On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

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Lights Against the Darkness

The news about the school shootings in Connecticut reached me just before Shabbat, the seventh day of Hanukkah. Candle-lighting seemed more needed than usual that evening. It must have meant a lot to our ancestors, who lived in darkness so much more than we do, to have light in their homes eight nights in a row. If money was scarce, they might not have spent it on oil and wicks had they not been commanded to do so. We moderns feel the need for light keenly when a tragedy like the one at the Newtown school plunges our spirits into darkness. I think we are commanded in its wake to do the equivalent of lighting candles, even if the cost is great. We need to think together, as we grieve together, about what that means.

Rituals like Hanukkah are wonderfully simple in their directives. That’s the beauty of ritual. Say the prayers, light the candles, put them in the window, and you’re done. We treasure ritual in part because we have the chance to get it right—unlike life, which is so complex that we sometimes feel hopeless about the chance of getting anything right. Can we figure out how to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who cannot be trusted to use them properly? Can we get troubled minds and souls the care they need? Can we cure ourselves—especially, it seems, our young men—of the violent streak that, according to the Torah, is as old as humanity itself? Questions are many, and it’s difficult to sort through the answers proposed.

It’s clear to me that we can’t protect ourselves and our children from every danger and expect them to grow into independent adults. It is also clear, however, that we must do something—obligation is heavy in the face of murdered children—and are prohibited from throwing up our hands in the face of the task’s enormity. Moses, facing his own imminent death, tells the Israelites that he has set before them life and death, blessing and curse, good and evil—and commands them to choose life. I believe that Moses knew that such choices are often the very opposite of simple—and yet his Torah commands us to make them, and Jews have struggled to do so for many centuries.

Ours is a tradition that has always prized life, valued every single life, taught that if we save a single life it is as if we save the whole world. We need to figure out, as individuals and communities, how to do so in each individual circumstance. We will not find definitive answers to tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, much less to the profound questions of morality, social policy, and even theology (“where was God?!”) that it provokes. But we know too, as truly as we know anything, that saving one soul makes infinite difference.

I offer three suggestions—three imperatives for communal and social policy—that seem to me to emerge from the Torah.

First, let us redouble our efforts to perform the two actions at the very heart of our tradition: building strong face-to-face communities and filling them with Meaning to live by. Community has the ability to hold us tight in the face of suffering. It overcomes the isolation that is often one of the ingredients that leads to violence. Meaning with a capital M sustains us when heartache seems too great to bear. It has proven capacity to ward off despair. We should extend these gifts to one another without stint in coming weeks. There is no better way to heal broken souls than to gather them together in bonds of solidarity and reach out to them with ageless Truth and wisdom. Let’s offer testimony in word and deed that one choose good, choose blessing, choose life.

Second, let’s do the hard work on social policy that will allow us to figure out how to take guns—and especially assault weapons—from those who should not have them. I believe, along with President Obama and many individuals from across the country and the political spectrum,  that we as a society can find a way to respect the proper use and possession of firearms for hunting and defense and still make it harder for individuals with a history of violence or mental illness to get hold of them. Jewish tradition requires us to secure the conditions that allow for proper functioning of society, and the American Constitution too orders us to “provide for the common defence and promote the general Welfare.” Weapons laws should not remain a matter of right vs. left, urban vs. rural, Republican vs. Democrat. Honest national conversation on this matter at this time stands a good chance of leading to an outcome that saves lives.

Third, let’s provide treatment for those whose vulnerability in mind or soul makes them more prone to violence. I know that our understanding of mental illness is woefully incomplete. I recognize that our resources are too few to care for everyone who needs medical care for body, mind, or soul. I certainly do not mean to imply that every violent crime results from illness or neglect. Our sages teach that there is evil in the world that we need to punish and from which we need to protect ourselves. They also instruct us that the matter is not simple. That said, it does seem that in case after tragic case in America of late, signs of severe disturbance have been ignored and cries for help have been ignored.

I don’t think that the Torah has an answer to the question of “where God was” at that school that day in Connecticut. But it does suggest directions for human answers to such tragedies, and commands us to work at finding and implementing them the best we can. Action of this sort is its own comfort at moments like this one. We owe it to the kids who perished and to those who are back at school.

Chancellor Arnold Eisen Reports from Jerusalem: A Week in Israel at War

At Eshel Avraham in Beersheba (left to right): Dr. Ehud Zmora, Dr. Irit Zmora, Rabbi Mauricio Balter, Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Yizhar Hess, and Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary

I am leaving Israel for America in a few hours, along with JTS Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary. We have spent the day visiting Masorti communities around the country, including Masorti Congregation Eshel Avraham in  Beersheba, capping a week that for me included the usual round of JTS meetings and time with old friends, but now against the background of Israel at war. I feel relief to be heading home later this evening, but also strong regret at no longer being a direct part of what is happening to my people in the Land of Israel at a time of trouble. I am full of admiration for the discipline, confidence, and good spirit with which Israelis are handling the latest matsav to come their way. Marc and I have not encountered much jingoism or bluster this week, just recognition that missiles must be stopped from raining down on Israel, and pervasive sadness that the suffering and casualties are mounting on both sides. When will it end? The news today is about continued exchanges of both fire and negotiators. Hillary Clinton is on her way to the region. It might be that on this, the seventh day of the current conflict, Hamas will agree to cease from the work of destruction and permit an interval of rest. Like many Israelis, I am hopeful. But like all we have met, I do not count on it.

On the drive to  Beersheba, we get instructions from our Eshel Avraham host, Rabbi Mauricio Balter, president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, about what to do in the event of an air-raid siren. Park the car, and run to the nearest structure to take cover. If on the open road, lay flat on the ground with hands over head to protect from shrapnel. We get to  Beersheba not long after a missile had penetrated the Iron Dome, mercifully with no loss of life. We would learn a couple of hours later that another rocket had landed not long after our departure.

The news on the car radio features interruptions every few moments announcing where in Israel the sirens are sounding. One announcer reminds us to follow instructions, and assures us that with God’s help all will be well. Even sober newscasters, reporting missiles that fail to injure life or limb, add the words todah la-el (thank God). This is Israel at a moment when the normal boundaries between dati and hiloni are meaningless. Schools have been closed in  Beersheba all week. Stores are closed. The streets are eerily empty of pedestrians, there is almost no traffic, and inside shuttered homes parents are comforting children and one another, making sure TV or radio are playing loud enough to keep track of what is going on elsewhere in Israel—but not so loud as to muffle the sirens. Sixty seconds only to reach a safe room. Mauricio himself had a narrow escape several days ago, crouching under cover of a truck as the rocket soared straight overhead. It’s a serious time for the people of Israel.

Respite at Eshel Avraham

Marc and I made this trip to be with Mauricio, to stand with him physically, so he would not doubt the fact that Israeli Jews do not stand alone. The hug he gave me—and I gave him—carried more than the usual message. He thanked us for being there. I thanked him for being there, and not just for a visit. Two American Jews, accompanied by the head of the Masorti Movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, reinforced the conviction among the members of Mauricio’s family and his congregation that there really is a Jewish People out there and a Conservative Movement that cares for them. One by one, they tell us the stories of being under fire, having children and grandchildren under fire, comforting teenagers who seem to be taking things especially hard. A bar mitzvah is cancelled because of the matsav. A mourner is denied a shi’vah minyan. A vibrant synagogue that normally teems with life is empty. It was not a time for speeches, but for presence. Marc and I were proud to bring the JTS family with us to the Eshel Avraham family. Later, we went with Mauricio and two members of his congregation to a hotline-shelter in which they are volunteering—a center that is getting far more calls than usual, most of them the direct result of the conflict. Post-traumatic stress. Difficulty coping with kids who cannot leave the house for a week. There, too, we did not give speeches, but simply thanked the staff, composed largely of volunteers, for their hard work. They thanked us for coming. At normal times the exchange would count as pleasantries. Not this time.

In Kfar Saba, our next stop, the street outside the Masorti congregation of Hod Ve-Hadar is bustling. Kids boarding busses from school. Stores open. Not quite normal, since everyone has family in a place of danger. Sirens again today in Jerusalem and no doubt soon in Tel Aviv. But not the same as in the south. Two weeks ago, there were two Manhattans, north and south, and now there seem to be two Israels, north and south. I finish this letter at Kibbutz Hannaton in the Galilee, where the quiet at sunset is truly remarkable. “Desert to mountains in one day,” says Yizhar. War zone to quasi-normality. Except that the radio and TV take one live to the front. It is a small country. I get the sense that Israelis are hopeful something will soon change in the rhythm of the conflict, but they don’t know what, and are not really sure what to hope for.It has been quite a week. Here is a brief day-to-day account:

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Leadership

24 Sivan 5772
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen

Children of Israel have not always been kind to their leaders. In last week’s parashah, Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’s marriage and his unique relationship to God. This week, we read about the gloom-and-doom report of the spies that thwarts the plans laid by God and Moses for conquest of the Promised Land. Worst of all, perhaps, is the full-scale rebellion fomented thereafter by Moses’s cousin, Korah, and 250 of the tribal princes. “You have over-reached,” Korah tells Moses. “All the people are holy.” God has to intervene in every case—and in other cases too—to establish authority and restore order. Such tales are immediately recognizable to leaders of any sort in any age among any people. The Torah’s first lesson to prospective leaders seems to be that popularity and leadership rarely go hand in hand.

I’ve had numerous occasions to reflect on leadership in the past few weeks. The Commencement at The Jewish Theological Seminary sent 103 future lay and professional leaders out into the world bearing talent, idealism, and heartfelt hopes for their success. Several of the women recently ordained as rabbis by JTS have shared their concerns in this blog space about unequal working conditions, respect, and prospects. I have held dialogues about leadership with the governor of Michigan and the mayor of Chicago. Hebrew Union College President David Ellenson and I spent a moving evening in conversation with fourth-year rabbinical students from our two schools that have studied and acquired professional skills together over the past three years, thanks to a grant from the Schusterman Foundation. And, of course, I got to visit the White House on May 29 to speak with a president under siege from many quarters, including Jewish quarters. I thought of Bemidbar (In the Wilderness) and Moses at that moment—and wondered if the President did too.

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At the White House

9 Sivan 5772
Chancellor Arnold Eisen at the White House

Chancellor Arnold Eisen at the White House

 

Today, I had the honor of sitting across the table from the President of the United States in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. President Barack Obama and his Chief of Staff, Jacob Lew, wanted to meet with Conservative Jewish leaders from around the country. Our group—which numbered about 20—wanted to hear them speak directly, and perhaps more candidly than is the case in public, about key issues on our minds.

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Let’s Talk About Women Rabbis

1 Sivan 5772

 

I asked two of the women being ordained by The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary this year to reflect on their hopes and aspirations for—and anxieties about—their new careers in the rabbinate, and on how all of their goals and emotions are affected, in their view, by being women in a field still dominated by men. The reply immediately below is from Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky (RS ’12), who will be serving this coming year as chaplain resident at the VA New York Harbor Health System and completing a CPE residency.

Arnie Eisen

 

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Making Torah Relevant to Millennials: Rabbis and 21st-Century Communications

17 Iyyar 5772

It’s always a pleasure for me—the JTS chancellor who is not a rabbi—to spend time with members of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), kindred spirits to me on the path of Torah. A lot of good people doing dedicated, imaginative, and often successful work. Lively conversation partners. Spirited daveners. My pleasure at their company was enhanced at this year’s RA convention in Atlanta—from which I make this post—by the rollout of a new continuing education seminar, “Making Torah Relevant to “NextGen”: You’re the App for That!,” offered jointly by the RA and The Jewish Theological Seminary, coordinated on our behalf by Rabbi Hayim Herring, with Jane Shapiro as lead educator. The subject is one that is uppermost on the minds of many rabbis, whether they serve in congregations, schools, camps, organizations, campus Hillels, or military chaplaincy. I too think about it a lot:

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What Israel Means to Us

/ 3 Iyyar 5772
“Turning the World Upside Down,” by Anish Kapoor, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

“Turning the World Upside Down,” by Anish Kapoor, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

For my Yom Ha’atzma’ut blog, I have invited Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, alumnus of The Rabbinical School and The Davidson School, to engage me in conversation on what Israel means to us. Before coming to JTS, Charlie, a U.S. citizen, voluntarily served with distinction in an infantry unit of the Israel Defense Forces (2003 to 2005). He is currently our director of Digital Engagement and Learning.

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The Magic of Jewish Summer Camp

/ 25 Adar 5772


Amy Skopp Cooper, national assistant director of the National Ramah Commission of JTS, director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, New York, and 2011 winner of the prestigious Covenant Award, on the joy, power, and community of serious Jewish camping.
I spoke last week at the Leaders Assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp on a panel, hosted by the Jim Joseph Foundation, with President Richard Joel of Yeshiva University and President David Ellenson of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We were there to celebrate the enormous achievements of serious Jewish camping in North America in recent decades, to thank donors such as the Jim Joseph Foundation who have greatly assisted in that achievement, and to reflect upon the still-greater possibilities to be tapped in years to come. I share the gist of my presentation to the Foundation for Jewish Camp here. Read the rest of this entry »

Israel in Winter

/ 13 Adar 5772

A friend wondered aloud, as we sat in a Jerusalem restaurant on a mild winter day in mid-February, why it is that books continue to be written, and reviewed in Ha’aretz, asking whether Israel has a future.

“Is there any other country in the world where this could happen?” she said.

None came to mind. Nations routinely worry about all sorts of things: political divisions, economic stagnation, ethnic conflict, and the like. Few, even if they were born more recently than the Jewish State, seem plagued by anxiety about their very survival. Read the rest of this entry »

Rabbinic Training Institute 2012

Prayer and Learning in the JTS Courtyard

Prayer and Learning in the JTS Courtyard

/ 24 Tevet 5772

I spent much of last week in the company of about 70 Conservative rabbis—participants in the annual workshop sponsored by JTS that is known informally as “rabbi camp” and formally as RTI, the Rabbinic Training Institute. The schedule includes text classes in the morning offered by faculty from JTS and other institutions (I co-taught a course with Rabbi Gordon Tucker on the nature and authority of mitzvah and halakhah). In the afternoons there are professional skills workshops offered by experts in the relevant fields (e.g., psychology or management). Read the rest of this entry »