May 21, 2008
A transdenominational leader for a borderless world
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At a time when synagogue affiliation is down, and new synagogues affiliating with movements keep opening up, transdenominational graduate schools like AJR-CA train the leaders of a denomination-less—or multidenominational—world.
“If you’re serving the needs of the entire community, you need to be equipped academically and interpersonally to be a consult for the people—you need to see what their needs are with the tremendous depth, from every point of view,” said Senior Executive Vice President Stan Levy, who co-founded AJR-CA in 2001 as the West Coast branch of AJR in New York.
But Los Angeles’ AJR, located in a city known for spiritual movements and religious practices of all stripes, split from the New York branch, and differentiated itself from other transdenominational graduate schools with its innovative California flavor.
If there is one man who embodies this spiritually open flavor of transdenominationalism, it is the school’s new president and CEO this year, Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, who also serves as dean of AJR-CA’s rabbinical school and chaplaincy program. One of his new tasks is to get the school accreditation from the Western Association Schools and Colleges.
Bonem called Gottlieb the school’s model.
“He’s an Orthodox rabbi active in social work—people might think because there’s an Orthodox rabbi, it’s an Orthodox school, but he holds the openness for a transdenominational approach,” he said.
Gottlieb grew up on New York’s Lower East Side with an “intense” Orthodox background, but “I always had a broad view of Judaism, just intuitively,” he said. “Part of my family was religious, and part of my family wasn’t, and I loved them all as capable human beings.”
Gottlieb was ordained at Yeshiva University, where he also received a master of social work and an master’s degree in Jewish philosophy. His first job was Hillel director at MIT.
“It was my first exposure to non-Orthodox and their practices. I felt I could be of help sharing tradition,” he said.
He went on to direct Hillel at Princeton and, over the course of his career, received his doctorate in mythology/depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, taught at top universities and served as the rabbi of both the Orthodox Westwood Village synagogue and the reform Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.
“It didn’t matter to me if people were Orthodox or non-Orthodox,” he said. “I wanted to teach them the beauty of tradition and [let them] express it the way they want to. Let God judge.”