of halacha (Jewish law) can peacefully coexist — is not enough to hold Conservative Judaism together.

Instead, he wants Conservative Jews to think more deeply about the notion of mitzvah — a term normally described as a “good deed” or “commandment,” but which Eisen says is really a much richer idea. He has urged rabbis to talk about the concept in their High Holy Days sermons, and he intends to pilot a mitzvah project in 10 congregations to get Jews talking about what they feel obligates them.

It is a task, Eisen says, that is urgent for a movement that has struggled to straddle the gap between fidelity to traditional Jewish law and principled adaptation to modernity.

“To bring Jews closer to mitzvah, one has to enrich the conception they’re walking around with,” Eisen said. “And that’s part of the task.”

Eisen’s emphasis on the concept of mitzvah could end up further muddying the theological line between Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, has been firm in insisting that his movement is best understood as mitzvah-oriented, not halachic-oriented — a distinction aimed at explaining that even as the Reform movement increases its embrace of ancient practices and rituals, it rejects the traditional Orthodox and Conservative notion of Jews being bound by an overarching system of religious law.

Eisen shows no indication of wanting to follow Yoffie’s lead in affirmatively severing the direct relationship between mitzvah and halacha. Yet he clearly sees the Conservative predicament in sociological terms, as a conflict between the traditional sense of commandedness and the modern ideology of the “sovereign self,” the notion that each person is lord and ruler of their own lives and practice.

In other words, Eisen’s opening of a discussion on mitzvah could be understood as an attempt to address the challenge of how to inculcate a sense of obligation among followers without their feeling from the start that they are being told what they must do.

Since being tapped for the chancellorship, Eisen has traveled the country on a “listening tour,” and what he found has made him optimistic. Conservative Jews want greater JTS involvement in their lives, he said. They want a clear message about what their movement stands for. They want improved quality and greater cooperation across the various arms of the movement. And on the eve of his inauguration, Eisen says he is poised to give it all to them.

Q & A With Ismar Schorsch


Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, will retire in June. In that role, he has been informally considered the closest thing that the Conservative movement has to a leader. Schorsch, 70, met with The Journal to assess his two decades heading the seminary and his hopes for the future.

The Jewish Journal: Many observers say the next leader of the seminary has to be more than an academic or a capable university administrator — that the next leader will have to assume a crucial leadership role with the Conservative movement. How do you see the role of the next chancellor?

Ismar Schorsch: The chancellor is the head of the Conservative movement. And the chancellor often speaks of theology and religion, [giving] voice to Conservative Judaism in the public arena.

JJ: What did you originally set out to accomplish as chancellor? What do you think you did accomplish?

IS: I can’t say I came in with a well-formed agenda. Early on in my career, I did set a set of priorities for my administration — I was determined to make Jewish education the top priority of the seminary. I never wavered from that goal. I would say that my greatest accomplishment was significantly and largely the investment in serious Jewish education. We created the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, which is by far the largest school in the country.

The School of Education has had an enormous impact on the other schools of the seminary. Many of the rabbinical and cantorial students are taking a masters of Jewish education. They are clearly going to be advocates of Jewish education when they finish their education. There will be a team effort in synagogues — you will have the rabbi, the cantor and the educational director all committed to serious education from preschool to adult learning. I think the creation of the School of Education has been an enormous catalyst for what I think is the only effective, viable response to the challenge of assimilation in American society, and that is serious Jewish education.

JJ: What has been your greatest challenge as chancellor?

IS: When I came in, we were still in the throes of ordaining women rabbis. We were not admitting women to cantorial school, and I immediately set about admitting qualified women students. And then we promoted the employment of women rabbis and cantors in the movement. So I would say that the integration of women students into the movement and cantorial school occupied my attention in the first [half of his time as chancellor].

JJ: You helped integrate women into the movement. But they are not at the place they necessarily need to be: The Rabbinical Assembly’s (RA) report last year found that women make less money and don’t serve as leaders of major synagogues.

IS: I think the publication of the study itself is an important step. It’s crystallized the problem and intensified the advocacy by the RA and the seminary for equalizing pay and employing women in larger congregations. I think that’s happening. There’s been a positive response to the critical study of women in the rabbinate. There are women getting more interviews in larger congregations and getting positions there.

JJ: Why hasn’t it happened yet?

IS: Cultural change is slow. It’s naive to expect a change of that magnitude to occur from one year to the next. The transition may be frustrating, but I think it’s inevitable. Proactive measures and advocacy can accelerate the process but not eliminate it.

JJ: Why are you retiring now?

IS: There are some other things I’d like to do. I’m first and foremost a scholar; I came from the faculty, and I want to return to the faculty. I want to write a number of pieces that I have been working on, and I want to return to full-time teaching.

JJ: The seminary won’t ordain openly gay rabbis. Do you see a change coming in the future? Do you think a part of the movement will break off because of the gay rights issue?

IS: I want to address the larger issue of what direction the Conservative movement should take. The Conservative movement should reaffirm the correctness and power of its base with Jewish law … the Conservative movement should not try and be a rainbow. It needs to reaffirm the validity of traditional Judaism — that’s what the word ‘conserve’ means. The Conservative movement was created as a reaction to extreme reform in this society, which knows no limits. It is incumbent upon the Conservative movement to advocate traditional Jewish values and practice.

JJ: Who are the leading candidates to replace you?

IS: I am not involved in the search for my successor.

JJ: What do you consider a failure in your term or something you did not manage to accomplish?

IS: I would have liked to accomplish more in Israel. I think [the Conservative movement] is still small and fragile in Israel. In the mid-’90s, I led a national campaign to eliminate the office of the chief rabbinate, to have the State of Israel treat Reform and Conservative rabbis exactly as they treat Orthodox rabbis, to achieve a measure of separation between Orthodoxy and State of Israel. I can’t say that campaign has succeeded.

JJ: Ehud Bandel, the head of the movement in Israel, the Masorti movement, was let go this summer. How can the movement grow in Israel?

IS: The movement [here] has not been [good] about raising money [for Israel.] The great success [there] has been the Schecter Institute of Jewish Studies. The Schecter Institute is having an enormous impact on education in the State of Israel through the Tali schools, which is a network of Conservative Israeli schools.

I think more financial support is critical to grow the movement in Israel. Good leadership would help a lot. The resistance to non-Orthodox growth in Israel is formidable.

JJ: The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles was founded from the University of Judaism during your leadership and didn’t please many on the East Coast, as it created a center for rabbinic study on the West Coast. Do you think JTS will always be the leading organization of the movement? How would you categorize the relationship between the East and West Coast schools?

IS: The seminary, to its enormous credit, has created a number of very significant institutions in the Jewish world. It created the University of Judaism after the Second World War, and it created the Jewish Museum in New York 100 years ago, which today houses the finest Jewish library outside the State of Israel. The seminary created the Schecter Institute, which is today a fully accredited Israeli institution. The seminary has a very fine track record in spawning institutions that grow to maturity and gain independence. That is not something to be diminished.

I’m proud of the accomplishments of the University of Judaism; our relationship with the Ziegler school is excellent. Our students spend a year together. We do placement together. There is a good deal of traffic and collaboration. There is neither animosity nor competition. What you have today are a number of Conservative seminaries producing leadership for the Conservative movement. What has developed over time is that you have a solar system of Conservative rabbinical institutions.

JJ: Is that going to weaken JTS’s prominence?

IS: The seminary has not been diminished. Its impact on the larger world has grown by the virtue of its offspring.

JJ: What do you think of breakaway synagogues that do not identify themselves as Conservative, despite shared values?

IS: It’s a phenomenon worth paying attention to. I think it’s an important development. The thrust for post-denominationalism is largely coming from the Conservative movement — it’s not coming from the Reform and not the Orthodox movement.

I think we should not embrace the rhetoric of post-denominationalism blindly. It is a rhetoric that cuts to the very core of the social capital of the American Jewish community. American democracy is promoted by the private sector, and the organized Jewish community is funded by the synagogue membership. To weaken the synagogue weakens the foundation of the organized Jewish community. Two-thirds of JCC membership comes from the synagogue. To weaken the synagogue base is to weaken the superstructure of the organized Jewish community. Therefore, I would be very careful of anti-synagogue rhetoric.

JJ: The Reform movement has recently moved to the right, and Orthodoxy seems to be thriving. Why do you think Conservative Judaism is important for American Jewry?

IS: The right-wing movement of the Reform should embolden us to affirm our traditional base. The climate is in our favor. “Conservative” is not a dirty word anymore. In a climate that is increasingly sympathetic to traditional values, this movement ought not to be shy of advocating values. I applaud the return of Reform to the center — I believe that the center is where most Jews want to be. I believe the cohesion of Jewish community lies in the center and not on the extremes. It is precisely that importance of the center that makes Conservative Judaism so vital to the American Jewish Community. Without a center you have two wings that do not have contact with each other. The Conservative movement is the bridge that keeps this community together. Eliminate that bridge and you get sects and not a religious community.

 

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