Teaching the art of pastoral care

Many people need clergy most during times of suffering.

That’s why the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC has opened the Center for Pastoral Education — to “teach the art of pastoral care.”

The center will train clergy and seminarians affiliated with several Jewish and Christian institutions, including Auburn Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and UJA-Federation of New York.

A four-year, $500,000 grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation was key to starting the center, which opened its doors July 1. The center is a satellite of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Clinical Pastoral Education Program.

Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, the center’s director (that’s her), explains: “The center will bring clergy and clergy-in-formation into regular contact with people who are asking tough questions about their lives’ meaning. Students will receive in-depth supervision to help them to care for people, drawing on Judaism and other faith traditions as powerful resources for cultivating hope in moments of crisis.”

Springer has served as director of Pastoral Care and Education at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and associate director of the Jewish Institute for Pastoral Care at the HealthCare Chaplaincy in Manhattan.

JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen says: “Rabbis and laypeople around the country have identified expert pastoral care as an essential need in their communities. This is true in non-Jewish communities as well. The center will have a transformative effect on the Jewish community and well beyond.”

I’ll aim to write more about the center down the line, after I can pay a visit…

Clarifying Conservative Judaism’s position on intermarriage and conversion

I mentioned yesterday a Jewish Week article about strains within Conservative Judaism over whether to seek the conversion of non-Jews married to Jews.

Today, the leaders of the Conservative rabbinate issued a statement saying that they are quite united on the issue.

The statement says: “…it is understandable that this misunderstanding exists because the Rabbinical Assembly has boldly selected to embrace two seemingly contradictory points of view – the unconditional welcome of interfaith families and non-Jews within the community alongside the prospect of conversion to those who sincerely feel moved to join the Jewish people.”

In other words, Conservative rabbis want to welcome non-Jewish spouses without any strings or pressures — but will happily work with anyone who is thinking about the whole Jewish thing.

The statement is signed by Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (that’s her), the new chief executive of the RA. I recently profiled Schonfeld (whose official title is executive VP) and noted that she wants the Conservative movement to have a higher profile and be more “vigorous” in its response to public debates and media coverage.

This would be an example of being vigorous.

The statement goes on to say:


We honor the committed relationships non-Jews have forged with their Jewish partners in our communities. At the same time, we also adhere to the integrity of Jewish tradition and hope, wherever possible, to motivate people to become Jewish. Our first priority is always that the non-Jew experiencing our way of life do so at a pace and in an environment where he or she feels comfortable. Moreover, the unconditional welcome we extend to non-Jews is heartfelt and enthusiastic wherever they are on their journey.


Here is the entire statement, if you’re interested: Continue reading

Conservative Judaism takes new tack on intermarriage (again)

Conservative Jews have been split for some time over how to reach out to intermarried couples and their children.

It’s one of the most sensitive subjects facing Judaism’s “moderate” movement.

Reform Judaism has had a much easier time, particularly since deciding in 1983 to recognize the children of Jewish fathers as Jewish. Traditionally, Judaism has recognized only matrilineal descent.

In the Orthodox world, intermarriage is rare.

Most Conservative congregations see some members — or the children of members — marry “out,” creating all kinds of potential tensions. How welcoming do you want to be of intermarried couples? How do you serve the spiritual needs of the non-Jewish spouse? What if the mother is not Jewish and their children are not recognized as Jewish by the Conservative world?

In 2005, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — which represents Conservative congregations — took the position that its synagogues should aggressively promote conversion for non-Jewish spouses.

Now, the Jewish Week reports, the Conservative movement is taking a somewhat softer approach. The JW says that the movement is about to produce a pamphlet on intermarriage that says:

All are welcome.
There is a commitment to fostering Jewish marriage and family life.
Interfaith couples are welcome.
There is “nurturing and support for the spiritual journey of non-Jewish partners who join us, to deepen their connections to the synagogue, the Jewish community and to the Jewish people, and to inspire them to consider conversion.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers of White Plains, who retired last week as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis, told the JW: “The movement is still very much in favor of Jewish family life, and so the question was how does one approach American Jewish communal life today without changing religious standards.”

Meet the first woman to head a rabbinical group

I have a story in today’s Journal News/LoHud about Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, a resident of the City of White Plains who on Wednesday will become executive vice president — the boss — of the Rabbinical Assembly.

The RA represents 1,600 Conservative rabbis around the world (1,200 or so in the U.S.).

She is believed to be the first woman to serve as chief executive of a rabbinical group.

Schonfeld is very bright, has a tremendous amount of energy and is brimming with ideas. And it’s a good thing. She gets the top job with the RA at a time when Conservative Judaism is antsy and not quite focused.

She will be an interesting figure to watch, I think, and will make her presence felt.

In an interesting quirk, she replaces the retiring Rabbi Joel Meyers, also of White Plains. Both Schonfeld and Meyers are members of Temple Israel Center of White Plains, one of the best-known Conservative congregations around.

‘It’s quite a day for us all’

As everyone tries to make sense of the bombing plot in Riverdale…

Yesterday, I happened to interview Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, a White Plains resident who is about to become the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, a group that represents Conservative rabbis around the world.

It’s an important position at an important time for Conservative Judaism, so we had a lot to talk about. I’ll be writing about her one day soon.

I asked her, of course, where she is from. The answer was Riverdale.

So I thought of Schonfeld as soon as I heard about the alleged plot against the Riverdale Temple.

I talked to her again this morning, just before she was heading to commencement at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, the main seminary of the Conservative movement.

It turns out that Schonfeld’s father still lives in Riverdale. And her children attend school there.

“It’s quite a day for us all,” she told me.

Schonfeld was adament that the Jewish community will never change or weaken in response to terrorist threats — other than preparing the necessary security.

“We understand the risks in the world today, but we are unshakable,” she said. “We won’t be moved one inch from our commitment to the sanctification of life.”

Leadership of Conservative Judaism continues to change

Much has been written in recent years (including by me) about the challenges facing Conservative Judaism — the “moderate” Jewish movement that seeks to reconcile tradition with the modern world.

It’s no easy task in an increasingly partisan culture, where most religious groups are identified as being with the right or left.

The incoming leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an organization that represents Conservative synagogues, has a lot of work to do.

“I wanted this job because I think we are at a critical moment in the life of the movement and because the synagogue is the locus of Jewish life in the United States,” Rabbi Steven Wernick told the Jewish Week.

He’ll soon by taking over for Rabbi Jerome Epstein of New Rochelle, who has led the USCJ for 23 years.

This is a real period of change for the leadership of Conservative Judaism.

In 2007, Arnold Eisen took over as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, the intellectual center of the Conservative movement. He replaced the long-serving Rabbi Ismar Schorsch.

And in a few months, Rabbi Joel Meyers of White Plains is retiring after two decades as executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis. He’ll be replaced by another White Plains-based rabbi, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld.

I hope to write something about Schonfeld before she takes over this summer.

Conservative rabbis to press ‘aliya’ to Israel

Conservative rabbis are meeting in Jerusalem this week, but I haven’t heard much about the proceedings.

The Rabbinical Assembly — which represents Conservative rabbis in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere — is having its annual convention.

The Israeli press was very interested (not surprisingly) in plans to promote aliya — the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to Israel.

“Although the Conservative Movement has always been Zionist, this campaign is a little bit radical,” said Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

The RA was also to challenge the all-powerful-ness of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which runs the show religiously even though many Israelis are not Orthodox.

And the RA was set to honor some local notables, including Rabbi Joel Meyers of White Plains (that’s him), the group’s outgoing executive vice president, who has led the RA for 20 years, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, also of White Plains, who will replace Meyers.