Shuly Rubin Schwartz, JTS’ first female chancellor, inaugurated in deferred ceremony

Schwartz took the helm of JTS nearly two years ago. But her accession to the position wasn’t formally celebrated until yesterday due to the pandemic.

A festive mood pervaded the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism yesterday as it formally inaugurated its new leader in a renovated building. Shuly Rubin Schwartz was inaugurated as the first female chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary at a ceremony full of pomp and circumstance in the Manhattan school’s skylit, 7,000-square-foot atrium. 

Schwartz took the helm of JTS nearly two years ago. But her accession to the position wasn’t formally celebrated until yesterday due to the pandemic, and now it coincides with the seminary’s celebration of its construction overhaul, which began five years ago and cost tens of millions of dollars.

“I began simply because the calendar turned to July 1,” Schwartz told the audience, drawing laughter. “I was still sitting in my second bedroom on the same Zoom, probably with the same pair of pants. Maybe I changed my shirt.” 

Speakers at the event — from Schwartz to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to New York City Comptroller Brad Lander — alluded to the reality that all is still not well in 2022. The afternoon included no shortage of praise for JTS’ history, and Schwartz mentioned the 2021 Pew Research Center study of American Jews, but did not say that the study showed a steep decline in the number of Jewish Americans who identify as Conservative. 

Speakers also referenced domestic political conflicts, antisemitism, the recent mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., and controversy over Israel and Zionism. Lander, a fixture in local Jewish progressive circles, drew murmurs from the crowd of more than 100 when he called for non-Zionists to be included in the Jewish community’s broad tent. (Schumer’s remarks, delivered by video, were briefer, and he played to the crowd — wishing Schwartz “hatzlacha,” Hebrew for “success.”)

“There are some areas where we still have a lot of work to do, and obviously Israel-Palestine in so many ways is the hardest of those,” said Lander, who added that he believes in “the vision of a Jewish and democratic state.” 

“Jews who don’t consider themselves Zionists,” he said, “and who love our people but whose passion for human rights and freedom takes them to a different place… Those are folks that need to be inside the boundaries of our community.”

But little could disrupt the good feeling in the crowd; Lander got a hearty ovation, and the rest of the program celebrated Schwartz, a scholar of American Jewish history who has previously served as JTS’ provost and as dean of the school’s List College, a dual-degree undergraduate program. The event concluded with a reception in the school’s new courtyard with lemon squares and cookies. 

In her address, Schwartz called for a “vigorous exchange of ideas” and for people to “appreciate life’s complexity,” as well as for JTS to make its resources and classes accessible to a wider range of people. Echoing Conservative Judaism’s historical place as a middle ground between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, she said JTS should prioritize intellectual, religious and emotional nuance. 

“That is our task as a people and as an institution: to educate ourselves and others, to probe our tradition for new meaning that will engage our minds and our souls, to provide nourishment that will give us hope in a promising future, to cultivate nuance and mature insight,” she said. “And most of all, to educate the next generation of Jewish leaders who will carry on this tradition for generations to come.”