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A new way to become a rabbi?

Former local cantor Steven Blane opens controversial one-year online seminary

 
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Rabbi Steven Blane leads Friday night services online.

According to Rabbi Steven Blane, about half of all American Jews are unaffiliated, in interfaith marriages, or live far away from centers of Jewish life. Many of them, he says, still long for some connection with the Jewish community.

His new online seminary, the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, or JSLI, provides those Jews with rabbis, and it does so unconventionally.

Blane calls himself a Universalist rabbi. On his website, www.jsli.net, he defines Universalist beliefs as including the idea that although God chose the Jewish people to be a light to the nations, God has relationships with other peoples as well. In fact, God loves all faiths, he writes, and “all paths to the divine are equally holy. G-d [sic] does not choose a favorite child.” Elsewhere on his website, he mandates a belief in intermarriage and a willingness to perform such ceremonies as a prerequisite for enrollment in JSLI.

The institute, which he founded about three years ago, meets online. The only time students get together is at their ordination. Classes are by videoconference; they last for two hours once a week. There are two semesters a year, and a rabbinical student must take both semesters for s’michah, or ordination. Graduations are held twice a year; “God willing, next week we have 15 rabbis who are coming to New York to be ordained,” Blane said. The ceremony will be on Saturday at the Subud Chelsea Center; the celebration will last all weekend.

The class “starts with a little davening,” Blane said. “Then we all bring something to the table, something that relates to halachah or a festival or a holiday. I’ve developed a curriculum that touches on what I believe is all the important topics that a liberal rabbi needs to understand and come to terms with in order to meet the needs of their communities.” Each student is required to give a d’var Torah every week, and over the course of the year they must lead a lunch-and-learn session, using some of the knowledge they gained over the course of their extra-rabbinic lives. At that point, the students are ready to be ordained, with their s’michah certifying that they “have demonstrated familiarity with our codes and texts and are empowered to serve as rabbi and teacher,” the institute’s website, jsli.net, says.

According to the website, the program is far less expensive than a more standard seminary would be. There is a $200 registration fee, and then the program is either $7,500 or $8,000, depending on semester.

Blane also leads Friday night services online, at http://www.simshalom.com.

Blane’s route to his own seminary was as unconventional as its program.

He lives in Manhattan now, but his roots are deep in New Jersey. He grew up in Jersey City, going first to elementary school and junior high at the Yeshiva of Hudson County (which, following the Jews, moved to Bergen County and became the Yeshiva of North Jersey), and then to the Lubavitch-affiliated Rogosin Yeshiva High School there.

For a few years, he put his Jewishness behind him, concentrating instead on another love, music; getting a degree in music from what was then Jersey City State College, marrying, and working in theater and as a producer of audiobooks. “But when we had our first baby, when I was 30, I felt like I wanted to come back,” Blane said. “So I started studying with a cantor in Queens, Noah Schall.

“Every week, I would go learn nusach” — the musical and liturgical motifs of prayer — “with him, and then we’d have a philosophical discussion. He was a lightning rod for me as I tried to come to terms with who I was.”

At first, Blane tried to find his place in the Jewish world as it was. “I grew up Conservadox,” he said. “We kept kosher; I went to an Orthodox synagogue and had an Orthodox bar mitzvah. When I started studying with Cantor Schall, I realized that the only place for me to sing was at a high level, because I had a gift.

“I began to go to Conservative synagogues regularly to hear the few great cantors who were left. I’d hear them, and I would learn, and I would ask if I could lead a couple of services. Wherever they would let me daven, I would daven. Then I tested into the Cantors Assembly.” (The CA is the professional association of Conservative cantors.)

During this time, Blane and his family lived in Haworth. He continued to work on audiobooks, mainly for Scholastic, until the market and the technology behind it changed and the work dried up. “So about 10 or 12 years ago, I decided to go full-time as clergy,” he said.

For seven years, Blane was the cantor at Congregation Beth Israel of Northern Valley in Bergenfield. The congregation was in turmoil, and the politics were nasty. “I watched that whole process, and it consumed me,” he said. “I didn’t really understand what was going on — I didn’t really get it — but it was a great education. It was just about six doctorates and four masters degrees worth of education in change, about the Conservative movement, about Conservative philosophy, and practical rabbinics.”

Eventually, the shul merged with Temple Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

After leaving CBI, for the next three years Blane functioned as both rabbi and cantor at the New Milford Jewish Center.

It was just about that time that the then-Cantor Blane was ordained a rabbi by the Rabbinical Seminary International. The head was “this cool chasidic rabbi,” Blane said; his name was Joseph Gelberman. “He already was in his 80s,” Blane said. “It was a lot of self-study; you’d meet with him. After two years, he ordained me.” Blane liked the ordination model, but he felt it to be isolating. Fellow students “didn’t meet each other until ordination,” he said.

Blane chose that unorthodox route to ordination because he felt it was the only one open to him in real life. He remembers approaching Hebrew Union College, where Reform rabbis are ordained, “and they said that it would be great — but it would take five years. I said, ‘wait, I’m already leading services,’ but there was no path for anyone who already had some background.

“It was the same thing at the Academy for Jewish Religion,” a Riverdale, N.Y.-based nondenominational seminary. “They all require at least one year in Israel, and then at least four more years of study. It was going to be a lot of money and a lot of years.

“That would have been great, but I already had a house and kids and a business. And that’s when I discovered that there are a lot of people like me, who cannot go to a mainstream seminary. And they’re not necessarily trying to minister to mainstream communities. Some already are in communities, and they are functioning as I was. And there are others who would like to become rabbis, either because they already have small groups or because they feel called to it.”

As Blane makes clear, his seminary is not for everyone, and its rabbis are not likely to be accepted by much of the organized Jewish world, either. The Jewish Standard asked some local rabbis who head rabbinic associations or seminaries for their reactions to the program, but this is the end of summer, a rabbi’s last chance for vacation before preparing for the high holy days demand his or her full attention, most of them are out of town.

Rabbi Shalom Baum of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck is president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. He was unwilling to say anything about JSLI. “I don’t know enough to comment,” he said.

Rabbi Randall Mark of Shomrei Torah: The Wayne Conservative Congregation, past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, reached by email at a USY encampment, was more forthcoming. “I have no first-hand knowledge of Steven Blain or his JSLI, so I can only tell you that after six years in rabbinical school I would not consider someone who had learned for only a year to be a legitimate rabbi,” he wrote. “Nor would they qualify for membership in the NJBR. We clearly list which rabbinical school alumni qualify, but JSLI did not make our list.”

 
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