Jewish Journal

Coastal Divide

by Ruth Andrew Ellenson

Posted on May. 31, 2001 at 8:00 pm

Rabbinic candidates of The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, before the ordination. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the rabbinic school, center rear, Rabbi Mimi Weisel, assistant dean of the rabbinic school far left, rear.

Rabbinic candidates of The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, before the ordination. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the rabbinic school, center rear, Rabbi Mimi Weisel, assistant dean of the rabbinic school far left, rear.

As the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies (ZSRS) at the University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles completes its fifth year, it marks not only a transition within Conservative Judaism but the emergence of Los Angeles as a center for Jewish intellectual life. While it used to be that the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City was the one center for training Conservative Rabbis (with the University of Judaism as an appendix established in 1947), the development of the ZSRS reflects a maturation of the UJ as its own entity, much like a younger sibling emerging from the shadows of an accomplished older child.

This growth of the ZSRS also raises complicated questions about the impact of having two separate ordaining institutions of learning for the Conservative movement. Rabbi Alan Kensky, dean of the rabbinical school at JTS, acknowledges that there were some doubts in the beginning.

"Obviously, there were concerns when the UJ began training rabbis," Rabbi Kensky explained. "JTS had been the only place which trained Conservative rabbis for over a century. There were additionally some concerns that the two schools might develop different constituencies and that Conservative Judaism could break into an East Coast branch and a West Coast branch."

As the ZSRS developed, those concerns seemed to be less of an issue. "The common ethos of both schools is keeping them fairly close on key issues to the unity of the movement," Kensky said. "The fact that our students spend a year studying together in Jerusalem is also helping to maintain unity in the movement."

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the ZSRS dean, concurs, although he does note that the ZSRS takes a slightly different approach in the formation of rabbis than that at JTS. "We see ourselves as dedicated to creating an unprecedented kind of rabbinical school, one in which we are permanently experimenting, creating, and exploring," Artson explains. He added, "We see our task as one of allowing students to become the best possible version of themselves, rather than squeezing them into any single mold or shape. Thank God, we live in an age of diverse needs, and the Conservative movement is dynamic and diverse too, so we need many different models of successful rabbis."

This openness to exploring spirituality is something that David Myers, professor of history at UCLA, sees as a natural outgrowth of questions that have faced the Conservative movement since its inception. "The prototype for JTS was the Jewish Theological Seminary founded in Breslau, Germany, in 1854.

"In the Breslau seminary, as in the other seminaries in Germany, there was a constant tension between two main functions: its scholarly mission, to serve as a center of Jewish scholarship, and its vocational mission, to train rabbis," Myers said. "To a great extent, this tension was carried over from Europe and can be seen in varying degrees in the three main seminaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Hebrew Union College, JTS, and Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. It closely tracks another tension that stands at the heart of the very definition of the modern rabbi: namely, the pull between the intellectual, scholarly, and spiritual [and] theological aspects of his [or] her professional persona."

Myers also noted that the different tones of the two institutions are, to some extent, a reflection of the cities in which they are located. "The fact that JTS is known for its commitment, sometimes even excessive commitment, to scholarship is an outgrowth of its location in the intellectual capital of the U.S., if not the world: New York," he said. "In this regard, New York, for all its creativity and innovation, has become the heavy, the Establishment. By contrast, L.A. fashions itself as a renegade, willing and able to break away from established molds, intent on satisfying individual needs more than social expectations or institutional reputation. I'd have to think that UJ's rise has something to do with this general culture of openness in L.A., and California more generally. From a certain perspective, the Conservative movement should count its blessings that it has two institutions catering to different but vital aspects of rabbinic education."

This difference in character accounts for the different appeals that ZSRS and JTS have for students. Cheryl Peretz, a graduating rabbinical student at ZSRS, explained her attraction to the UJ as being motivated by the institution's emphasis on exploring non-academic aspects of the rabbinate. "ZSRS invited student's participation in fine-tuning the vision of the rabbinate of this century," Peretz said. "What I saw was an opportunity to delve beyond the academic and technical skills of the rabbi into a journey of discovery of myself, my future career, and to really ask myself, 'What kind of rabbi do I want and need to be?' Four years later, on the brink of ordination, I can say that is actually what being here has offered me."

When asked, JTS students cite the advantage of having two schools but cite reasons other than personal conviction in their choice to attend JTS. Lauren Kirland, a Californian who chose JTS for her rabbinical studies, said, "I believe, as do many of my peers at JTS, that having two Conservative rabbinical schools located on opposite coasts is vital for the future of the Conservative movement.... Having two schools allows for a little friendly competition and compels each institution to define itself in contrast to the other."

Jacob Neusner, research professor of religion and theology at Bard College, also believes that the impact of two institutions is a positive one. "The Ziegler School is the best thing that could happen to Conservative Judaism, even if all it ever does is wake up JTS out of its self-satisfied slumber," he said.

Regarding ZSRS specifically, Neusner does not judge the school by what it has accomplished so far but by its progress. "The evaluation of the Ziegler School should assess whether it is making progress toward forming a great center of Jewish learning, Jewish teaching, and Jewish scholarship. That depends on the excellence of its professors and the quality of its students," Neusner said.

"Rabbi Artson and his professorial colleagues certainly form a valued resource in Judaism, and rabbis educated by them give good service to Judaism in this country," Neusner added. "They are, person for person, a match for their counterparts at JTS."

Like Myers, Neusner points out that regardless of any issues internal to the Conservative movement, the ZSRS is a major achievement for Jewish Los Angeles.

"There is a more important point, which transcends institutional competition," Neusner observed. "It has to do with the enrichment of Judaism wherever large and mature Jewish communities flourish, as in L.A. No one in Los Angeles has to apologize to New York City for making the Los Angeles Jewish community a center for the education of Conservative, as of Reform, rabbis. Los Angeles Jewry forms an exemplary community, and the American Jewish community at large will be well-served as its influence radiates throughout the country."

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