November 19, 2019

50 Years and Counting

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.”