The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University was created to develop a new model of rabbinic education, suitable to meeting the challenges and opportunities facing the Conservative rabbinate and American Jewry. Toward that end, it is worth reflecting on the position of American Jewry – where it has come from and where it is heading – and on the profile of a Conservative rabbi equipped and capable of meeting those challenges.
Jews came to America, by and large, to seek economic prosperity and social security. Those Jews who did immigrate tended to be among the least educated, both in traditional Jewish sources and in Western academic training, and often were among the poorest of the new immigrants. As such, the earliest Jewish agenda was one of ethnic solidarity and social opportunity. Organizations such as the federations, congresses, committees, leagues and agencies were designed to fight for Jewish opportunity in the broader economy and culture. Synagogues and schools of higher Jewish learning were to articulate ways of integrating American culture and values with Jewish religious structures and commitments, and to offer havens for Jewish social and ethnic expression, among them, some measure of religious ritual and education. With the rise of Zionism, support for Zionism and (later) for the State of Israel also provided a key agenda item for these Jewish organizations – both the agency/federation cluster and the synagogue/seminaries constellation.
Ours is an age challenged by our own success. With the establishment of the State of Israel, and its vibrant history of over a half-century, and the prosperity and professionalization of American Jewry, much of the original impetus for the federations and agencies no longer seems quite so clear, nor so capable of summoning widespread Jewish passion (let alone forming the cornerstone of Jewish identity). The understanding of the synagogue as the place that Americanized Judaism has also shifted. The task, then, of energizing American Jewish life, has returned to its proper agenda – serving the Jewish people in the advancement of our covenant with God. Agencies, Federations, and synagogues are all united in common cause behind this emerging agenda.
And the needs of contemporary Jews – their spiritual seeking, their desire to take on rituals abandoned by their parents, their interest in a Judaism less formal and more text-grounded than the one they have inherited – have also changed. Those changes offer rabbis an opportunity to elevate the quality and profundity of American Jewish life. But to do so, we need a special breed of rabbis. Our rabbis must be simultaneously at home in the world of Western culture and thought, scientific findings and method, Jewish texts and observance. Like the Jews they will serve, they too must thirst for God, for covenant, and for mitzvot. Like the Jews they will serve, they must be rooted in contemporary culture and a healthy respect for individualism and idiosyncrasy. But unlike the Jews they will serve, they must insist on a new synthesis – authentic to the Judaism we have inherited, yet open to new insights and perspectives. Our rabbis cannot live in a world in which their Jewish faith is hermetically sealed off from the academy, from new perspectives and new information. Our rabbis must embody a faith that is confident and unafraid, one that trusts that an authentic encounter between Judaism and contemporary values and thought will be mutually enriching, mutually transformative, and will – at the same time – vindicate the core beliefs and practices of Judaism across the ages.
It is to produce precisely such rabbis that the Ziegler School was created.