Academy of Jewish Religion offers alternate path to rabbinate for 16 new grads

This year in Los Angeles, the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Region ordained 16 new rabbis. The Conservative Movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies ordained 10. And the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR, CA) ordained 11.

Never heard of the AJR, CA? You’re not alone. Just six years old, it remains unknown to many in the Jewish community, though its impact is growing rapidly.

Currently housed in the UCLA Hillel building in Westwood, this new alternative-minded trans-denominational rabbinical school began in 2001 as the West Coast branch of the New York-based Academy for Jewish Religion. Within a year, AJR, CA became an independent entity, and since ordaining its first three rabbis in 2003, each year’s class has increased. With this year’s 11 newly minted rabbis, the school’s graduating class has for the first time approached those of the more established seminaries.

Several factors make AJR, CA an attractive option to students interested in joining the rabbinate. First is its trans-denominational approach. Not affiliated with the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements, AJR’s instructors nevertheless hail from all of those backgrounds.

The school was founded to “extract the strength in each [denomination and] to try to build bridges between them,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Dean of the Rabbinical School and Chaplaincy Programs. (The school also has a Cantorial Program).

Gottlieb was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi and has led both Orthodox and Conservative congregations; he said AJR, CA also places a strong emphasis on spirituality, drawing from chassidic, mussar (psycho-ethics) and kabbalistic texts.

Another of the school’s strong attractions is its effort to accommodate students who have other professional obligations. Classes meet only three days a week — Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays — which allows students to continue to work and to more easily balance family life with studies. A year in Israel, mandatory at the Reform and Conservative seminaries, is an option, but not a requirement. And while other denominations are seeing greater numbers of students coming to rabbinical school later in life, a whopping 70 percent of those attending AJR, CA’s five-year program have already pursued another career.

This year’s graduating class includes a psychiatrist, a former entertainment lawyer, a publishing industry executive and a drug and alcohol addiction counselor, as well as Jewish community professionals.

Dr. Bennett Blum, the psychiatrist, became disillusioned with Judaism as a teen. Growing up in Phoenix, he attended a Jewish day school where he “received a good education from really obnoxious people,” he said. Blum’s family lacked the wealth of the other families, and he was frequently reminded that he didn’t belong.

After day school, Blum had little to do with organized Judaism until he enrolled in medical school. There he met a woman raised in an Orthodox home who began to draw him back to Judaism. They have been married 17 years.

Blum went on to specialize in two psychiatric fields that brought him into the legal system — geriatric (dealing with elders) and forensic (involving crime investigation). He is a nationally sought expert on manipulation and abuse and has provided testimony on the abuse of elders to the Senate Commerce Committee.

Blum developed a tool to assess whether an individual can be considered competent — to manage his own affairs, for example, or to stand trial — that is now used both in the United States and abroad. He testified to the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia regarding the competence of accused war criminal General Pavle Strugar.

Blum’s Jewish journey was propelled when he was asked by the U.S. Attorney’s office to testify in a case involving a rabbi accused of molestation. The rabbi claimed his background and Torah training meant he couldn’t have committed the act. Blum was asked to refute the argument with Jewish sources.

“I was paid to relearn Talmud,” said Blum, who poured through ancient and modern rabbinic rulings. “It re-sparked my interest.”

Blum was living in Los Angeles at the time, and took some classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), which further whetted his appetite. He even applied to the rabbinical school there, but was not able to attend full-time.

When he returned to Arizona, Blum assumed he would have to give up the idea of enrolling in rabbinical school. But his rabbi told him about AJR, which accommodates part-time attendance.

Blum enrolled and commuted from Phoenix to class each week, where students “were studying and asking deep and profound questions.”

Now he is bringing religious wisdom to his secular world. He has published a paper describing ancient rabbinic views on deceptive and manipulative practices, which has been presented to the legal community “as food for thought in elder abuse cases.” The paper has been so well received that attorneys, social service personnel and others throughout the country are “using Talmudic perspective for formulating their arguments,” Blum said.

And applying secular knowledge to the Jewish community, Blum plans to create a training program to help Jewish professionals recognize and deal with issues relating to elder abuse. He would like to see a specialized group established to serve as a resource to clergy.

For Julia Watts Belser, who was not born Jewish, the path to ordination began in her teens. Although she was brought up without any religious observance, she craved a spiritual life and began exploring Judaism as a teenager. She later enrolled in a Unitarian Universalist seminary, in part because it was “open to people of all faith traditions.”

By the time she graduated, Watts Belser, who had already undergone Renewal and Conservative conversions, knew she wanted to go to rabbinical school.

“I had fallen in love with Judaism as an intellectual tradition and as a place of my life’s work,” she said. “I wanted to teach the tradition and bring my creativity and sense of social justice into my work.”

Open Enrollment

The Academy for Jewish Religion, a transdenominational rabbinical seminary, will open its doors in Los Angeles this fall, giving formal expression to a longtime trend toward a more personalized, spiritually oriented, pluralistic Judaism, academy founders say.

The branch in New York, which was established in 1956, draws its faculty from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, but is not formally affiliated with any of them. The Los Angeles academy has already assembled an impressive academic council of local rabbis and educators from all movements.

“The dream here is a transdenominational seminary that will train rabbis and cantors to serve God and the Jewish world, not just movements and institutions,” says Rabbi Stephen Robbins, founder of N’vay Shalom, a small kabbalah–and spirituality-oriented congregation that meets at the Milken Community High School.

The undercurrent in all classes — from Talmud to kabbalah, liturgy to meditation — will be deciphering the personal relationship each Jew is supposed to have with God, according to Rabbi Stan Levy, leader of Congregation B’nai Horin-Children of Freedom, a Jewish Renewal minyan that meets on the Westside. Levy and Robbins initially conceived of the West Coast branch two years ago, when both sensed a growing demand for a pluralistic, spirit-centered school for rabbis and cantors.

That focus on spirituality is what American Jews are craving more and more, says Shohama Weiner, dean of the New York school. Having seminaries on both coasts will allow the school to meet the growing demands of its graduates, she says.

“This will give us an exciting synergy for changing the face of American Judaism, to make synagogues more spiritually based and inclusive,” she says from her New York office.

Rabbi Wayne Dosick, a San Diego-based author and educator who will serve as dean of the school, says the pluralistic nature of the school will also serve to heal the rifts that threaten the Jewish community nationally.

“If we haven’t yet come to a place where we dismiss the rigid differences between denominations or branches of American Judaism, we are coming to a place, at the very least, where we are respectful and honoring each other,” says Dosick.

Like the other main players in the academy, Dosick also leads a small, spiritually centered congregation — the Elijah Minyan.

Robbins says it is this type of model that increasingly characterizes what American Jews are looking for. And as the structure of the synagogue changes to meets those needs, so will the role of the rabbi. He sees the rabbi as a personal guide and mentor to congregants.

“In addition to the very high level of rabbinic academics, we will focus on the spiritual traditions in Judaism, and psychology and health and healing, and knowing how to synergize all elements of familial and individual and communal life into a more unified whole,” says Robbins, who has a private practice that combines his work as a rabbi and psychologist. He is also completing his doctorate in natural medicine.

Robbins sees the West Coast, where many of these creative congregations have already sprung up organically, as a natural fit for the academy.

“There is an openness in structure that makes choice and change more possible here,” he says. “There is less divisiveness, less rigidity and boundaries between people and movements. That makes the creative possibilities more exciting.”

The opening of the Los Angeles branch is also another indication that the West Coast is taking its place as a center of national Jewish leadership. The Conservative movement’s University of Judaism and Reform’s Hebrew Union College also, in recent years, began ordaining rabbis in Los Angeles.

In fact, the demand for another rabbinic school is what prompted Levy and Robbins to even begin discussing this new seminary. When they approached Dosick about founding a new seminary, he put them in touch with the New York academy, which proved to be a natural match.

All three rabbis, in their 50s, had been approached by congregants and students who, though they had successful careers, were interested in becoming rabbis to deepen their own spiritual lives, and the lives of others. Because they already had careers and families, potential students couldn’t simply pick up and move back East.

The Los Angeles school’s schedule will be structured to meet the needs of students with careers and families, and organizers are looking for a location convenient for those commuting from other areas on the West Coast. Classes for the first group of 12 to 18 students will meet only three days a week, probably Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. Ordination will require about five or six years.

Levy, who is also a lawyer and co-founder of the Bet Tzedek legal fund, predicts that the students ordained at the academy will have little trouble finding jobs. In fact, Weiner, dean of the New York school, says the academy’s placement office can’t fill all the requests that come in for rabbis and cantors.

Dosick believes that the heightened demand for pluralistic, spiritual rabbis is a symptom of where American Jewry is headed.

“We Jews in postwar America have been good at creating community and doing mitzvahs and social justice and supporting Israel and oppressed Jewry. But we haven’t been good at what we’re supposed to do best, which is help create personal, intimate relationship with God,” he says. “Our young people are hungering for the sacred and are running to the Buddhist retreats and the ashrams seeking the sacred. And everything those people are looking for is in Judaism. But in this rational, intellectual age, no one told them.”