Fellowship for rabbinical students targets US Jewry's challenges

"The needs of this generation are different."

ark reform feat 224 (photo credit: )
ark reform feat 224
(photo credit: )
A new fellowship will bring together rabbinical students from the Reform and Conservative movements to learn how to better address the challenges facing American Jewry. Through semi-annual retreats, monthly conference calls or "Webinars" and informal exchanges, Schusterman Rabbinic Fellows - four from the Conservative Movement's Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and four from the Reform Movement's Hebrew Union College (HUC) - will develop strategies for appealing to marginalized Jews, including those in interfaith relationships and those unaffiliated with any Jewish congregation. The fellowship, funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, provides tuition fees and a living stipend during the third and fourth years of rabbinical studies to enable fellows to devote themselves fully to becoming rabbinical leaders. "Many Jews don't see synagogues as welcoming institutions," said Rabbi Ellen Flax, a project consultant for the fellowship. "We are looking at how we can use the latest information about demographics of the Jewish community to tailor programming and policies to welcome people." The fellowship grew in part out of the friendship between Arnold Eisen, chancellor of JTS, and Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC. The pair share concerns about shifts in the Jewish demographic reality, including shifting family configurations and a changing vocabulary of religious identity. "Younger Jews are motivated by questions of spiritual journey and personal meaning and less by Jewish continuity and communal identity," explained Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of JTS. "They are motivated by 'universal concerns,'" such as the environment and social justice, he added. "The congregations that are thriving are ones which have learned how to speak and teach in this vocabulary." While rabbinical schools tend to focus on academic and professional skills, the fellowship hopes to enable participants to develop strategic solutions to the changing needs of synagogues. "In rabbinical school you think there will be a lot of opportunity to talk about the big picture, such as a vision for your future congregation, but it is easy for those conversations to happen less often than you would think," said Ethan Bair, a rabbinical student at HUC in Los Angeles. "This is an opportunity to get together with other strong students and really have those conversations." "The needs of this generation differ from those of previous generations," said JTS fellow Deborah Zuker. "Some models of synagogue life were built by another generation, and this generation has different needs and ways of connecting," she added, referring to the impact of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace on synagogue life. "I don't know the extent to which that's [social networking sites] changed the way people expect communities to arrange themselves. It's a tool but also may be changing how people want to interact with each other," she continued. "Beyond using it as way of communicating with people, it democratizes what happens. Maybe that involves community organizing from the ground up. It changes the way people expect to be involved; they can take more ownership." The fellowship may also constitute further evidence that the Reform Movement is gradually moving closer to the more traditional Conservative Movement. A Reform siddur issued this year restored traditional prayers that had previously been removed, and at the biennial meeting of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, called on members to celebrate a communal Shabbat. Despite these changes, Rabbi Aaron Panken, vice president for strategic initiatives at HUC, said it was still too early to predict the evolution of closer ties between the two groups. "I think there are people in each movement who would feel comfortable in the other, but both are strong and healthy," said Panken. "We see each other as partners and great people to work with, but I don't know that this signals anything greater than that." Nevins also denies that the two movements are merging. "The two movements have very distinctive cultures and institutions," he said. "It's good for the Jewish people to have many different formulations to explore different themes." What the two movements have in common, Nevins said, is that both are attuned to changes in the American Jewish landscape. "The great themes are beyond the bounds of any movement. Neither created [ideals such as] feminism, but both are trying to understand how to learn from the best features of modern culture while preserving the depths offered by the Jewish tradition."