By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
When institutions make new leadership choices, what criteria drive their selections? A set of significant structural and policy issues confront educational institutions today. This is especially the case for our Jewish seminaries. The decline of support for organized religion, the changing roles of clergy, and the presence of new competitors represent three of these primary institutional challenges. Seminaries such as JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary), HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) and the AJU (American Jewish University) face additional tests, as they also must demonstrate their academic credibility in a competitive marketplace where other centers of Jewish learning also operate and compete with them for essential resources.
The preparation of their graduates adds another important and essential dimension to their denominational mandate. What skills will 21st century clergy, Jewish educators, and communal professionals require if they are to effectively lead synagogues, schools and civic Jewish institutions in a changing and uncertain environment? These and other educational challenges face these religious establishment institutions.
In addition, these anchor institutions of the Reform and Conservative Movements are competing for dollars to manage their annual operational budgets, just as they are seeking to grow their endowment funds and to cover increased expenses in connection with infrastructure costs. In acknowledging these competitive educational and structural realities, it would seem appropriate that each of these centers of Jewish learning has decided to shift their leadership model to reflect these new operational realities. The selection of Arnold Eisen (JTS) in 2006, Jeffrey Herbst (AJU), earlier this year, and now Andrew Rehfeld (HUC-JIR) offer some interesting insights into the changing character and direction of the seminary world. All are accomplished academics, with both Herbst and Rehfeld possessing significant institutional leadership portfolios prior to their selection as the institutional leaders of these major Jewish educational bodies. Interestingly, both of these gentlemen are accomplished political scientists. Herbst was previously the President of Colgate University and more recently the President and CEO of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Since 2012, Andrew Rehfeld served as President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, following a distinguished career on the faculty at Washington University. From 1986 until his appointment to the JTS Chancellor’s position, Arnie Eisen served on the faculty at Stanford University. Prior to his current appointment, he was the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.
While none of these three seminary leaders are graduates of the institutions that they serve, or will serve, each of them holds significant and essential ties to the religious movements that are represented by their respective schools. In hiring non-rabbis and academic/administrators who have no longstanding institutional ties or pre-existing loyalties to these particular seminaries, these leaders are not bound by their personal histories to preserve structures or retain programs that over time may prove costly or ineffective. The advantage here is potentially significant in permitting these leaders to promote structural and institutional change.
Unlike the leadership of Yeshiva University, the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College or Hebrew College, each of their respective presidents, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman (2017), Rabbi Dr. Deborah Waxman (2014) and Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld (2018) retain longstanding ties to the institutions that they have been asked to lead. It should be noted that Rabbi Anisfeld received her ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College, while Rabbi Berman had spent the previous eight years in Israel earning a doctorate in Jewish thought at Hebrew University and serving as the head of the Jewish Heritage Center in Jerusalem. Rabbi Waxman represents the first woman to head both a rabbinic seminary and a denominational movement.
Indeed, this is not the first time that the seminary world has moved in this direction. With reference to YU, Richard Joel’s tenure as that institution’s president (2003-2017) may have marked the first contemporary iteration of this non-rabbinic model. Unlike its sister seminaries, JTS has experimented with a non-rabbinic leadership model earlier in its history. Cyrus Adler, a serious and accomplished scholar, would serve as Chancellor of JTS from 1915-1940. He would be instrumental in spearheading an important reorganization of that institution. In addition, Adler also served as president of the United Synagogue of America and would be involved in the founding of the Jewish Publication Society of America and the American Jewish Committee.
Indeed, as we have seen elsewhere in the Jewish world, there is a growing sentiment on the part of well-established organizations to go outside traditional boundaries to engage professionals with different sets of experiences and expertise to head many of the major American Jewish institutions.
The leadership choices being made both by our major seminaries and mainline organizations mark an interesting and important new direction for our community and its legacy institutions.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.