Reconstructionists to accept rabbinical applicants with non-Jewish partners

The Reconstructionist movement will accept rabbinical applicants who have non-Jewish partners.

A ban on such applicants, last reaffirmed in 2002, was revoked by the Reconstructionist Religious College following a faculty vote last week, the seminary said in a news release Wednesday. The statement said the suburban Philadelphia school’s “Non-Jewish Partner” policy has been under review since 2010.

“Our deliberations, heavily influenced through consultation with alumni, congregations and students, have simultaneously led us to reaffirm that all rabbinical candidates must model commitment to Judaism in their communal, personal, and family lives,” Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the college’s president, said in the statement. “We witness Jews with non-Jewish partners demonstrating these commitments every day in many Jewish communities.”

In a conference call with reporters, Waxman said that part of the impetus came from a number of students at the college who partnered with non-Jews during their studies. The seminary graduates eight to 10 rabbis a year.

She said it was important for rabbis to model “openness and transparency and consistency in their lives,” and also allow students to “bring their full lives to their training as rabbis.”

Additionally, Waxman said, the movement had lost out on superb applicants because of the ban.

“We have had to turn away wonderful students who would have made wonderful rabbis,” she said.

Reconstructionism is the fourth largest movement of American Judaism.

View on Eisen From L.A.: Thumbs Up

Local reaction was positive — with an element of wait and see — to the choice of Stanford professor Arnold Eisen as the new, de facto leader of the Conservative moment. Eisen, who isn’t a rabbi, will take over this summer as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Rabbi Issac Jaret, president of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, focused immediately on Eisen’s position on gays — the seminary does not currently ordain openly gay rabbis.

“On the one hand, Eisen has stated he is in favor of the ordination,” he said. “On the other hand, being that he is not a rabbi, professor Eisen may have less impact upon this decision than another chancellor might have had with similar views.”

Jaret would not articulate his own position on gay ordination but added that “any decision on this matter [would] leave a significant segment of the movement dissatisfied.”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a prominent innovator in the movement, also foresees a period of division and discontent, adding, “The Conservative movement must become much more responsive to the world and not live by quotations of halacha [Jewish law] alone.”

Schulweis, a longtime rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, called the movement behind the times: “To be a movement that will excite its people, you have to be on the cutting edge, and you can’t be too little too late.”

He joked that the definition of a Conservative Jew “is someone who is willing to do something, but never for the first time.”

Schulweis quoted the Passover Torah portion to underscore his point: “The question Ezekiel asks is, ‘Will these dry bones live?’ The challenge to the new chancellor, the seminary and the Conservative movement is whether or not we can resurrect the dessicated bones of apathy.”

His colleague at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, put it another way: “The most important issue is what it means to be a religious movement in a completely voluntary and individualistic culture. How do you build contemporary spiritual community?”

Los Angeles rabbis interviewed for their reaction were unconcerned that Eisen is not a rabbi.

“They made an important statement in the scholar they chose,” said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. “They didn’t take a biblical scholar or a scholar of rabbinic literature. They took someone who is an expert on American Jewry and American Jewish life — not in a historical context but in a contemporary sociological context,” he said.

Eisen’s books include “Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community” (University of Chicago Press, 1999), “Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America” (Indiana University Press, 2000) and together with Stephen Cohen, “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America” (Indiana University Press: 2000).

Vogel called Eisen “someone who can speak more on the condition of American Jewry and help to form a vision for American Jewry.”

More praise came from Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood, who took his own name out of consideration for the seminary job.

“Professor Eisen is a deep and subtle thinker about Judaism and American Judaism in particular,” Wolpe said. “This can only be a very powerful shot in the arm for a movement that was looking for a very powerful shot in the arm, that was looking for reinvigoration.”


Student Rabbis, Cantors Take Next Step

University of Judaism

It might just be a demographic blip, but it certainly is an interesting one. This year’s graduating class of rabbis at the Conservative University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles is made up of four women and two men. And at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, there are 10 women to the seven men.

Are female rabbis taking over the Conservative movement — which only began ordaining women in 1985?

Probably not, said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at UJ, on a hilltop campus where Mulholland Drive and Sepulveda Boulevard meet.

The gender breakdown is about 50-50 among the 75 rabbinic students at the school, Artson said. That ratio, he said, reflects the school’s commitment to gender-blind admissions, and to the work the school does to make sure UJ is open to women in all ways.

“Opening a school to women but not talking about the ways in which gender shapes a certain reality is not really admitting women,” Artson said. “We have been conscious about making gender something we talk about here.”

That means classes and mentorships bring the societal sexual divide to the foreground. And, Artson said, women are occupying an increasingly prominent role in the administration.

Founded in 1947 as a satellite of JTS, UJ began ordaining rabbis six years ago, and the fruit of that shift to independence will be apparent next year, as about 20 rabbis will be up for ordination, compared to the seven or eight of years past.

“For 100 years, the Conservative movement had one rabbinical school,” Artson said. “It’s taken a while to grow into and embrace this new expanded reality.”

Academy for Jewish Religion

Just six years after it was founded, the Academy for Jewish Religion(AJR) has a graduating class that is almost as large as the classes at the more established ordaining institutions in Los Angeles.

AJR, which is unaffiliated with any denomination, is graduating five rabbis, not far behind the UJ’s six and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s eight. In addition, AJR is the only show in town ordaining cantors, with two graduating this year.

The niche audience of mostly second-career students interested in a pluralistic education has proven to be a large and dependable one, with 60 students enrolled for professional training as rabbis, cantors and chaplains.

AJR graduates fill roles that don’t fall neatly within the organized Jewish world, such as presiding at life-cycle events for the unaffiliated, leading independent prayer groups and serving in chaplaincy positions, said AJR founding chairman Rabbi Stan Levy.

“We go to wherever Jews are finding themselves, and we try to get them into a more intensive Jewish spiritual life,” Levy said.

AJR has outgrown its quarters at Temple Beth Torah on Venice Boulevard, and is negotiating the final details to move into the Yitzchak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA.

Levy looks forward to planning joint programming with both Hillel and the university.

“It’s a far more prominent location for us to be in, right in the center of a vibrant university with a vibrant Hillel,” Levy said.


New Face of Study

Rabbi Avi Weiss left Yeshiva University (YU) in New York three years ago to found a new rabbinic school for one simple reason: "We were not graduating enough Yosefs," said Weiss, a political activist and progressive Orthodox Jewish leader.

Weiss is referring to Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles, who served as assistant rabbi at Weiss’ Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York for six years before he came to the Pico Boulevard shul.

To Weiss, Kanefsky is emblematic of what Weiss calls "Open Orthodoxy," the philosophy of his school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in Manhattan.

"I don’t like the term ‘modern,’ because everyone thinks they’re modern. And I don’t like the term ‘centrist,’ because when you say you are in the center, it means you are allowing yourself to be defined by the flanks," said Weiss, who was in Los Angeles last month en route to San Diego to promote his book, "Principles of Spiritual Activism" (Ktav, 2001).

"Openness for me is expressive of who we are — open to respectful and honest dialogue on a whole variety of issues. There is nothing that is off the table," Weiss said. That includes topics such as feminism, sexual orientation and pluralism — a gamut of issues that in many traditional institutions are taboo, and that liberal institutions have approached with a halachic malleability that is unacceptable within Orthodoxy.

"We are having to turn away new students, and for me that says that we have clearly identified a need," Weiss said. "As the Orthodox community moves to the right, and the [Conservative Jewish Theological] Seminary [JTS] moves to the left, it’s very clear that there is place in there for an Orthodoxy that is more open," Weiss said.

That openness has often put Weiss and his protégés on the margins of the Orthodox community, which views with suspicion Weiss’ willingness to break with tradition.

But students seem to be willing to take the risk: All the spots in the first three years were filled, many by students who had been at YU, Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution.

While YU recent appointment of Richard Joel as president to replace Rabbi Norman Lamm could pull the school and its rabbinic seminary, Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary, more to the center, Kanefsky believes that YCT will reinject an intellectual honesty into Orthodoxy.

"Somewhere along the way, much of the Orthodox community has lost its commitment to real scholarship and integrity in Torah study," he said. "There is an unwillingness to expose oneself to sources that challenge traditional assumptions."

Sam Feinsmith, a second year student who transferred to YCT from the JTS, said he values the traditional immersion in halachic texts in an atmosphere where no scholar or source is considered off-limits.

"There is a sense of vision and passion that pervades everything we do here," Feinsmith said. "It’s great to be in a place where at least one time in the course of every day someone will say something that will stir something inside of me and remind me of why I’m doing this in the first place."

Weiss is committed to giving the students solid professional training through a curriculum that includes instruction by mental health professionals and courses in Jewish leadership, public speaking and developing a personal mission and vision.

"The goal is to train passionate community leaders, not just people who know halacha," said Jason Weiner, a first-year student from Palos Verdes.

Weiner says he chose YCT because it offered the rigorous Talmud study other ordination programs offered, while broadening out to other areas such as Bible, mysticism and spirituality, in an atmosphere that he finds nurturing and vibrant.

Both Feinsmith and Weiner admit they had reservations about investing so much time in a new school that, with Weiss at the helm, was sure to generate controversy.

Aside from his sometimes radical religious views, Weiss is known worldwide for his activism — he has personally confronted onetime Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and led a protest at Auschwitz over the presence of a Carmelite convent at the death camp.

Weiss said his politics stay out of the beit midrash, and that the school does not espouse his personal views.

Still, he said, "There is a world of politics out there, and I feel a sense of responsibility to my students and their families."

Weiss preempted potential backlash against his graduates by arranging for YCT students to have the option take the ordination test of the chief rabbinate of Israel. He also waived tuition and offered students a living-wage stipend to eliminate any sense of a financial gamble.

"I don’t think I’ll have a problem getting a job," Feinsmith said. "The buzz on the street is good. People are excited about this place." Feinsmith is honing is professional viability with an internship with B’nai David’s Kanefsky. Feinsmith flies out to Los Angeles once a month from New York and spends his Friday shadowing Kanefsky as he visits the ill, counsels congregants and prepares classes and sermons. The two have a chavruta (study partnership) using actual questions Kanefsky has had to answer for congregants, and throughout the year Feinsmith delivers some sermons and teaches classes.

It is this kind of practical training, coupled with the intellectual exercise in the beit midrash, that Weiss hopes will help create a new crop of rabbis that will have a significant impact on American Jewry.

"I believe that we have the potential to transform the Orthodox community — [but] not only the Orthodox community, because our Orthodoxy is so open, ultimately it could transform the larger Jewish community," Weiss said. "This is not an Orthodoxy which is insular. It is an Orthodoxy which is unapologetically inclusive."

Eulogies:Rabbi Melvin Goldstine

Rabbi Melvin Goldstine, rabbi emeritus at Temple Aliyah, died Jan. 12 of a stroke at the age of 77.

Goldstine will be remembered by many as the driving force behind the construction of the congregation’s modern-looking complex in Woodland Hills.

He was born in Chicago in 1924 and knew he wanted to be a rabbi from an early age. He studied at Northwestern University before attending the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1946. His first posting was at Chicago’s Anshe Emet, the same congregation he grew up in. He and his wife, Bella, moved to California in 1959 and for a time he worked in the Sunland-Tujunga area before becoming the spiritual leader of Temple Aliyah.

Goldstine, who served as Temple Aliyah’s senior rabbi from 1968 through the early 1990s, made the synagogue a center of liberal learning, inviting a variety of local politicians and dignitaries to share his pulpit. Along with his wife, the rabbi fostered a warm, egalitarian environment that brought back several generations of temple members.

After retiring in 1993, the rabbi spent much of his time teaching seniors at the Jewish Home for the Aged and providing pastoral services on cruise ships.

In his eulogy at Goldstine’s funeral, Rabbi David Wolpe emphasized the rabbi’s kindness and intelligence. There was never a simcha he did not attend if he could help it. As a consequence, three generations of Aliyah-goers were touched by his gentle manner.

"It was a good gig," said his nephew, Ethan. "My uncle was the kind of man who just couldn’t stop giving."

Goldstine is survived by his wife of 51 years, Bella; daughters, Deborah and Ruth (David); brother, Abner (Roz); and nephew, Ethan.

A Historic Change

History is in the making this fall in Germany with the opening of three new Jewish schools for adults.

Two are rabbinical programs — Germany’s first since World War II ended — and the third is the country’s first Jewish higher education program for women.

Three rabbinical candidates began studies Monday at the new, multidenominational rabbinical program of the Institute of Judaic Studies in Heidelberg.

At the same time, five candidates are beginning studies at a new liberal seminary, the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam.

In Frankfurt, seven German women have begun an Orthodox Jewish education program at the new Ronald S. Lauder Institute Midrasha for women, a sister school to the two-year-old Lauder Juedisches Lehrhaus for men in Berlin.

Presently, all students in the Heidelberg program are from Germany. The Geiger College rabbinical candidates are from Germany, Switzerland, Holland, South Africa and Italy. The Lauder school students come from the former Soviet Union.

Both rabbinical schools had hoped to attract female candidates, but presently all students are men.

Observers say the new programs are a sign of the coming-of-age of Germany’s postwar Jewish community.

Germany’s Jewish population has grown from less than 35,000 in 1989 to nearly 100,000 today, largely due to the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. There are about 20 rabbis officially serving more than 80 communities across the country.

Jews here want homegrown rabbis and teachers, not imported ones, said Rabbi Allen Podet, rector of the Abraham Geiger College, which is affiliated with the Moses Mendelssohn Center at the University of Potsdam.

"The German Jewish community has reached the point in its development where they require rabbis who are not foreigners," said Podet, himself a Reform rabbi from Buffalo, N.Y.

Non-German rabbis often "don’t understand the customs and the people," he said.

"Naturally it is better if they speak German," said Nathan Kalmanowicz, who oversees cultural and educational affairs for the Central Council of Jews in Germany. "But the most important point is that a rabbi must be ordained by a recognized institution. Where they come from is of secondary importance."

Both rabbinical programs are geared toward ordination.

The Heidelberg program is concluding agreements with institutions that will ordain its students, among them Yeshiva University (Orthodox) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) in New York; the Leo Baeck College (Liberal) in London; and the Schechter Seminary (Conservative) and Beit Morasha (Orthodox) in Israel.

The multidenominational nature of the Heidelberg school is a point of pride for its rector, Michael Graetz. After two years of study in Heidelberg, a student may apply to study in seminaries in Israel, the United States or Great Britain.

"We don’t exclude," said Graetz, 68, who was born in the German city of Breslau, which is now part of Poland. "The German community is too small to have the same divisions as in the United States.

"In the past, in Germany, there were rabbinical seminaries in Breslau and in Berlin, and everyone could start and finish his studies in one place," he said.

"Today, we don’t see the possibility to give our students a full study program. On one hand, there are not enough candidates. And on the other hand, we do not have enough tradition as a rabbinical seminary to ensure that the rabbinical preparation will be OK, that it will be adapted to the necessities of modern Judaism, whether Traditional, Conservative or Liberal."

At the Geiger College, candidates most likely will be ordained by rabbis associated with the program, including Rabbi Walter Jacob of Pittsburgh; Israeli Rabbis Moshe Zemer and Tuvia Ben Chorin; Rabbi Gunther Plaut of Toronto; and Rabbi Podet.

Podet, 66, a tenured professor of philosophy and religious studies at the State University of New York in Buffalo, made a one-year commitment to Geiger College.

"It’s a mitzvah that you can’t possibly refuse," he said. "It is really something, if you are given an opportunity to make a difference in the Jewish community or any human community. That’s what we are here for."

As part of their education, Geiger students will serve internships with congregations in Germany and elsewhere. The third year will be spent in Israel, but details of that program have yet to be arranged, Podet said.

In the Lauder school for women, an Orthodox program, ordination is not an issue, as only the Reform and Conservative movements ordain women.

"We are trying to give a serious, sophisticated Jewish education to people who have asked for it," said Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, 30, the program director.

"At the same time, between the schools in Frankfurt and in Berlin we are slowly helping develop the next generation of Jewish leaders in Germany. I think that’s a very, very important cause."

Subjects include Hebrew language, scripture, Jewish philosophy and Jewish law and tradition.

The teachers are all female graduates of Jewish schools in the United States who are interested in "a year of Jewish national service," Krauss said, adding that "Talmudic study might come later, after background knowledge is increased."

"We encourage them to continue their secular education while we bring them to a place with a serious Jewish atmosphere," said Krauss, a New York native.

"It’s going back to what happened in prewar Europe. There were not that many Jewish schools. But many people who went to regular school had a Jewish component after school."

The students can commit to as little as a year of study, though it is hoped they will continue through their college years.

The women’s program is a twin to the Lauder school in Berlin, where young men have been studying since 1999.

"Once we opened that program, it was clear that you are not serving half the population," Krauss said.

Embezzlement Heads for Court

The former fiscal administrator for the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has been arrested and charged with embezzling $1.179 million from the Reform movement’s seminary.

Jean M. Thorbourn, 61, of Sherman Oaks, forged numerous checks between 1989 and 1997, using a dean’s signature stamp, and apparently applied a considerable part of the money to finance production of independent films, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

Thorbourn, who also doubled as bookkeeper, had considerable latitude in her job, and her supervisors were thus slow in detecting the embezzlement, said Gary Judge, a senior investigator in the district attorney’s office.

The alleged thefts first came to light in September 1997, when Rabbi Lewis Barth, who had been named dean of the HUC campus two months earlier, questioned Thorbourn about an expected but overdue payment of $381,000. (Rabbi Lee Bycel, who preceeded Barth as dean, was unavailable for comment).

Thorbourn said she had given the money to a friend, but a month later admitted that the money was used to finance a film titled “Jamaica Beat.”

Barth said he immediately notified authorities and Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of HUC, which encompasses campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Jerusalem and Los Angeles.

Thorbourn was terminated after her admission, but at the request of the district attorney the case was not made public while his office investigated the matter in depth.

Thorbourn has now been charged with 13 counts of forgery, one count of grand theft, and four counts of filing false state tax returns.

She is being held on $1.179 million bail, the exact amount she allegedly embezzled. She was to have been arraigned last Friday, but her appearance was postponed until this week.

Her attorney, Stephen Jones, was not available for comment.

Thorbourn has apparently returned some of the money used in the film production, and Zimmerman said in a statement that additional funds have been recovered through the college’s insurance carrier.

He emphasized that no dues from Reform congregations or from private donations were affected by the alleged embezzlement.

HUC’s Los Angeles campus has an enrollment of 673 students and operates on an annual budget of about $3.5 million.

Weiss Leaving for London

By Tom Tugend,

Contributing Editor

Rabbi Abner Weiss, the leading voice of centrist Orthodoxy in Southern California, is leaving his Beverly Hills congregation to become principal of the London School of Jewish Studies and rabbi of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London.

A native of Johannesburg, Weiss left South Africa and his post as chief minister of the Durban United Hebrew Congregation in 1976, despairing that the prevailing apartheid system wouldn’t change fast and far enough.

“I did not want my children to grow up in that environment,” he said in a later interview.

As senior rabbi for the past 15 years of Congregation Beth Jacob, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Western United States, Weiss, 61, has been notable for his involvement with the larger community and his willingness to engage in dialogue with Conservative and Reform rabbis.

He was elected by his colleagues to the presidency of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and sserved from 1995-97.

At the same time, Weiss has protested strongly at the perceived anti-Orthodox bias by secular government officials in Israel.

Weiss gave early witness to a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity while an undergraduate at the University of Witwatersrand. By special permission of the academic senate, he took four full majors simultaneously in English literature, Hebrew language and literature, world history, and psychology.

Higher Ground

Take nearly 100 people training to be rabbis, priests, pastors, ministers, nuns and religious educators. Put them together for 24 hours at a Jewish summer camp. Add a torrent of rain, and stir in several inches of thick mud. What do you get? You never know.

For 25 years, the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) has followed a similar recipe to lead its annual InterSem program — typically without the rain — and the participants’ experiences have never been the same.

Held at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu, InterSem brings together students from five local seminaries and encourages them to candidly interact with peers from a mix of races, ages, places of origin, sexual orientations, and, of course, faiths. The group included Reform and Conservative Jews from Hebrew Union College and University of Judaism (UJ), and Catholics (men from St. John’s Seminary and women from religious communities). The group also included a range of Protestant denominations from Claremont School of Theology and Fuller Theological Seminary including Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Presbyterians, future leaders of Full Christian Gospel and the United Church of Christ, among others.