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 (JTS) announced this month that Eisen, 54, the chair of Stanford University's religious studies program, would become just the second nonrabbi to serve as the New York City seminary's chancellor and the first since 1940. He succeeds Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who held 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 memberships on a congregational level and cannot, at present, reach consensus 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. Eisen offered a three-part answer.
"No. 1, 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."
Eisen personally favors the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, while also insisting, "I'm not qualified to decide on matters of rabbinic law. That's one of the things that changes" with a nonrabbi at the reins of the seminary. The halachic decisions of the JTS 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 nonrabbi lead a rabbinical seminary, were far more preoccupied with praising Eisen's record over two decades as one of the nation's foremost scholars in the field of modern Jewish thought.
Because the JTS selection committee chose to look outside the rabbinate, the Conservative seminary now has a leader who was never mired in political infighting, said professor Lee Shulman, the president of Stanford's Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching and a longtime colleague of Eisen.
Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley's Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom said that Eisen's academic record indicates "that the seminary, which has consistently stood for academic excellence, will continue to do so."
"Arnie didn't live in [a] cloister," added Rabbi Brian Lurie, former director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation. "He mixed with students and donors and is a person who understands what's going on on the street. His research at school really gave him a very unique and strong vantage point on the American Jewish community. They didn't give this job to some ivory tower isolated person."
A colleague praised Eisen as a scholar with his feet firmly planted on the ground and one who has long devoted thoughtful consideration to issues of the Jewish community.
"The questions that have engaged him most as a scholar are arguably the central questions that engage Jews today," said Steven Zipperstein, Eisen's Stanford colleague.
Eisen's dissertation explored the ramifications of being both Jewish and American. A subsequent book, "Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming" (Indiana University Press, 1986) explored Jewish feelings of being at home and homeless in the Diaspora.
"His concerns begin with the preoccupations of everyday Jews," Zipperstein said.
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 just don't get it. 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 [affiliated] 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."
Conservative thinkers have, for some time, pondered how to invigorate the movement. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood has suggested a name change to something that better reflects the direction and potential of the movement. He suggested Covenental Judaism.
Eisen disagrees with that approach: "Rather than have a name change [of the movement], I'd rather we live up to our potential."
For his part, Wolpe has enthusiastically embraced the choice of Eisen.
Eisen's selection to head the JTS follows a 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-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). And while Ellenson is a rabbi, he is best known for his scholarship in 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. Indeed, it's very likely the cutting edge of the new leadership of the Jewish community," said Stanford's 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 says he could serve as a natural bridge.
He's also not quite ready to leave the Bay Area yet, and as "chancellor designate," he doesn't have to assume full duties until July 2007. In the meantime, he will serve at both Stanford and the seminary. But he says he's ready to take on the challenges, while also realizing the inherent limitations of his new mission.
"You know, I'm a pluralist," Eisen said, "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."
This article is reprinted from the J Weekly, a Northern California publication.