Jewish Journal

Making History

Ziegler School's first rabbinical grads represent a new breed that mixes tradition and creativity

by Orit Arfa

Posted on May. 20, 1999 at 8:00 pm

Only eight men and women stepped up to the podium in front of the ark at Valley Beth Shalom on Monday to receive their smicha (rabbinical ordination) from the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, but the event resonated with historical and religious importance.

This was the 4-year-old rabbinical school's first ordination ceremony and offers a foretaste of what the future is likely to hold within the Conservative movement. Planners took care to ensure that the event imparted the significance of the moment and evoked the same qualities that Ziegler leaders say give the newest Conservative rabbinical school, and, consequently, those who receive their ordination there, an edge: a fusion of tradition and creativity, academic rigor and spiritual sensitivity.

"From the outset, we decided we wanted it to be a religious ceremony and not an academic one," Ziegler Assistant Dean Rabbi Eddie Harwitz. "We wanted to create it so there was a transmission of rabbinical authority."

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom received the Simon Greenberg Award for Distinguished Rabbinic Leadership, and Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the widely acclaimed "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," delivered the keynote address.

Probably the most anticipated moment of the ceremony was when each student's mentor presented his or her protege to the beit din (Jewish Court), which included Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and leader in the Conservative movement; Rabbi Seymor Essrog, president of the Rabbinical Assembly; and Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. Various Ziegler faculty members composed the language of the ordination proclamation and the ordination certificate, which added to the ceremony' s innovative nature.

"It was a very warm, moving and personal type of ceremony," Essrog said. He said the ceremony had a kind of "California style," quite unlike the formality of the East Coast.

Indeed, the innovative ceremony symbolized an even greater departure that the school has taken from its eastern counterparts.

Until Ziegler was launched, New York was the locus for Conservative Jewish scholarship and bustle, and future Conservative rabbis could turn only to the long-established Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to realize their rabbinical dreams. In fact, the Ziegler school started out at the University of Judaism six years ago as a program designed to prepare students headed for JTS.

"I think the ordination is a historic occasion for the school, the Conservative movement, for the West Coast Jewish community and for American Jewish life," said Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Ziegler's outgoing dean.

Two more seminaries will follow Ziegler' s example. Hebrew Union College, the flagship rabbinical school for the Reform movement, will soon begin to ordain students at its Los Angeles branch, and the Academy of Jewish Religion, a non-denominational rabbinical school with a branch in New York, is also setting up a school in the Los Angeles area.

"Now we are not [only] consumers, but producers," Gordis said.

And if the laws of the free market work for Judaism, then as more producers arise, more perspectives on Jewish custom and scholarship will become available to students of Jewish thought and practice. Ziegler leaders take pride in their fresh approach to text study, which attempts to uncover the technical, religious and spiritual sensitivities of the texts to make Judaism a meaningful part of its students' lives in the new millennium.

Adam Frank, who received his ordination at the VBS event, said that one of his reasons for choosing the Ziegler school was that he felt "there was a need for a different breed of Conservative rabbi,...one whose focus isn't quite so much on the academic and intellectual but on the personal and spiritual."

Frank chose to attend Ziegler to further his own Jewish education and ultimately have a voice in the Jewish world. Together with his fellow classmates, he dedicated four years to intense text study, which included a year of study in Israel, rabbinical internships and philosophical dialogue. He now plans to return to his hometown Atlanta and work as a Jewish educator "with a focus on making [Jewish] learning relevant to our everyday lives."

Looking back, Frank thought the Ziegler school had done a good job of preparing him for his future career, even though the first ordination class had had its fair share of trial and error, he conceded. "They will continue to refine the curriculum," he said. "In the four years I've been there they have done an admirable job."

Each of the eight new rabbis come from radically different backgrounds. Several have grown up in traditional Jewish households; others have discovered Judaism later in life. Their paths as rabbis will be just as unique as the roads that led them to the rabbinate. Some have already found jobs as Jewish educators or pulpit rabbis, while others are still looking.

Rabbi Anat Moskowitz has no specific plans.

"I really love every aspect of the rabbinate," she said. "That' s why I want to do pulpit work right now so that I can do a little bit of everything."

This work, she hopes, will lead to a hospital or hospice chaplaincy. She believes that Ziegler' s focus has prepared her for that type of work.

"It's been a good program in a sense that they want to pay attention to the modern needs of a rabbi," she said. A rabbi's not just a scholar anymore, but has to do counseling and teaching, Moskowitz added.

Although students' goals and interest may vary, Gordis said, they all have in common enormous talent and an understanding of the world of Jewish learning. "No school could ask for a more wonderful graduating class to represent it."

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