March 25, 2019

Rabbis Without Dogma

Every Sunday morning, four women meet at the Southwest Airlines terminal at LAX. The professor of architecture comes from Albuquerque, the cantor from Santa Cruz, the director of special education from Tucson, and the principal of a day school from Berkeley.

After a warm reunion, they wheel their overnight bags out to the curb, grab a taxi, and make their way to the corner of Sawtelle Avenue and Venice Boulevard, where they are all studying to become rabbis.

It is just such a mixture of determined planning and fortuitous good timing that has brought most students to the refurbished upper-floor classrooms of Temple Beth Torah, the unassuming home of the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR).

AJR in Los Angeles, a new branch of a New York seminary founded in 1956, offers a spiritual, text-based curriculum that is not tied to any denominational structure or dogma, with a schedule conducive to those who are already working and looking to embark on a second career.

"I don’t think there is anyone here who feels that we’re here by accident," says Lynn Brody, a rabbinical student at AJR.

"I wanted to be a rabbi ever since I was a little girl and I got sidetracked — I got married, I moved all over the country with my husband, I got busy with children. It seemed like something that would never happen," says Brody, who has worked as a Hebrew school principal and a bar mitzvah teacher for students with disabilities.

Then, three years ago, her son committed suicide. "The only comfort that I could find in the whole world was in God," she says. She took classes here and there, and about a year ago a friend told her about the AJR opening in Los Angeles.

"I’ve never doubted for a minute that this is where I’m supposed to be," says Brody, 50, who lives in Los Angeles.

Many of the 20 students currently enrolled — most of them professional women in their 40’s and 50’s — offer similar tales of winding paths punctuated by crises, obstacles or unfilled ambitions that eventually led them to what now seems their inevitable destination.

"There’s a certain sanctity that enters our classes," says Brody. "Part of it stems from the devotion of the teachers, and part of it is manifested through the other students. It’s very strong, very palpable, and makes this more than just an academic exercise."

AJR opened last March with a just a few students, and by winter semester this year, there were 15 rabbinical and five cantorial students. Next fall they are expecting another 15 students, including five cantorial students.

That’s more than Rabbi Stephen Robbins or Rabbi Stan Levy expected five years ago, when they first conceived of a transdenominational, spiritual seminary for the West Coast after a string of students asked Robbins and Levy to mentor them to become rabbis.

"It’s always much more complicated to actualize a vision than to have one," says Robbins, rabbi of Congregation N’Vay Shalom. "I think we are really moving in the direction that Stan Levy and I originally had when we put this together — that is, creating a rabbinical education which synthesizes traditional rabbinic studies in text and in law and in observance with the rarely studied spiritual texts and spiritual disciplines that go along with them," Robbins says.

AJR’s offerings will be available to the public in the fall, when the school opens a continuing education program.

The academy has managed to recruit some of the best teachers in the region, from all denominations. Recently, AJR announced that Rabbi Mordecai Finley would be expanding his role from faculty member to president. While he will leave day-to-day administration to others, Finley becomes a key decision-maker in determining the school’s curriculum, faculty and overall direction. He will also play a major role in fundraising.

Finley, who has been teaching at AJR and involved in curriculum development from the beginning, says he wedged the new position into an already tight schedule because the mission lies close to his heart.

"My hope is this will help put to rest the notion that in some sense spirituality means not [being] grounded in knowledge or tradition," says Finley, rabbi of Ohr HaTorah, a flourishing West L.A. congregation dedicated to what Finley calls the inner-life dimensions of Judaism.

"I’m not only interested in reading the text and understanding it technically and understanding the unique Hebrew wording, and understanding it historically," Finley says, "I’m interested in what it says about our inner life, about our character, about our relationship with God. It’s not some dessert at the end, when we have a few extra minutes. It’s an explicit part of the curriculum."

Finley joins an administration including Cantor Nathan Lam, dean of the cantorial school; Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, dean of students and spiritual studies; Rabbi Jack Shechter, the dean of the rabbinical school and director of administration, who served as the school’s director through its first academic year; and Rabbi Stan Levy, chairman of the board.

Shechter has made sure the curriculum at AJR is as rigorous and demanding as the curriculum in any rabbinic school — complete with tests, papers and tons of homework for the students.

"I studied very intensely the rabbinic and cantorial curricula of all the other schools … and I took what I considered the best elements of each one and tried to put our own spin on it and to have it be reflective of the West Coast," says Shechter, who served for 20 years as the dean of continuing education at the University of Judaism (UJ).

Over their five or so years in the part-time program, students are required to learn liturgical, biblical, exegetical and legal Hebrew with considerable fluency; to be familiar and comfortable with the full range of Jewish texts — biblical, legal and philosophical — in their originals; to have a broad and sophisticated view of Jewish history and to acquire professional skills, such as chaplaincy, counseling, organizational work and speaking ability.

The administration is aware of the challenges of not being bound to an established movement, with established theological doctrines, approaches to halacha and social agendas — and of course, institutional backing.

But, they say, it is the challenge of independence that makes study at AJR so rewarding.

"The school doesn’t have conclusions as to where students should be," says Finley. "Perhaps the strength of a nondenominational school is that while the faculty is certainly knowledgeable in the denominational world views, they have no need to talk students into one view or another, rather they lead them in their own intellectual and spiritual search."

That search involves a great deal of determination on the part of students.

Because the program is part time — it meets on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, to accommodate working people — students have a heavy load of homework.

"One of the most surprising things for me is that they read all the articles I give them to read," says Finley, who echoes other teachers’ amazement at the level of dedication and passion the students exhibit.

"They are very focused, intense. They don’t have time to waste. They invested time and money and energy into this, and they hang on to every word that is taught," says Shechter. "They’re mature and they’ve been around, and each one has a whole life experience to bring into this."

Nearly all of the students are accomplished professionals — an OB/GYN who had to find a new direction when a nerve disorder limited her surgical ability; a dance therapist, an author, an artist, a Jewish communal professional. Many are parents, and a good number are acting as rabbis or cantors — or are cantors studying to be rabbis — and looking to fill in gaps in their knowledge base while at the same time getting official recognition for what they do.

Studying at AJR has required significant sacrifice from students. Work and family schedules had to be rearranged, especially for those traveling from out of town. The courses are $1,000 each, costing students anywhere between $5,000 and $12,000 a year.

Many student loans are precluded since AJR is not yet accredited — though Shechter says the school in New York is well on the way, and the L.A. branch would go along with it.

The school will operate on a budget of about $550,000 for the coming academic year, with about half of it covered by tuition, and the rest covered by grants and private donors. The school hopes to raise its fundraising profile this year.

One of the assets the school hopes to capitalize on is that it is the only cantorial program in Los Angeles. Aspiring cantors who couldn’t attend school in the East are left to piece together programs through mentors and the certification programs at Hebrew Union College and UJ.

Nathan Lam, dean of the cantorial school and cantor at Stephen S. Wise Temple, is glad to go from mentoring to a formal structure.

"Being together with the rabbis creates an environment of scholarship that I think is good for both," he says. The program focuses on understanding the prayer texts, knowing the traditional melodies and sounds, and bringing those traditions to a contemporary, participatory setting in a way that will elevate the congregation’s connection to the holy.

"I try to inspire the students to believe that God listens to prayers," says Lam. "You have to believe that God is part of the equation, otherwise it’s just an exercise of kumsitz [sing-along] or hootenanny, and that is not what Jewish prayer is about."

Lam is heartened that so many students are interested in the program, especially given the national shortage of rabbinic and cantorial students. AJR’s fledgling program will have 10 cantorial students enrolled this fall. This year, the Reform movement’s seminary graduated 11 students, and the Conservative movement, just one.

Finley says that while the school will always hold on to its schedule in order to accommodate second-career and out-of-town students, he believes it will eventually attract people who don’t necessarily need that schedule, but are attracted to the mission and milieu of the school.

"I think we will simply begin to draw the regular students as well who want to come to us simply because we have an outstanding faculty, a great cultural and social view; it’s very congenial, very adult and professional in its orientation, and very spiritual in its orientation," says Finley.