Hebrew College Prepares to Ordain First Rabbinical Class

School pioneers with transdenominational curriculum

The year 2008 will infuse the global Jewish community with a wave of new leadership, as the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton ordains its first students.

The institution – the world’s first accredited, full-time transdenominational rabbinical school, which will see its inaugural class graduate in June – came about largely in response to the evolving nature of Judaism.

“Looking at what’s happening in American Judaism, most observers have been convinced that for individual Jews, the importance of the denomination label is far, far less than it was a decade ago,” said Rabbi David Gordis, president of Hebrew College. “If you go through the individual seats in a synagogue, you’ll find that people have different patterns of belief and religiousness – rarely does it correspond to the labels on the door. We became convinced that there should be a way to train rabbis that was not divided along denominational lines.”

According to Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, dean of the Rabbinical School, Gordis and Rabbi Arthur Green (the school’s rector and founding dean) shaped a program that would be defined not by denominational ideology but by several core values, which include: immersion in the classical texts through an intensive bet midrash approach; bridging the gap between the yeshiva and the academy; considering klal yisrael (the whole of the Jewish community); engagement with other faiths; social justice and responsibility; and nurturing the rabbinic students’ own spiritualities.

Since its inception, the program has attracted rabbinic candidates with a diversity of religious backgrounds.

Tiffany Gordon, an African-American native Bostonian who was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition and converted to Judaism, is now a first-year student at the Rabbinical School as well as a board member of the Jewish Multiracial Network and a Hebrew School teacher at Kesher in Cambridge. “I realized that helping children shape their Jewish identities is one of my passions,” Gordon wrote in the school’s orientation packet.

Israeli-born Lila Veissid discovered her faith and Jewish identity while living in New York and, since moving to Boston in 2004, has begun leading kabbalat Shabbat services for the Jewish residents at the Goddard House in Brookline, founded a local Israeli Women’s Rosh Hodesh group and embarked on her first year as a Hebrew College rabbinical student.

Chaim Korazinsky, a Madison, Wisc., native who lived in Jerusalem for three years before moving to Brookline in 1999, expects to be ordained in June. “While I have been influenced by all the denominations, I don’t affiliate with any particular one of them,” Korazinsky told the Advocate. “I view myself as ‘traditional’ – informed by and in constant dialogue with the tradition.

“Nearly all of the personal and professional experiences that led me to rabbinical school were based in the community rather than in a particular denomination,” he added, naming his work in the former Soviet Union and for Hillel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, among other organizations. “All of these experiences were transdenominational, so it made sense to continue this path in rabbinical school.”

The graduating class is split fairly evenly between those who wish to pursue pulpit work and those who are interested in other types of rabbinical work, Anisfeld said, noting that a number of the soon-to-be-ordained students have already accepted positions.
The “other types” category includes positions in chaplaincy, communal work and Jewish education and at Hillel houses, as well as in what Anisfeld and her colleagues refer to as “entrepreneurial” rabbinates, which involve creating new models of community.

“In terms of non-pulpit positions – our students’ transdenominational training is a tremendous advantage because they will be serving such diverse communities,” she added.

For those who do wish to pursue congregational work, however, the transdenominational curriculum presents questions that did not exist previously. Anisfeld explained that rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College or Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion are ordained with the school’s denomination. Hebrew College’s new rabbis, on the other hand, will not automatically be affiliated.

Anisfeld said that the school has received inquiries from both affiliated and unaffiliated congregations; however, those rabbis seeking positions with the former will have to first become affiliated themselves.

According to Gordis, the process of building the program has included ongoing conversations with the Reform Movement’s Central Conference on American Rabbis, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly on how the Hebrew College rabbis will gain affiliation.

“They are concerned with maintaining connections to their congregations, and rabbi placement is one of the main issues – we are not unsympathetic to that,” Gordis said. He and his colleagues have pledged to only support a student’s application to a denominational position if the student has affiliated with the rabbinic association; in return, they have asked that the associations welcome applications from Hebrew College rabbis. Added Gordis: “The denominations know that our students will be superbly trained.”