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Grant pushes historic partnership of seminaries

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Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, left, Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, and Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College

NEW YORK – Spurred by a major grant from one of the largest Jewish foundations, the rabbinical seminaries of three major synagogue movements are forging a groundbreaking partnership to train Jewish educators.

The Jim Joseph Foundation announced Monday that it was giving a combined $33 million to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University, and the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The grant is aimed at helping the three seminaries attract more teachers to the field of Jewish education and offer them better training.

As a stipulation for receiving the money, each school will be required to use $1 million of the roughly $11 million it receives over the next four years to work with the other schools on figuring out how to market the field of Jewish education to prospective teachers and incorporating modern technology into Jewish pedagogy.

“The presidents of the three institutions, thanks to the Jim Joseph grant process, have spent more time together in the past two years than our predecessors did in the previous decade,” said JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen. “I think it is historic that you have these three institutions and their leaders working together in this fashion. I think it is good for the Jews and it is a moment.”

Partnerships have become a driver for JTS, which announced in early May that part of its new strategic vision included finding new allies in the education sector.

Hebrew Union College has become a natural ally for the Conservative movement’s seminary. The schools are in the third year of offering a combined fellowship funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation that brings together rabbinical students from both seminaries for a joint seminar, and they also are now offering some joint classes as part of their respective cantorial programs.

But Yeshiva University historically has been a tougher match for both HUC and JTS because of deep theological differences between the Orthodox institution and its non-Orthodox counterparts.

Under the new initiative, each school will continue to teach its own brand of Judaism, but the schools will cooperate on elements of the educational process that affect all of the institutions.

It’s a message that YU’s president, Richard Joel, is very careful to make: that the schools are working together on practice and not content.

“There was a time a couple of generations ago where liberal Judaism was viewed as a threat because most people were at least nominally Orthodox,” and liberal Judaism was seen as giving Jews a reason to leave Orthodoxy, Joel said. “But I don’t think that is the reality today. The issue isn’t that liberal Judaism will steal people from Orthodoxy. Now it is viewed as something that continues to urge Jews to know something about their story.”

According to Jim Joseph’s executive director, Charles Edelsberg, the three schools were scheduled to meet Thursday with representatives from the tech giant Cisco to learn about “telepresence” technology. And they are talking with the MacArthur Foundation about digital media and learning.

In recent years, even before the Jim Joseph grant, the leaders of the three schools — Eisen, Joel, and HUC’s Rabbi David Ellenson — had begun to appear on panel discussions together, something that would have been unheard of for much of the last century.

Still, sources at the schools said, even though the collegiality among Eisen, Ellenson, and Joel has helped the partnership evolve, the institutions probably would not have come together without the recession and the significant financial carrot offered by Jim Joseph.

When the economy hit a low last year, Jim Joseph stepped up with $12 million to help the struggling schools provide scholarships to students and launch their working relationship. YU will use about $700,000 per year to help defray the cost of education for students at its Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration and the education program at Stern College, its women’s college, according to Joel. JTS will use approximately $1 million per year to provide scholarships to its nondenominational William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. And HUC will use about one-third of its grant on financial aid for students seeking master’s degrees at its New York and Los Angeles campuses, according to Ellenson.

Outside of the interschool partnerships, each institution will use the bulk of its grant money for training better teachers.

For YU, that means continuing to beef up its Azrieli school, which has gone from one faculty member to 11 since Joel’s arrival in 2003. The school now has more than 160 students seeking master’s degrees in education. YU also is working on creating a certificate in informal Jewish education and a job placement program for the students it churns out over the next four years.

JTS will use a significant portion of its money to better its early childhood education, including forming a partnership with the Bank Street College of Education, a non-Jewish teachers’ college renowned for its early childhood program, Eisen said. It also will try to set up informal Jewish education programs at congregational and day schools modeled after successful efforts at the Conservative movement’s Ramah camp system. And JTS will create an Israel immersion program for students at the Davidson school.

HUC is planning on starting an executive master’s program and three new certificate programs in Judaica for early childhood educators and teachers of children, adolescents, and emerging adults.

Jim Joseph hopes the schools will graduate 700 to 1,000 teachers during the duration of the grant.

In its first four years, the foundation has given about $220 million to Jewish formal and informal education efforts, including day schools, camps, and youth groups, as well as to Birthright Israel and the official follow-up program Birthright Israel NEXT.

In recent weeks, Jim Joseph has announced some $45 million in grants to produce more Jewish teachers, including the $33 million gift to the three seminaries and a recently announced $12 million investment to revive and ramp up a dormant doctoral program in Jewish education at Stanford University. All this is on top of the $12 million that Jim Joseph gave the three seminaries last year primarily for scholarships for advanced degree programs in Jewish education and other significant gifts it has made to a doctoral program in Jewish education at New York University.

“This partnership should have a significant impact on the number of future Jewish educators and the skills they will bring to their professions,” the foundation’s president, Al Levitt, said in a news release announcing the grant. “With the help of these grants, we know the institutions can reach their full potential and produce teachers who continue to positively shape the lives of Jewish youth.”

JTA

 
 

New Conservative machzor tries for accessibility, inspiration

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This page of the new Lev Shalem machzor displays the traditional Al Chet list of sins juxtaposed with an alternative meditation on sins against the earth penned by Jewish Theological Seminary Dean Daniel Nevins.

This Rosh HaShanah, worshippers in Conservative congregations across North America will find themselves using a new machzor.

More than 150,000 copies of the High Holidays prayer book, Mahzor Lev Shalem, have been pre-sold, representing orders from nearly 130 of some 650 affiliated congregations.

The strong interest might stem from “dissatisfaction with all previous machzors,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley, Calif., a member of the committee that produced the prayer book.

Lev Shalem in one sense is a response to two oft-heard criticisms of the Conservative movement: that it is too elitist and too intellectual.

For starters, the entire Hebrew text is translated into English, and parts that might be said aloud are transliterated to allow those without Hebrew knowledge to participate in group call and response.

“It’s a great expression of the tremendous desire of the Conservative rabbinate to share the tradition we are so steeped in with people wherever they are, and not to wait for them to become scholars to appreciate it,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative body that produced the book.

For experienced worshippers who want a Hebrew text unencumbered by directions indicating where one should stand and sit, subtle signals like the icon of a bowing man offer what Conservative leaders hope will be a rich, free-flowing davening experience.

Commentary and exposition fills the right side of each double-page spread. The left side is for poems, meditations, and alternative readings.

Ten rabbis and cantors spent 12 years putting together the machzor, meeting twice a month for more than a decade.

Each of 10 regular contributors took one or two assignments, and the entire group read and commented on one another’s work. Kelman wrote the commentaries for the evening and morning Sh’ma and its blessings, for example, while Rabbi Leonard Gordon of the Germantown Jewish Centre outside Philadelphia wrote the commentary for Kol Nidrei and the Torah and Haftarah readings.

The groups also translated the Hebrew text into English and read it aloud to make sure it flowed, so those who cannot “feel” the meaning of the Hebrew can use the English for prayer.

Some who saw early versions of the machzor, which was tested in six congregations, say it answers a need articulated by Conservative laypeople as well as clergy.

“There is a cadre of congregants that is really looking for spiritual connection,” said one Conservative rabbi, Geoffrey Haber of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Mass., in a YouTube video that is being used in an unusual PR campaign to promote the prayer book. “Oftentimes our movement can be focused on the intellectual rather than the spiritual, and people are really thirsting for that. I think this machzor speaks to that.”

Along with the content modifications, Lev Shalem is aesthetically pleasing. It weighs less than two pounds, is printed on fine paper, and uses a typeface that has been specially designed and copyrighted.

Like the new daily and Shabbat prayer book released concurrently by the Israeli Masorti movement (see jstandard.com), Lev Shalem is being presented as a prayer book for all Jews rather than as a Conservative text.

“We’ve got everyone from [the late Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai to the Lubavitcher rebbe,” said committee chair Rabbi Edward Feld of Northampton, Mass., senior editor of the project. “It does not represent any single theological perspective.”

Feld spent weeks poring through the rare book room at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, mining more than 60 old prayer books for long-forgotten piyyutim, or liturgical poems, to include along with modern meditations.

On one page is an 11th-century poem on the new year by Joseph Ibn Abitur of Spain. On another is “For the Sin of Destroying God’s Creation,” JTS Dean Daniel Nevins’ environmentally sensitive version of the Al-Chet, the traditional confessional list of sins recited during Yom Kippur services.

The way the texts are put together is in keeping with Conservative values, Feld said.

“We include myriad Jewish voices, allowing them to be in conversation with each other,” Feld said. “In that sense it’s a deeply Conservative text because the movement at its best is about the conversations that can take place between tradition and a 21st-century sensibility.”

The entire traditional text is included, with a few modifications. The matriarchs are included as an option on the same page as the traditional Amidah prayer that refers only to the patriarchs. Kelman says that’s progress from the most recent Conservative prayer book, which relegates the matriarchs to a separate page.

The Conservative leadership hopes the new machzor will help worshippers deepen their synagogue experience. Those who produced it, however, have less lofty expectations of their first encounter with the book from the other side of the pulpit.

“In all likelihood,” Kelman said, “I’ll be looking for mistakes.”

JTA

 
 
 
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