A not-so-conservative choice

Arnold Eisen doesn’t need to be reminded that he’s not a rabbi. It’s certainly not news to him.

The Jewish Theological Seminary announced this week that Eisen, the chair of Stanford University’s religious studies program, would become just the second non-rabbi to serve as the New York City seminary’s chancellor and the first since 1940. He succeeds Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who is stepping down after holding the post for two decades.

“I would have preferred a rabbi in this position too,” said Eisen with a laugh.

“I’ve been writing and thinking for 25 years about changes I’d like to see made, and now I have a chance to help make them.”

Eisen ascends to the helm of a Conservative movement that is hemorrhaging membership on a congregational level and cannot, at present, devise an equitable solution about whether to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis. Perhaps, more than any other branch of American Judaism, the Conservatives must walk a difficult line in maintaining a coherent identity as halachic Jews in the modern world. Eisen is well aware of these quandaries and has spent a lifetime considering various solutions.

Take the pressing question of what to do about openly homosexual rabbis. When asked, Eisen gave a three-part answer.

“Number one, this is a halachic movement, period. I want honesty and integrity in the halachic process carried through and I would be upset if it were not. And No. 2, it’s a faculty matter. The faculty has to teach the people who are going to be ordained. So there will be a halachic decision by rabbis and there will be faculty discussion as well. Then, I voice my personal opinion about how I’d like things to turn out and you know what that is.”

But while Eisen personally favors the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, “I’m not qualified to decide on matters of rabbinic law. That’s one of the things that changes” with a non-rabbi at the reins of the seminary. The JTS’s halachic decisions will now fall to a yet-to-be determined rabbi or perhaps even a number of rabbis. They simply haven’t figured it out yet.

Bay Area Jewish community leaders, while intrigued by the novelty of having a non-rabbi lead a rabbinical seminary, were far more preoccupied with the sparkling record Eisen has amassed in the past two decades at Stanford, where he is universally regarded as one of the nation’s foremost scholars in the field of modern Jewish thought.

With the JTS selection committee’s choice to look outside of the rabbinate, the Conservative seminary now has a leader who was never mired in political infighting, according to professor Lee Shulman, the president of Stanford’s Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Eisen’s longtime colleague.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom noted that Eisen’s stellar academic record indicates “that the seminary, which has consistently stood for academic excellence, will continue to do so.”

Added Rabbi Brian Lurie, former director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, “Arnie didn’t live in cloister. He mixed with students and donors and is a person who understands what’s going on on the street. They didn’t give this job to some ivory-tower isolated person.”

Speaking for the honor of academicians everywhere, Eisen’s Stanford colleague, professor Steven Zipperstein, maintained that there are “many professors who don’t have their heads in the clouds.”

But Eisen is a scholar with his feet firmly planted on the ground, and his mind on the Jewish community.

“The questions that have engaged him most as a scholar are arguably the central questions that engage Jews today,” he said.

Eisen’s dissertation explored the ramifications of being both Jewish and American. A subsequent book, “Galut,” explored Jewish feelings of being at home and homeless in the diaspora.

“His concerns begin with the preoccupations of everyday Jews,” said Zipperstein.

And, as far as Eisen is concerned, too few everyday Jews are preoccupied with Torah.

“There are literally a couple of million Jews in this country who have never had Torah taught to them in a live and exciting way. They don’t get how much Jewish tradition could mean to them. So they’re turned off and disconnected and we’ve got to reach them better,” he said.

“I now have a chance to help train a lot of the people who are going to be serving them for the next generation.”

Eisen, an active congregant at Palo Alto’s Kol Emeth, can’t deny the declining synagogue rolls in the Conservative movement, but insists that “the numbers for all Jews are down … it’s a very strong movement and I don’t understand the sense of malaise some people feel.”

Rather than obsess solely on wooing new members (or disenchanted old ones), Eisen said that the movement must provide more for its existing membership.

“We need a better prayer experience, better schools, better adult learning and better communities. If we can do any or all of these things, we will have an improved movement. Rather than have a name change [of the movement], I’d rather we live up to our potential.”

Eisen’s selection to head the JTS follows an interesting trend. Richard Joel, the former president of Hillel, took over the presidency of the Orthodox Yeshiva University in 2003; like Eisen, Joel is not a rabbi. In 2001, David Ellenson took over the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College. And while Ellenson is a rabbi, he is best known for his scholarship in the field of Jewish studies.

“That JTS needed to go to Stanford to pick their president a couple of years after HUC had to go to Los Angeles to get David Ellenson, now the myth is finally broken. The West Coast is not a backwater of the Jewish community,” said Shulman.

Eisen, for his part, downplayed any rivalries between East Coast and West Coast Conservative Judaism, namely Los Angeles’ University of Judaism and New York’s JTS. But, as a native Philadelphian who has lived in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years, he felt he could serve as a natural bridge. He’s also not quite ready to leave the Bay Area yet, as he has been named “chancellor designate” until July 2007, meaning he will serve at both Stanford and the seminary.

“You know, I’m a pluralist,” noted Eisen, “and I don’t think Judaism is the only way to be a good person and serve God. I don’t think Conservative Judaism is the only way to be a good Jew. But having said that, I’ve been a Conservative Jew all my life and this is the path that matters most to me. And I will do all I can for it.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.