Conservative Judaism faces many challenges, but Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary, is optimistic that it will remain strong.
Eisen will discuss the relevance of Judaism in the 21st century and the future of the Conservative movement when he speaks at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 1, at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike. The Rabbi Rudolph M. Rosenthal Memorial Lecture is titled “Conservative Judaism: Old Truths and New Responses.”
“Conservative Judaism is vibrant because it has changed so effectively over the years,” Eisen said in a telephone interview from his office in New York. “We didn’t sit still; we are a dynamic movement.”
Eisen, 62, said American society as a whole is going through a period of rapid change.
“The symbol of this change, and the cause of part of it, is the Smartphone that will be in my pocket when I give my talk,” he said. “The number of options all of us have for how to spend our time and resources has multiplied a thousand fold.
“Every Jewish organization and institution has to persuade people to join them constantly, and Conservative Judaism is no exception. Jews are not alone in this. It affects every group in America, but Conservative Judaism rather dramatically.
“How do we persuade people to do this? What are we giving them that they can’t find elsewhere? Some of these things used to be taken for granted.”
Eisen was raised as a Conservative Jew in Philadelphia.
“It was expected that I would be a Conservative Jew as an adult,” he said. “But that linkage is not there. Just because you’re raised as something doesn’t mean you’re going to be that something.”
Eisen has been chancellor of JTS, an academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism, since 2007. He is only the second non-rabbi to hold this post and the first chancellor with a social science background.
“Every day at JTS, we train the leadership that is going to make a difference in American Jewish life in the next generation,” he said. “We supply the learning; we put out a vision of what Jewish life can be. The three key ingredients are leadership, learning and vision. That’s JTS’s role in shaping the future – not just of Conservative Judaism, but also Judaism as a whole.”
Eisen said his greatest source of optimism for the future of the Conservative movement is “the number and quality of young people who are choosing to lead this community.”
“They are dedicating their lives to leading and serving the Jewish community,” he said. “When you get people of this quality, dedication, idealism and intelligence who are giving their lives to this, you cannot be pessimistic about the future. That’s why JTS is such a source of optimism, because we are full of hundreds of these future leaders.”
In addition to his talk at B’nai Jeshurun, Eisen plans to meet with leaders of the Cleveland Jewish community about recent trends in American Jewish life in downtown Cleveland.
“Cleveland is justly proud of being a preeminent Jewish community in the United States,” he said. “It has truly nationally important lay leadership and professional leadership, and JTS is looking forward to working with the Cleveland community – inside Conservative Judaism and outside of it – any way we can to keep this community strong.”
Before coming to JTS, Eisen was a professor of Jewish culture and religion for 20 years at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. He also taught at Tel Aviv University in Israel and Columbia University in New York.
Eisen earned a doctorate in the history of Jewish thought from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and bachelor’s degrees from the University of Oxford in Oxford, England, and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His book, “Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community,” won the Koret Jewish Book Award in 1999.
Eisen and his wife, Adriane Leveen, have two children.
WHO: Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary
WHAT: The Rudolph M. Rosenthal Memorial Lecture
WHEN: Tuesday, April 1, at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: B’nai Jeshurun Congregation, 27501 Fairmount Blvd., Pepper Pike
COST: Free and open to the public
INFO: A private dinner and the lecture are subsidized by the Rabbi Rudolph M. Rosenthal Memorial Lecture Fund. Call 216-831-6555.