Jul 28, 2010

Chancellor Eisen: JTS Year-End Review, July 2010

Dear Friend of JTS,

I write to report on the remarkable year that just ended at The Jewish Theological Seminary; remarkable, not least because JTS met the serious challenges facing us (and every other institution of higher education in North America) with determined and thoughtful innovation. Consider a few accomplishments from the past ten months:

  • Formulation and approval of a new vision and strategic plan to guide JTS’s future
  • Significant restructuring of JTS’s administration, and major strides toward reorganization of the faculty
  • Revitalization of the Board of Trustees under the leadership of new Board Chair Abby Joseph Cohen
  • The awarding of numerous honors to JTS’s outstanding faculty, student body, and alumni
  • Public programs that highlighted the new direction in JTS’s service to our community and society at large
  • A balanced budget for 2010–2011 that sets future growth on a firm foundation
  • A significant increase in the funds received by JTS in the form of grants, which contributed to total fund-raising of more than $22 million

These achievements have positioned JTS well to launch a set of exciting new initiatives and programs designed to increase JTS’s direct impact on Judaism and the Jewish community while maintaining our long tradition of academic excellence. This is why I believe that 2009–2010 has been a truly productive year at JTS—and why I am confident that even better years lie ahead. Let me share some highlights of this achievement, as well as some plans for the school year that will soon be upon us.

Commencement Day

The word commencement, in a gift bestowed by the English language, frames the successful completion of a long period of study as a new beginning. That is the way it is with the chanting of Torah year by year, or the completion of a tractate of Talmud, and it was certainly the case at the JTS commencement ceremony on May 17.

Many of the 115 graduates on whom degrees were conferred are headed for careers as lay and professional leaders in our community and our society; some will, no doubt, match the distinction achieved by the illustrious group of scholarly and communal leaders to whom JTS awarded honorary degrees. Those honorees included Professor Robert Alter (a JTS alumnus); Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson; Professor Sara Japhet; our own Gershon Kekst (chair, JTS Board of Trustees from 1991 to 2009); and our own Dr. Menahem Schmelzer (Albert B. and Bernice Cohen Professor Emeritus of Medieval Hebrew Literature and JTS librarian from 1964 to 1987). We also inducted Mr. Martin D. Payson (former JTS board member) into the JTS Society of Fellows.

Several members of the faculty, who have long served JTS with distinction, were honored to loud applause on the occasion of their retirement: Dr. Carol Ingall, Dr. Anne Lapidus Lerner, and Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz.

I am pleased to report that every one of the rabbinical students who graduated in May and has sought employment for the coming year has been successful in that search, despite reduced prospects in the current economy. It is good news, too, that despite economic pressures on them and their families, the entering classes of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies and The Graduate School of JTS will be significantly larger this fall than they were last fall.

We should not take any of this for granted.

My commencement address set forth publicly, for the first time, the new vision that will guide JTS in coming years and the reasons for the changes it embodies. I also presented several key elements of the strategic plan that is designed to bring the vision to realization. There is no need to recapitulate those remarks here, to stress the importance of our role of training outstanding students as leaders for the Jewish community and beyond, or to explain again the changed conditions and needs that impel JTS to alter what we do and how we do it. The commencement address is available, in full, on the JTS website at www.jtsvideo.net/newvision/home.html. Let me now make two points that are directly relevant to this letter’s review of 2009–2010 and its preview of 2010–2011.

First, the process leading up to adoption of the new vision and strategic plan was perhaps no less important than its outcome. Every JTS constituency took part. We consulted and learned from students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, and other supporters, as well as all senior members of the administration. The planning exercise forced us to redefine JTS’s core mission and to decide what, among the many things JTS does, is essential to that mission.

Over the decades, JTS has been instrumental in starting initiatives that have proven of crucial importance to the Jewish community—the establishment of Ramah camps and Solomon Schechter schools, the broadcast of The Eternal Light programs on radio and television, the founding and growth of The Jewish Museum, the hosting of interfaith dialogues, to cite only a few examples. Those contributions were built on repeated and thoughtful innovation. We must keep in mind that JTS has periodically had to transform itself—faculty, student body, curriculum, and institutional priorities—in order to better fulfill its mission. We have done so again in 2010.

Second, we are determined not to allow the strategic plan, developed over eighteen months of careful consultation and reflection, to remain a mere plan, words on a page. JTS’s trustees and administration are making sure that the new direction we have set is translated, as quickly as possible, into action.

I am pleased to report the formation of an Implementation Task Force, co-chaired by Jonathan Lopatin, formerly a partner at Goldman Sachs and an alumnus of The Graduate School; and Dr. Stephen Garfinkel, formerly dean of The Graduate School and, as of July 1, associate provost of JTS, with responsibility for the restructuring of faculty, academic programs, and curricula. They will be joined by a high-level team of trustees, faculty, senior administration, and staff, including Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, who has added the portfolio of The Graduate School deanship to her continuing duties as dean of List College.

I will report, in detail, on the many plans to be implemented and the new initiatives now in the works when those programs move from concept to pilot stage. As the strategic plan indicates, you will soon see the impact of the changes just made at JTS in at least three discrete areas:

  • High-level adult education in the New York metropolitan area, at 3080 Broadway and other locations. We will offer new degree and certificate programs, new lecture series on topics such as the intersection of Judaism with health and medicine, and daylong seminars that probe subjects such as interfaith relations and business ethics. Outside the New York area, in select cities and congregations throughout the United States and Canada, we will expand the roster of adult education programs offered by our faculty and our Kollot rabbinic fellows.
  • Reengagement with Conservative Judaism and the vital religious center of North American Jewry. JTS will seek to articulate in new ways, for a wider audience, what Conservative Judaism is—and stands for—as part of the broader religious center of Judaism that JTS has always addressed and served. The Mitzvah Initiative, a major part of this effort, engaged many hundreds of Conservative Jews this past year in learning, discussion, and heightened observance. The initiative will spread to many more congregations in 2010–2011, including shuls in Germany and Great Britain, and will grow to include a second-year curriculum.
  • Continuing education for Jewish professionals: rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal leaders. JTS has long engaged in this area, and I myself got to participate in two such efforts this past year: at our Rabbinic Training Institute, where I had the pleasure of watching recent graduates learn with and from colleagues spanning several generations; and at our Day School Leadership Training Institute, which gathered educators from all denominations for a week of intensive study and skill enhancement. JTS trains leaders who make a huge difference in the Jewish world, inside and beyond Conservative Judaism, and JTS can and should do more in this regard.

 Faculty Recognition

JTS earns the right to guide the Jewish future, first of all, because of the broad and deep learning gathered in our distinguished faculty. Our faculty was recognized this year in a number of ways:

  • Of five authors honored this year by the Association of Jewish Studies’ Jordan Schnitzer Book Awards, three are JTS scholars. Dr. Benjamin Sommer received the Schnitzer Award in the area of Biblical Studies, Rabbinics, and Archaeology for his book The Bodies of God in Ancient Israel and Its World, while Dr. Richard Kalmin and Dr. Edna Nahshon were cited as authors of Notable Books.
  • Dr. Eitan Fishbane was awarded a Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship through the American Council of Learned Societies, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Just twelve awards were granted from among 190 eligible applicants across all fields in the humanities.
  • Rabbi Neil Gillman was feted in January when JTS’s Henry N. Rapaport Memorial Lecture was devoted to a celebration of his remarkable fifty-year career. The program featured a panel discussion, and Dr. Gillman offered closing remarks.
  • In April, JTS’s Dr. Carol K. Ingall was honored and celebrated on the occasion of her retirement after sixteen years of remarkable service; a special scholarship was seeded in her honor by the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education Advisory Board.
  • Dr. Jeffrey Kress was named chair of the international Network for Research in Jewish Education. 
  • Dr. Vivian Mann was elected a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research, the oldest professional organization of Judaica scholars in North America. Her essay, “Jews and Altarpieces,” was published this year in the exhibition catalog for Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain. The New York Times said that the exhibition, organized by Dr. Mann at New York’s Museum of Biblical Art last spring, “represents a momentous turn in scholarly thought” and “sheds light on a fascinating chapter in the history of the Jewish Diaspora.”
  • Dr. David Roskies was named the first director of the new Center for Yiddish Studies at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, which speaks to the groundswell of interest in Yiddish culture in Israel. The joint appointment will allow Dr. Roskies and the center to host workshops and colloquia, publish forgotten Yiddish works, and collaborate with Yiddish research centers around the world.
  • Dr. Menahem Schmelzer received the Alexander Scheiber Prize from Gergely Arató, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Education and Culture of Hungary. The prize is awarded to Hungarians who have achieved distinction in Jewish religion, history, culture, or education, and who promote dialogue and tolerance between Jews and non-Jews.
  • JTS honored the faculty of the Teachers Institute, which led to the creation of various JTS schools and programs, on the centennial of its founding in 1909. In particular, Sylvia Ettenberg (BA ’37) was celebrated at a luncheon at the “Transforming American Jewish Life: A Celebration of the Teachers Institute’s 100th Anniversary” daylong symposium.

Public Events

Under the sponsorship of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies (LFI) and other auspices, JTS hosted discussions in 2009–2010 with leading figures in science and religion, medicine and health, and the effort to revitalize the Jewish community.

LFI sponsored “Three Conversations on Science and Religion,” in which luminaries from different fields explored the questions of how modern science has changed religion, what religion has to say to science, and whether science has irrevocably eroded religion’s credibility and legitimacy. JTS’s signature commitment to both faith and inquiry makes us well-suited as a venue for the discussion of such questions. The Revson Foundation grant establishing JTS as a center for Clinical Pastoral Education also makes provision for continued exploration of ethical issues pertaining to medicine and health care.

We are also the natural venue for conversations about Conservative Judaism and what our mission statement calls “the vital religious center of North American Jewry.” In April, JTS hosted a discussion on the phenomenon of independent minyanim on the occasion of the publication of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, JTS doctoral candidate and alumnus, and cofounder and executive director of Mechon Hadar.

Along with The Jewish Museum, JTS presented A Day of Reinventing Ritual, a unique day of hands-on workshops, commentary, and live performance based on the museum’s exhibition, Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life, which surveyed the explosion of new Jewish rituals, art, and objects since 1995. In addition, our new Artist-in-Residence program, featuring noted painter and sculptor Tobi Kahn, led to the first JTS art show, Volumes, which presented the artwork of JTS faculty, students, and staff.

Last November, JTS welcomed Mitch Albom, author of the most successful memoir in publishing history, who lectured here on his latest book, Have a Little Faith, and the JTS-ordained rabbi, Albert Lewis (z”l), who inspired it. Feinberg Auditorium was filled, once again, by a sold-out screening and panel discussion on the provocative Hollywood film, Inglourious Basterds—a World War II fantasy written and directed by Quentin Tarantino—and the questions it raised about the rights and wrongs of Jewish vengeance.

On March 7, “Transforming American Jewish Life: A Celebration of the Teachers Institute’s 100th Anniversary” also included a discussion between Barnard President Debora Spar and me on the “Future of Higher Education”; several moving talks; and a keynote lecture by Rabbi Harold Kushner (SC ’55, RS ’60, ’72), author of the seminal When Bad Things Happen to Good People, in memory of William Davidson (z”l).

This year’s event roster demonstrated our commitment to a well-rounded, Jewishly learned, and honest discussion of contemporary issues involving Jews and Judaism. I look forward to the many programs being scheduled for 2010–2011.

On a special note, I want to mention a particularly meaningful occasion that occurred during this academic year, the Rabbinical Assembly Convention, an event hosted by JTS during the week following commencement. This convention had not been held at JTS for fifty years. Many rabbis expressed pleasure at being back on campus, and went out of their way to praise the program and the hospitality we provided.

Grants and Development 

There has been a significant increase in the number and dollar amounts of foundation grants received by JTS, including―in recognition of our leadership in Jewish education―a grant that totals nearly $15 million (over the next five years) from the Jim Joseph Foundation. The gift was part of $45 million awarded to JTS, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), and Yeshiva University (YU) for the purpose of significantly increasing the number and quality of trained and credentialed Jewish educators. In addition to endeavors specific to The Davidson School, there will be collaboration among the three recipient schools in at least two areas: uses of new technology in Jewish education, and recruitment of more and better-qualified individuals to the field. I fully believe that this cooperation among JTS, HUC, and YU will prove to be historic.

JTS was further recognized by the Jewish and philanthropic communities via grants from: the Revson Foundation and the Booth Ferris Foundation, to continue our launch of the Center for Pastoral Education at JTS (accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education [ACPE] as a satellite of New York-Presbyterian Hospital), which teaches our students, as well as rabbis and ordained clergy of all faiths, the art of pastoral care; the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women, which will provide tuition stipends of $20,000 per year (over the course of three years) to three women who are rabbinical or cantorial students concentrating in pastoral care at the JTS center and planning to undertake an ACPE residency in New York City after ordination or investiture; the Covenant Foundation, to The Davidson School, for the development, implementation, and evaluation of twenty-first century curricula for congregational schools; the Tikvah Fund, which endowed the Tikvah Institute for Jewish Thought of JTS that devotes itself to the exploration of and reflection on the deepest problems of human life; UJA-Federation of New York, for full funding of the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators, a joint program with HUC that is designed to enhance the leadership skills of congregational school professionals; AVI CHAI, which established the Day School Leadership Training Institute that addresses the demand for exemplary leadership in the expanding day school movement and the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project to help schools adopt a standard of excellence for teaching Bible; and, from members of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies Advisory Board, Seinfeld Foundation, and List College alumni, funding for the List College Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship program, which provides training and support to List College students who wish to tackle major social issues and offer new ideas for wide-scale change.

In June, four more students were named recipients of the Schusterman Rabbinical Fellowship in a program that brings future leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements together for two years of formal study. Inaugurated in August 2008, the program is funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The Center for Leadership Initiatives, Inc., a private operating foundation dedicated to developing Jewish leaders and promoting managerial excellence throughout the Jewish community, has helped shape the program.

Our ultimate goal, of course, is to engage current and prospective philanthropic investors in an ongoing dialogue that finds the intersection between their interests and the needs of our institution. We began this process by seeking new ways to generate smaller gifts and working even more closely with JTS alumni. We also began to search out the funding necessary to establish new programs, including an institute devoted to the future of Conservative Judaism and the vital religious center of North American Jewry—a place for applied research directed at transforming Jewish religious thought and practice on this continent. I do not have to tell you the ramifications that this will have on generations to come.

The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

Recently, the United States Library of Congress asked permission to include one of our library’s special websites in its historic collection of Internet materials and as part of its research collections. The online content of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary will be periodically collected, archived, and made available through the Library of Congress public website, as part of that institution’s function of “acquiring, cataloging, preserving, and serving collection materials of historical importance to the Congress and to the American people to foster education and scholarship.” A visit to our library was also part of the CBS-TV interfaith religion special The Art of The Book on art and the Bible.

JTS Students and Alumni

Rabbinical students Charlie Schwartz and Yael Buechler, and Davidson School alumnus Yoni Stadlin, were named to Jewish Week’s prestigious “36 Under 36” list of young Jewish innovators. Charlie will soon enter his fifth year at The Rabbinical School of JTS as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and is pursuing a master’s degree in education at The Davidson School. Yael will also begin her fifth year at The Rabbinical School this fall, and this summer she will receive a master’s degree in Midrash from The Graduate School. Yoni (DS ’08) and his wife, Vivian, founded Eden Village Camp, a Jewish sleep-away camp in Putnam Valley, New York, focused on environmental consciousness and sustainability.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum (RS and GS ’04) is one of five emerging Jewish leaders to be named a recipient of the 2009 AVI CHAI Fellowship; fellows receive grants of $75,000 each year for three years. Rabbi Sharon Brous (RS ’01) was nominated by Jewish Women International as one of this year’s top ten “Women to Watch” and has again been included on Newsweek’s list of the fifty most influential rabbis in America.

Concluding Reflections

I look back on this year with satisfaction that we have perceived the present moment correctly, seized its possibilities, and made the changes necessary to continue the journey toward a more secure Jewish future. JTS has accomplished a great deal in the past ten months—and there is more work that awaits us in 2010–2011. Please visit JTS this year to see and feel the new energy on campus for yourself, and to witness our most important contribution of all to the Jewish future: supplying knowledge, historical context, and vision to a new generation of students and future leaders through daily interactions with the texts, faculty, and one another.

Whenever people ask why I do what I do, and why I am ever hopeful despite the many challenges that face the Jewish community today, my answer is the same: the more than 500 students gathered at JTS—an assemblage of minds, passions, abilities, and talent that inspires me each day when I come to work. I am convinced that what our generation accomplishes in North America is absolutely essential to the Jewish future, and that JTS is absolutely essential to the future of Jews and Judaism on this continent. We supply a vision for that future. We supply much of the leadership that will guide it. We build the bridges of learning that will take us there.

Please put your own hope to work with us. Thank you for supporting JTS’s investment in the next generation.


 Arnold Eisen signature

Arnold Eisen
Chancellor, JTS 

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