A New Vision for JTS
a letter from Arnold M. Eisen, Chancellor, JTS:
Dear JTS Students, Faculty, and Staff,
We at The Jewish Theological Seminary have spent much of the past eighteen months thinking about the future and reassessing our goals. It is clear that the present moment offers many challenges to both their planning and achievement. We are convinced, however, that it also offers unprecedented opportunities. I write to you today to share highlights of the exciting vision that we will be pursuing in the coming years.
We begin with the conviction that now, as at previous turning points in the life of North American Jewry over the past century, the keys to success in meeting challenge and seizing hold of opportunity are learning, leadership, and vision. An in-depth, clear, and nuanced understanding of the Jewish past, combined with a firm grasp of present-day dilemmas and complexities, can equip Jewish leaders to shape a future for Jews and Judaism that is both vital and authentic. We must chart a way of learning and living Torah in our generation that is at once deeply grounded in the experience and wisdom of our ancestors and thoroughly responsive to contemporary needs and sensibilities.
To that end, we have developed a new JTS mission that defines our purpose and sets our future direction. We have thought carefully about the principles under which JTS will operate, and have made sure that the innovation introduced carries forward JTS’s historic legacy of learning and service. For over a century, JTS has provided Conservative Judaism and the vital religious center of North American Jewry with a vision of what Judaism has been and can be, and trained leaders to guide their communities in pursuit of that vision. We shall continue and expand this role – and shall likewise redouble our efforts to reach the entire Jewish community and the world beyond – with the age-old teachings and wisdom of our tradition, brought to bear on contemporary dilemmas and concerns.
JTS has always sought to conserve Judaism faithfully by changing it faithfully. This task must be carried out today as well – carefully but resolutely, lovingly but boldly. The new mission statement – and the changes in policy and program that flow from it – are all directed to that end.
Our New Mission Statement
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America is a preeminent institution of Jewish higher education that integrates rigorous academic scholarship and teaching with a commitment to strengthening Jewish tradition, Jewish lives, and Jewish communities.
JTS articulates a vision of Judaism that is learned and passionate, pluralist and authentic, traditional and egalitarian; one that is thoroughly grounded in Jewish texts, history, and practices, and fully engaged with the societies and cultures of the present. Our vision joins faith with inquiry; the covenant of our ancestors with the creative insights of today; intense involvement in the society and State of Israel with devotion to the flowering of Judaism throughout the world; service to the Jewish community, as well as to all of the communities of which Jews are a part: our society, our country, and our world.
JTS serves North American Jewry by educating intellectual and spiritual leaders for Conservative Judaism and the vital religious center, training rabbis, cantors, scholars, educators, communal professionals, and lay activists who are inspired by our vision of Torah and dedicated to assisting in its realization.
Six Programmatic Principles Will Guide Our Efforts
All six ideas build upon and carry forward directions and principles that have long been critical to JTS, while adapting them to new opportunities and challenges.
- Scholarship in Service to Judaism and the Jewish Community. JTS will shape its programs and reorganize its operations with the primary goal of educating clergy, educators, scholars, and other leaders who can empower their communities in accordance with the vision of the Jewish past and future that JTS will continue to articulate. We shall bring the learning gathered in our unique collection of faculty, students, and programs to bear on the most pressing issues, dilemmas, and needs of the Jewish community of North America, and shall seek to attract faculty and students drawn to JTS because they share JTS’s commitment to that goal and want to be part of its achievement.
- Excellence in Teaching and Learning. JTS’s mission requires first-rate, cutting-edge research and teaching. Nuanced understanding of the past is essential to worthwhile thinking about the future. JTS will maintain its traditional commitment to excellence in Jewish learning. It will continue to accentuate the study of Jewish texts in three critical dimensions: their original languages and settings, the history of their reception and interpretation, and their continuing relevance and importance for the Jewish people and the world. Departmental structure and degree programs will be modified (indeed this process, as noted, has already begun) to accord with recent interdisciplinary trends in scholarship and in response to communal needs best served by innovative, interdisciplinary learning. JTS will explicitly promote the application of its learning for the growth of Jewish tradition and the Jewish community, but there shall be no compromise in the scholarly rigor and intellectual integrity for which JTS has been and remains justly renowned.
- Synergy. JTS will take full advantage of the potential afforded by the diversity of programs, schools, faculty, and students present under one roof at 3080 Broadway, in particular the combination of advanced Jewish studies and the training of religious and educational leaders. The design of new programs that bring students and faculty from various schools together for shared learning will be a major feature of JTS. All of our students and schools will be inspired by the interaction with one another, as well as with our current and new partners outside 3080 that look to JTS for intellectual and spiritual leadership.
- Partnerships. JTS will exploit to the fullest the opportunities arising out of distinctive assets such as its location in New York City, not least the partnerships available with nearby institutions such as Columbia University, The Jewish Museum, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Manhattan School of Music, Teachers College, Bank Street College, and Union Theological Seminary. Such partnerships will bring new students, faculty, and ideas to JTS; they will also enrich programs such as the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of JTS, a major vehicle through which we fulfill our core mission of developing and articulating, for multiple audiences and in multiple ways, a vision of what Judaism has been, is now, and can be in the future.
- Reaching New Types of Students. JTS justly enjoys an outstanding reputation for excellence in the transmission of Jewish learning to future educational and religious leaders, clergy and educators at various stages in their careers, and lay audiences throughout the United States and Canada. We shall develop and implement a broad array of adult learning opportunities to be offered primarily at the JTS campus and at other locations in the New York metropolitan area. These opportunities will include degree and certificate programs, and programs of continuing professional education. We shall also expand our role in providing continuing education to Jewish religious and educational leaders throughout North America by way of our executive education programs, combining full or part-time classes at 3080 with distance learning that reaches students via the latest Internet technologies.
- Engaging and Strengthening Conservative Judaism and the Religious Center. JTS will preserve and enhance its historic ties to Conservative Judaism and its component institutions, while continuing to reach out to the vital, capacious religious center of North American Jewry. This role includes but is not limited to the training of rabbis and cantors for Conservative synagogues; provision of curriculum and teacher-training for Ramah camps, Schechter and community day schools, and Conservative congregational schools; and contributing bold new thinking about Judaism (and needed expertise to put that thinking into practice) to Conservative institutions. In short, we shall reaffirm JTS’s role as the primary religious, spiritual, and leadership fountainhead of Conservative Judaism and the vital religious center of North American Jewry and one of the primary sites for cutting-edge conversation about Judaism and the Jewish community more generally.
Many of the changes that reflect the new JTS mission and programmatic policies have already been implemented:
- Thanks to the Revson Foundation, we have developed and launched the Center for Pastoral Education at JTS, teaching our students – Jewish and non-Jewish – as well as rabbis and ordained clergy of all faiths, the art of pastoral care.
- The Booth Ferris Foundation has provided critical matching funds to the Revson Foundation’s grant for the Center for Pastoral Education at JTS.
- We have also received support from the Jim Joseph Foundation for scholarships for students of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and for planning a series of innovative projects.
- From the Covenant Foundation, also to The Davidson School, we have received support for the development, implementation, and evaluation of twenty-first century curricula for congregational schools.
- The Tikvah Fund has endowed the Tikvah Institute for Jewish Thought, which devotes itself to a searching intellectual encounter between the best sources of Jewish and broader Western reflection on the deepest problems of human life.
- From UJA-Federation of New York, JTS and HUC have received full funding for the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators, a joint program that is designed to enhance the leadership skills of congregational school professionals.
- With support from AVI CHAI, JTS established the Day School Leadership Training Institute, which addresses the demand for exemplary leadership in the expanding day school movement, and the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project to help schools adopt a standard of excellence for teaching Bible.
- And from the members of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies Advisory Board, Seinfeld Foundation, and List College alumni, we have obtained funding for the List College Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship Program, which provides training and support to List College students who wish to tackle major social issues and offer new ideas for wide-scale change.
This is only a sample of recent foundation support that we have received.
In an effort to demonstrate the deep connections between Judaism and the arts, and to involve the entire JTS community, we have also instituted Artist-in-Residence and Theater Artist-in-Residence programs. We have expanded our presence on the Internet using cutting-edge technology, offering not simply distance learning and our beautifully written weekly Torah commentaries, but free lecture podcasts by JTS’s world-renowned faculty and a multitude of resources to our website visitors. JTS is also well represented in the various social media so popular among students, academic and business institutions, and the general public.
And this is just the beginning. There will be more news to share as we move into the fall semester – exhilarating news that will vibrate through the halls of 3080 Broadway and well beyond our walls. You will be pleased, and Judaism and the Jewish people will be served, as JTS makes its way into the heart of the twenty-first century.
Let me be the first to invite you to join us for the adventure – and most especially to participate in our 116th Commencement Exercises on May 17, where I will personally discuss in greater detail JTS’s new mission and the direction we will be taking in the years ahead. If you will not be attending the ceremonies, for the first time in JTS history you will be able to join us virtually via a simultaneous live broadcast on the JTS website. Please visit our homepage at www.jtsa.edu for links to the live Commencement webcast. The ceremonies begin at 10:00 a.m. Eastern time.
Arnold M. Eisen