No. 63: A Quintessentially American Jewish Institution

The following is a transcript of Episode 63 of the Identity/Crisis podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Everyone welcome to Identity/Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer Shalom Hartman Institute North America. And we’re recording on Tuesday, July 20th, 2021. So as many of you know, I have a deep interest in questions of leadership and change in the Jewish community, which I sometimes refer to as Jewish communal inside baseball. But it’s actually much more than just kibitzing. The story of leadership and change tells big stories about our institutions, our leaders, our direction, where we’re going as a community and how our institutions play a role in that. In the middle of the pandemic, there was a pretty big transition in one of the most venerable and important institutions on the American Jewish landscape, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which appointed and installed only their eighth chancellor in their 134 year history. And the first woman to hold this role, Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, an accomplished and decorated scholar of American Jews and American Judaism, formerly the Dean of two of its schools, and then its provost, a third generation graduate, I learned recently, and beloved as a faculty member within the institution. At Hartman in the summer, we’ve had a long tradition and it’s always been this big honor to invite new heads of American Jewish seminaries and institutions and major leaders to address our rabbis and our lay leaders. So we missed that last summer. We missed it this summer, publicly here, giving Chancellor Schwartz a rain check on that invitation to come to Jerusalem, but we didn’t want to wait another summer to hear from you and to have you speak to our audiences about you, about this institution, about the American Jewish future. So thanks for coming on the show and let’s start big. So, as I said, you’re a scholar of American Jews and Judaism.
You’ve studied Jewish camps. You’ve written extensively about the American synagogue about the unique phenomenon of the rebbetzin. Then you’ve been a leader in bringing a gender lens to Judaism and American Jewish history. Maybe it’s the other way around. And I’d love for you to start by looking at the landscape and to talk a little bit about what are the issues that face American Jewish life that most excite and animate you, that prompt the kind of work that you envision doing at the seminary. And then we can get into the more detailed questions about the institution itself.

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
Well, thank you first. I will definitely take that rain check and just to add, I’m not only a third generation JTS alum, but I’m the mother of a fourth generation JTS rabbi and Jewish educator. So that is an important point of pride for me as well. My grandfather graduated 101 years ago from the undergraduate school. The first big issue is the big issue that has been the challenge of Jews in modernity. And that is what does it mean to figure out how to live a rich Jewish life within a broader societal context, whatever that context is, and how do we do that in a way that brings the richness of tradition with us and that we do our part to move it forward in a way that both takes the best from the environment around us and contributes the best to that environment. And that is a role that JTS has played now for over 135 years, I think it is. So that is a role we’ve always taken very seriously. That primary challenge remains. What are the nuances around that in this era, in the 21st century? I don’t have to tell you, you know, we live in such a polarized world. We are in an era that is dogmatic, quick to judge, unforgiving. We don’t listen to each other. We write statements and slam the other side and do that on social media and feel self-righteous, but we’re not growing. We’re not learning. And we’re growing farther and farther apart. JTS is a place that can bring different sides together. That as an educational institution, that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to bring people who come from various different backgrounds and perspectives together to teach the richness of our tradition and that process of studying deeply with others, whose views are different, to learn, respect, to learn humility. No matter how much we interrogate our tradition, we’re never going to uncover the many more than 70 meanings of it, right? There’s always more. And we learn from each other.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
I guess it’s interesting where you started, which is you named two factors of the American Jewish experience that are creating difficulty for American Jews, but they actually feel opposite to me. The first that you named is how do we articulate a Judaism of meeting in a marketplace of choice, basically, where America is this boon, it’s this tremendous asset. Like you don’t actually have to be a Jew if you’re in America. And that let’s check that off as a victory. And the second that you described is basically a toxin in the contemporary American context, partisanship and polarization. That’s been domesticated inside Jewish life. It’s not that Jews are fighting with each other disproportionately – Americans are fighting with each other disproportionately and Jews are basically taking a version of that story and bringing it inside our Jewish life in our Jewish institutions. But the difference between those two is that the good story, articulating a Judaism of meaning and value, assumes that people are not enlisted in the Jewish project inherently, whereas fighting with other Jews, kind of suggests that they are, that the stakes are fighting on behalf of something. I would love to like peel those apart a little bit because they feel to me like they lend themselves to totally different solutions, reducing conflict or amounting passion for Jewishness, feel to me like really different projects. Do you think that that’s a fair characterization of the moment?

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
Well, first of all, I would say that I don’t think it’s only what’s going on in the American context and the way it filters into the Jewish world, because we Jews have a history of polarization that transcends the American experience as you know, what’s going on in Israel. Let’s just take that example. What’s going on in Israel is not an import, although there is a relationship between the two, as we know, particularly in the political sphere, but we just came off of Tisha B’Av, and we’ve been talking a lot this week about the rabbinic tradition that the temple was destroyed through Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred. Okay. So you don’t have midrashim like that, unless that is a reality, right? And that has been a reality in the Jewish world as well. And that kind of polarization works against my project of a kind of integrative Judaism, a Judaism that is not polarized to one extreme or the other, but really seeks to integrate these different parts of my life. And polarization is inimicable to that.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Let me push again on the first part though, which is articulating a Judaism of choice, right? A Judaism that Jews are going to want to opt into. It strikes me as so fundamentally American. JTS is I think an American institution and in some ways, conservative Judaism, not totally a American institution, but has always felt to me like kind of an American denomination, the first out of the gate, if we want to include reconstructionist Judaism, and I think also Chabad, which are kind of American Jewish institutions, but there’s something about the quest and pursuit of needing to make Judaism one’s own that feels so deeply American. And therefore, it’s not that surprising to us that you wind up with the proliferation of Judaisms in America that are pursuing their own for lack of a better word, manifest destiny, and therefore have no ability to speak to each other. Because your vision, when you describe the Judaism, you want to be a part of, is it, “I want enough people in this kind of integrative middle-ground Judaism. I want that to be the critical mass of American Jews”, or “I just want enough people in that Judaism so that it competes, knowing that there are going to be other expressions and denominations that it comes into conflict with.”How big do you want the Judaism that you’re describing, that you want to see the seminary as being a driver of in this marketplace of American Judaisms.

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
I want it to be big. And I actually think it is big. We get sidetracked when we start labeling and sub labeling and sub sub labeling, but it’s actually big. And one of the most moving lessons for me of the pandemic is how many Jews cared to figure out how to keep their Jewishness with them, their Judaism with them, through the pandemic. One might have assumed that Jews who don’t see themselves as deeply immersed in Jewish life, 24/7, for those Jews to say, look, I’m working from home. And my kids are in school at home. I’m trying to hold it together. Money’s tight. And I don’t even know where I’m going to get toilet paper from. So I can’t really deal with Judaism right now. I’ll figure that out after. And that’s not what happened. It was like, oh my God, I need to figure this out now. And there was a level of urgency and a sense of experimentation in Jewish life that we’ve not seen since the 1950s and many, many different solutions, right? Oh, zoom, this and not zoom and outdoor and music. How did we keep music in our lives when we couldn’t pray together? So much creativity. It was inspiring to me. That is the vast middle. And it came from institutions. It came from individuals, it came from small groups and that’s it. That’s what happened in the fifties. And do we know which of these things are going to stick? Nope. We don’t know that yet. That’s great. But what we know is, look how many Jews cared to try to figure it out.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
So, I would add to your list, it’s not quote unquote, just the innovative digital adaptations. There was also a great deal of basic rabbinic work of caring for the sick and, right, all of that stuff perpetuated, I would add to that list, a huge amount of political activism by American Jews that emerged during this period of time, which was articulated explicitly as part of their Jewishness. That piece, however, and in some ways, some of the other pieces, including the digital, they’re not necessarily at odds with the institutional landscape of American Jewry, but sometimes they do make the institutional landscape of American Jewry the object of their criticism and the object of their scorn. And there is a question for those of us in institutional leadership, “but how do we, I don’t want to say harness, harness is a bad word here. How do we enable our institutions to actually serve the innovative proliferation and growth of American Jewry in moments of transition like this, as opposed to falling behind?” I don’t have to tell you, your institution, my institution, institutions of Jewish life are subject to a really significant critique right now about the pace of change. The synagogue world, especially conservative movement has been in decline for two generations. So how do you now, sitting at the helm of one of the major institutions of Jewish life, how do you bring the institutional culture of what you lead in dialogue with what you’re describing as being a very rich and robust marketplace or community of Jews who want to continue to proliferate their Jewishness?

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
Look, we do that through the leaders that we train. I mean, so many of these innovators are JTS alumni, and we are proud of them. Some of them work in the space of conservative Judaism. Many of them do not. As, you know, only two of our five schools are training, explicitly conservative Jewish leaders and others really take the ethos of our learning, the living experience that we have at JTS and use that in all sorts of ways out there in the world and the support that we were able to give our alumni this past year that will only grow is the clearest and most obvious link between what we do and that innovative landscape out there. There is something about the kind of teaching that we do at JTS, an integrated kind of teaching of real rigorous academic Jewish learning, the search for intellectual truths and the search for religious truths and doing that in an integrated manner, the richness of voices in the classroom, that kind of experience in a living Jewish community, that works, that creates the kind of innovative professionals that we need in the world. What we saw with our alumni is that that resilience is built into the way they approach their careers. They had what they needed in March, 2020, and they were nourished enough to be able to give without a break for 15 months.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
That’s a powerful image. And you’re a particularly interesting person to help testify to what happens in the classroom at JTS, because you’ve been doing that yourself for a long time. So I’m very taken with this idea of the integrative classroom. And you made reference for instance, to understanding and really knowing history as part of what is a unique offering, that the Jewish Theological Seminary to people who you don’t actually want them to get stuck in history. You want them to actually create new paradigms for Jewish history. You want them to create what other people will later understand is history. You’re talking about teaching a passion for Jewishness that sometimes, in critical scholarship, gets reduced from being a passion for Jewishness to a passion for something underlying it. So tell us what that classroom has felt to you. What’s that look like for you as a teacher in this institution that you now feel that you’re bringing to bear as the leader of the institution?

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
So I think about my own teaching, and you are right, what stirs my soul is studying the lived experience of the Jewish people through time and space. When I studied the experience of Jewish women in particular and the ways in which they, often with little education, manage to cultivate a rich Jewish life for themselves and their families, and against many odds often, to really transform the lives of then hundreds and thousands. That to me, is the magic of the Jewish experience because the texts are great and they do nourish us. But if they’re not in our lives, to me, there’s a flatness to it. And the interaction of our tradition and each generation of Jews comes alive in my classroom. I think some people think about history, the way other people have an aversion to math. People think history is about dates and about dead people. And now the stereotype, you know, dead white men, but no history has real people dealing with the same struggles we’ve dealt with and figuring it out. And we got to figure it out too, for ourselves not living in the past, we got to live in the future.

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Yehuda Kurtzer:
So there is a bit of a bias and I’ll admit that it’s one that I hold, about the rabbinic student experience as it encounters the lived rabbinic life, which is that oftentimes the rabbinic student experience is characterized by an encounter with primarily texts, the Canon as broadly, or as limited, we want to describe the Canon. And then you go out into the world and you actually meet the Jewish people and they don’t, they don’t quite match the canon. Sometimes they actually match the canon in the sense that they are the object of scorn by the prophets, right? They match the common cause they’re the people around the golden calf, and the work of rabbinic life is much less about loving Judaism, and it’s much more about figuring out how to love the Jewish people. I feel like I see this a lot. I see it when we work with rabbinical students and early career rabbis have this huge adaptation they have to make what they think their job is in the world, or to use what the Mishnah Avot says about Aaron: “Ohev et habriyot, u’merkavan l’Torah – first he loved the people, and because he loved the people he figured out how to bring them closer to Torah.” I’m curious if you see this, I feel like I see it, especially around issues of social justice, and Israel, where the attraction by rabbinical students is towards what is true and what is right, as opposed to what is real, what people are struggling with. I feel like I see it. I’m curious whether you see it and whether you think that gap is bridgeable, because a lot of people will come to rabbinical school because they love Judaism. But ultimately a lot of the work is actually figuring out how to be with the Jewish people in all their imperfections,

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
You’re saying a lot of different things. So let’s hold off on the contemporary part of current rabbinical students and issues of justice, because you’re also saying something which is a longstanding stereotype. They come in and they’re studying classical texts and there’s no relation to the world out there. And you know, some of that is, um, an old critique of particularly of JTS, that is, oh, at least two generations old. There are rabbis, mostly retired now, who had that experience of feeling that scholarship was valued and caring about the amcha out there was a lesser career to scholarship, right? We should put that to bed. That’s long not been true of JTS and certainly not true of our current faculty, in any way. So let’s just be done with that. And then there is the general sense of disconnect between professional training in general and careers, right? My husband’s a lawyer. When a lawyer finishes and takes the bar and then they’re in a law firm and the first time the phone rings and someone wants legal advice, it’s like a deer in headlights. You don’t learn how to do that in law school. My daughter’s a doctor. You know, you finish medical school, you need residency. You’re not ready for that. And yet, if you don’t have those years, immersing yourself in the law, immersing yourself in medicine, you don’t have what you need to nourish you throughout your career. Then you have, oh, let me learn the top 10 texts that congregants are gonna want me to teach. We don’t do that at JTS. That is not what our rabbinical leaders need. They need their own authentic engagement with the text. They need a sense of mastery and proficiency in the texts that will animate their rabbinates throughout their careers. At the same time though, we have interns, right? Our students go out there in the world. We connect them with rabbis. They work in different settings. So they are certainly not disconnected from the community in which they serve. And we spend many hours with them helping them process what it means. You know, there could be a dvar Torah they prepared for a class, and it went over really well with their colleagues, and then they tried it out the next Shabbat, where they have their internship, and it didn’t land the same way. Well then they’ll talk about that and say, well, why didn’t it? And what is it that I thought I was doing? Who did I think I was speaking to? And who am I actually speaking to? And you only get that by actually working in those settings. So there’s a lot of field work that students do during their latter years in the program, but not before they’ve really have immersed themselves in Jewish learning for the first two years that are primarily in those settings. Now students today, they’re just coming from a different world, to different sense of themselves, of their role in the world. My late husband was a rabbi. When he was in rabbinical school and he was in his first year of rabbinical school, he did not think he had a rabbinic voice that the world needed to hear from. He was a student who was here to study. That rabbinic voice emerged in the early years of his rabbinate, not the moment he was accepted to rabbinical school, but we live in a different kind of world with social media, with a sense that you need to have a position, you need to stake your claim, you need to come with your issues and make those statements clear. And to quote the interim Dean of the Rabbinical School, Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, as she told our students, a congregant once critiqued her on a sermon early in her career and said, do you want to make a statement or you want to make a difference? So we try to help our students understand what does it mean to make a difference over the arc of one’s career, as opposed to making a statement on one issue and in one frozen moment in time, which as we know will live forever on the internet.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
There’s a lot of very deep stuff there. I genuinely don’t know what I think about this. As an educator, how do we live in response? Like if you have a changing demographic reality, where everybody has a platform, everybody has a voice. And therefore what you described from Rabbi Uhrbach is really powerful, and I don’t know whether it’s actually learnable or whether it’s like, it almost feels as though that approach is now systematically on the defensive against a reality of how people communicate and live in the world. And whether we have to just embrace the new nature of how people think about their own voice and their own platforms or whether we actually think we can push against it. Are you optimistic about that?

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
Well, we’ll see, because I’m going to try, I just feel really strongly that it’s not a good end to this increasing polarization and what we need is a little more humility, reflection, respect. I think it’s essential. So yes. Am I modeling a different way? I am. I would say my experience over the past two months in response to the letter that the rabbinical students wrote, critical of Israel, that 10 of our JTS students signed, my experience over the past two months encourages me, you know, and I was certainly criticized harshly for not writing something publicly critiquing the action of our students. And I very deliberately chose not to do that. That is not our role as an educational institution, to the extent that the students aired in signing a letter that was unbalanced and in which their ahavat Yisrael did not come through. And we know them, we know they have a ahavat Yisrael, it did not come through in that critique. That was a critique that needed to be given privately to our students, not publicly. And that’s what we’ve been doing and helping them, just helping them understand, what are the implications of signing something like that? Yes, can I be heartbroken over things that Israel does? Yeah. Can I love Israel at the same time? Yeah. Students have to learn how to hold more than one thought, more than one conviction, more than one love in their hearts at the same time. And my approach is slow. It’s not quick, but that’s what real education is. Is it swimming against the grain? Yes. Is it unpopular, because everyone really wanted me to throw my students under the bus in public? I’m not going to do that, yeah.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
I found it very moving actually just personally, because what you were basically saying was one of the ways in which you’re going to respond to what you perceive as possibly an ahavat Yisrael problem is by demonstrating, ahavat Yisrael back to the students and get to the people in your own community. And I know personally that they felt it, they felt seen, they felt loved and felt taken care of. And I really don’t envy the position that any institutional leaders and right now of, as we’ve talked about before the need for both public declarative statements, this is what we stand for,and at the same time, managing diverse constituencies inside your institution, outside of it, for which no version of a public statement is ever going to get it right. Let’s just stay in Israel for a second, unrelated to JTS, but here, I’m curious for you as a scholar of American Judaism, isn’t it weird and kind of crazy that in helming an American Jewish institution that is designed around being American, that’s so much of our time and energy as American Jews, so much of the agenda is defined and dictated by Israel. And I’m not making an anti Zionist arguments here, like, oh, let’s displace that story with this story, but it does feel kind of crazy to me that this winds up becoming the defining object of what we as American Jews focus on. How do you think about that? And what do we do about it? If part of the mission is to also chart a way forward for American Jews to engage seriously, not just with what it means for Jews to be citizens of Israel in the middle east, but what it means for us to be a serious Jewish citizens of America here right now.

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
I don’t experience my leadership that way saying that Israel, as you’re kind of saying sucks all the air. The whole issue of statements, that’s another thing, it’s just another conversation. I’m happy to go there if you want. But seeking with Israel, JTS was the first American Jewish movement to stake its claim for Zionism. As you know, Solomon Shechter came out in a famous statement, promoting Zionism in 1906, well before Zionism had caught the imagination of even a substantial minority of American Jews, let alone a majority. And when he came to the United States to be at the helm of the Jewish Theological Seminary, his twin brother went to Zikhron Yaakov. So Schechter understood the pull of Eretz Yisrael. He made a different choice in his calculations of where would the future of Jewish life be, he decided it would be in the United States and that he wanted to be here to make a difference here. So JTS and Israel have always been closely linked and intertwined and Mordecai Kaplan who taught here for so many generations, certainly saw Jewish life as having two poles, one in the United States, one in Israel. And that’s how I understand it. We need each other, we can’t thrive without each other. And I have to say having just returned from the Masorti mission to Israel last week, I felt very hopeful and encouraged that it is not only I and Masorti Jews who today in 2021, understand that we’re inextricably tied together, but very hopeful signs that the ministers and members of Knesset that we met with understand that now, too.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Well, last big question then I’ll end with an easy one. Last big one is, JTS is unusual in many respects, but one of them is that you’re housing a rabbinical school and an educational school and a cantorial school, and I’m missing a few others. You house programs on social justice, you have a powerful public voice. You also house a major academic center for Jewish studies and undergraduate college, a world-class library. It’s not weird that you’re not a rabbi because you’re actually a prominent academic running an academic institution. I guess I’d be curious for you to reflect a little bit on the best of both worlds question and the liabilities that you incur on having both of these institutions together. And how do you envision the future of that relationship? Like it makes sense at a certain moment in American Jewish history, it might not be the way JTS would be designed today. So I’m curious how you think about those two things.

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
Yes, to me, it makes perfect sense. I probably wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think so, because it reflects the richness of Jewish life. It is an academic institution, but it’s a Jewish academic institution. So do we care about scholarship? Of course. Do we adhere to rigorous standards of analysis, of texts, of study of sources, et cetera, of course, but we do that in a Jewish setting. We do that because it matters. It matters deeply to us, for the Jewish people. So while the same course will be taught at Columbia or NYU, it’s different when it’s taught here because it matters. It matters to all the faculty and it matters to our students. And that is important. And frankly, given the trajectory of Jewish studies on college campuses in the past dozen years, it’s becoming more important. Ironically, the scientific study of Judaism began in rabbinic seminaries only because –
Yehuda Kurtzer:
Who else was going to do it.

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
The scholars couldn’t get jobs in German universities and they bemoaned that and felt, oh, if only we could be out there in the world. And the heyday of Jewish studies in the United States really was the fulfillment of what they dreamed. But actually, I think they had the right idea and thank goodness an institution like JTS, didn’t say, oh, we’re just going to be a rabbinical school. We don’t need to do this any more because now you have it out there and you don’t need it here. No, you do need it. And you need it more than ever. You need a place where you have what I described before that kind of integrated study, not only for intellectual truth, but for religious truth as well, within a living institution and yeah, having a library with the thousands and thousands of treasures that we have from our people, from all different kinds of Jewish communities and different eras, yes. It symbolizes the importance of our heritage, our library symbolizes that. And the other things that we do, it’s like, because we’re not studying just for study’s sake, mevi l’yidei ma’aseha. So yes, we have a center for ethics and social justice and inter-religious understanding. Finkelstein did that already in the thirties. This is not new. It shows the richness of what we do. And I am excited with our gorgeous new campus to be able to expand that even further, particularly in the area of the arts, which we now have the capability of doing, which we’ve not been able to do for many decades.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
And liabilities?

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
The liabilities are that we have to make sure we can do all of them excellently. And yeah, there are institutions, they do one slice of what we do excellently. And so that’s on us. We’re modeling an integrative model that you can’t just do this or just do that. You need to do it all, but it’s hard. It’s hard and it’s expensive to do it all excellently and that’s on us.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Okay. So last question. This is hopefully a gift of a question. You mentioned the new campus. I think that’s one of the gems that you’re inheriting is the hopefully speedy conclusion of the construction process. What’s the thing that you’re most excited to open the campus up to the world for, what’s the event that you’re just visualizing in your head, maybe it’s in 2022, whenever it is, what’s the event that you’re going to open the doors and feel like this is JTS opening to the world to be the place that it’s meant to be.

Shuly Rubin Schwartz:
Well, because we are not only one thing. My dream is a series of events that will open JTS up, JTS in all of its fullness, to all of the many different kinds of people who can’t wait for this to happen. Whether it’s the library enthusiasts, or obviously our alumni, whether it’s rabbis who want to bring their congregants here, whether it’s the Morningside Heights, Harlem community that are eager to be with us in our space. You know, there are many different constituents and next spring, we hope to have events that will enable us to do all of them. One of the events I will confess I’m most excited about is that I was never inaugurated. So we will have an inauguration. I’m someone who has taught Shechter’s inaugural address more times than I can remember. So that will certainly be one of the highlights. Hopefully not only for me.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Amazing. Well, I hope that’ll happen speedily and with all of the regalia that it deserves. Well, thank you all for listening to our show this week and special thanks to my guest, Chancellor, Shuly Rubin Schwartz of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Alex Dillon, with assistance from Miri Miller and music provided by so-called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after the episode airs. To find them and learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute. You can visit us online at shalomhartman.org. We also really want to know what you think about the show. You can rate and review the show on iTunes to help more people find it. And you can write to us at [email protected] You can subscribe to our show in the Apple podcast app, Spotify, SoundCloud, Audible, and everywhere else podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week. And thanks for listening.