On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Joining the Conversation of Torah” From Gary S. Katz

As a leader of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Chancellor Eisen speaks from a fantastic perspective about the Conservative movement. His essay provides a blueprint for how we as Conservative Jews should be participatory learners, mutually engaged in the study of Torah and Judaic texts and bringing the light of this study to make G-d’s world a better place. My comments on Chancellor Eisen’s posting come from a slightly different, yet resonant perspective. As I write this response, I sit nearly 3000 miles removed from the New York campus of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Like Chancellor Eisen, I serve proudly in the hallowed halls of academia—I have been a professor of psychology at a large Los Angeles area university for the past thirteen years. Like Chancellor Eisen, I am surrounded by brilliant women and men—leaders in their fields of study and excellent instructors and scholars. I also teach a richly diverse student body who have incredible talents and skills. While a significant portion of my faculty colleagues are Jewish, very few in my department identify with the Conservative movement. I count many “cultural” Jews among my friends and colleagues in academia; however, unlike Chancellor Eisen, I am not surrounded by Torah and Judaic scholars in my department. To be sure, my university has an active Judaic Studies Program, a bustling and engaged Hillel program, and a very active Chabad group. In addition, I should note that my university also has very active student groups and programs of study that are decidedly not Judaic in scope or origin.

For me, the challenge issued by Chancellor Eisen is how to develop a sense of Jewish community—communities of Jewish learners and of Jewish practitioners—in a decidedly secular learning environment. To do so presents a unique challenge. To what extent do professors in secular universities have a right to create a Jewish community in their classroom? What are the implications of a secular university professor attempting to bring about a community of learning and practice that is decidedly Jewish in orientation? My own response to these queries is but one possible implementation of Chancellor Eisen’s challenge: I fully acknowledge and share my Judaism with my students—certainly not to proselytize—but to teach. On the first day of the fall semester, I share my syllabus with my students and note the Jewish holy days that I will not be holding class. I am careful to let them know that “these are not ‘University Holidays’ and that other faculty members will likely be holding class, but I will be in shul with my family.” For a recent undergraduate fundraising silent auction, my wife and I “donated” a Kosher Shabbat Dinner at our home for the highest bidder. The winners? Two non-Jewish students who have never before experienced a Jewish Sabbath and now know the beauty, peace, joy, and introspection that accompany my family’s celebration of Shabbat. All of my students know—within the first few days of the semester—that I frequently respond to email messages within hours of receipt; except for those sent on Friday. In short, I model the behavior of a Conservative Jew. If my Jewish students (and colleagues!) resonate with this, so much the better; we can build communities of learning and practice by leading. I hope that others reading Chancellor Eisen’s thoughtful essays and the commentaries accompanying the essays can envision other ways that they may take part in the challenge of building relevant, accessible, and engaging aspects of Conservative Judaism in their own day-to-day lives and activities.