Jewish Journal

A transdenominational leader for a borderless world

by Amy Klein

Posted on May. 21, 2008 at 3:56 pm

For years, people told Robert Bonem he should become a rabbi—even people he had just met, and even when he wasn’t talking about religious subjects.

“Have you ever thought of being a rabbi?” they’d say, and the Jewish educator and life coach would think, “Who me?”

It wasn’t until an Orthodox kabbalist brought it up that Bonem decided to take the plunge. Although he had just completed a master’s in education from the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University or AJU), Bonem decided to enroll at the Academy of Jewish Religion (AJR-CA), a transdenominational rabbinic, cantorial and chaplaincy school started in 2001.

“I didn’t really know what transdenominationalism was until I started looking for a school,” said Bonem, who himself is transdenominational—a term, like post-denominational and nondenominational, that signifies that one is not limited in affiliation with any one of Judaism’s movements: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal.

Bonem was raised Conservative, but in high school he found himself attracted to the Reform movement and its emphasis on social action. Today he prays with the Orthodox and feels a love for the spirituality of the Renewal movement.

“I wanted a chance to learn with rabbis from different movements, and that’s one of the great things about AJR—I had a chance to learn about all the movements and their different views on Torah,” he said.

Bonem, one of seven rabbinical students graduating AJR-CA on May 26, quotes the verse that there are 70 faces to Torah: “I think it’s important to learn about as many faces as you can.”

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.”

Even God may not know what to make of Gottlieb’s eclectic teaching.

“We had to leave the Garden of Eden because there was a disharmony as a result of eating from the Tree—a new consciousness, a new duality occurred,” Gottlieb said.

It is a sunny California morning and the tall, lanky dean, wearing a sky-blue button-down shirt that matches his startling blue eyes, is teaching a class called “Psychospirituality.” Eight students sit in rectangular formation in this third-floor classroom, located in the UCLA Hillel Building in Westwood, where 65 students attend the rabbinical, cantorial and chaplaincy program three days a week, Sunday through Tuesday, many of them from as far away as the Bay Area and Arizona.

“This is a blessing, this eviction from the garden,” Gottlieb continues. “We struggle from these opposites—this brings forth creativity,” he says.  Although “many of us yearn to go back to the garden,” i.e., to a safe place without challenges, “you have to sever your attachments to ego in this world.”

Gottlieb’s lecture jumps from the text (Moses leaving Pharoah’s house) to a Chasidic parable (about Rav Nachman) to psychology (“the volitional affirmation of the obligatory”) to spirituality (“Many people would rather suffer in this world than risk the unknown, which might contain more suffering”), to mythology (“the heroic journey means giving up the secure place”). Along the way, students interject, question and comment, leading to an aside about denominationalism and a practical application to the day’s teaching.

“How do you take the God within yourself and say, ‘I am loving?’ Crisis can bring that,” Gottlieb explains. “That’s what this story is about. He was not connected to [his feminine] side, then realized through suffering how to love and be more conscious.”

Gottlieb is one of many teachers to blend psychology, spirituality and social work into his Torah teachings.

“Let’s meditate on the meaning of the bracha,” Rabbi Mordechai Finley says about the blessings of the “Shema” prayer. Finley, professor of Jewish thought and former provost and president of AJR-CA, sits among his students in this same small study.

After analyzing the “Shema”—and why the Reform movement might have mistakenly taken out some of the blessings—Finley concludes, “God is beyond language.” He encourages these future Jewish leaders (many classes contain combinations of rabbinical, chaplaincy and cantorial students) to move people beyond language to spirituality, using words of Torah.

“Even in fellowship [things] can go bad if you don’t have the language of Torah to mediate interaction,” he says.

Finley, who has been teaching at the school since its inception, is the leader of Ohr HaTorah, his own transdenominational synagogue. A graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform movement’s graduate school, Finley and his wife, Meirav, founded the synagogue in 1994 after investigating all the movements and finding “we weren’t a good match for any of them,” he said.

They liked the Reconstructionist approach to Jewish law, but not their conception of a personal God. They were too traditional for Reform, not traditional enough for Conservative, and besides, Finley loved teaching chasidut.

“I don’t think people are consciously transdenominational,” Finley said in an interview, noting that if they like the clergy and the congregation and they find the synagogue’s program meaningful, they’ll join. “If the local synagogue fits those criteria and it’s Reform, they won’t not join because they are post-denominational.”

Finley loves the “intentional post-denominational” atmosphere at AJR-CA. “It’s a great thing for an academy—for faculty and students.”
Not everyone is taken with the idea of postdenominational rabbinic schools, however, particularly those who want to see the furtherance of the denominations.

“There are benefits that are available when one is affiliated with a movement, given the structure of American Jewish life,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR, which trains rabbis, cantors, chaplains and Jewish educators. Ellenson said that when Jewish leaders affiliate with a movement, they “become a part of the larger fabric of the entire movement,” and they contribute to “the vitality of the Jewish community.”

There certainly is strength in numbers, and a graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at AJU, or the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania may have resources and connections that a transdenominationally ordained rabbi may not.

While a transdenominational ordinee will be suited to finding a job outside the pulpit, such as a Hillel educator or teacher, finding a pulpit job at synagogues affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements might be challenging. (Orthodox synagogues only hire rabbis from Orthodox rabbinic schools.) “That’s not what we found,” Gottlieb said in an interview.

In the Deep South, for example, 34 percent of the 336 congregation (excluding Florida) do not have rabbis, a 2002 study by the Institute for Southern Jewish Life found.

“There’s a shortage of professionals—there are so many congregations that don’t have rabbis,” Gottlieb said.

Some of those congregations might have begun as lay led, or don’t have enough funds to affiliate with a movement, or may have people with varying beliefs. 
“They don’t want to worship ideologies, they want to be doing what they want to do.” Gottlieb said.

That’s exactly how many AJR-CA students feel. Robert Bonem, who will be ordained next week with a thesis in “Steps Toward Dance as a Jewish Spiritual Practice,” researching the history of dance in Judaism, is going to continue his work as a Jewish educator at various schools and working as a life coach.
“I see advantages in each of the movements—I think they each have good things about them,” he said. “It’s hard for me to say even for myself, ‘One movement is the right one.’”

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