LOS ANGELES — The Conservative movement in America faces a severe crisis — a possible split between the East and West coasts, centering on a bitter dispute between its two institutions of higher learning.
Triggering the confrontation was the announcement earlier this month by the University of Judaism in Los Angeles of the establishment of a full-fledged rabbinical school, whose graduates would be ordained as Conservative rabbis.
The university said an anonymous $22 million gift enabled it to expand its present two-year preparatory program at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies into a four-year curriculum, starting next fall.
The move did not sit well with the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, parent campus of the West Coast university. It is now the sole institution in the United States granting ordination to Conservative rabbis, in conjunction with the Rabbinical Assembly, the national organization of Conservative rabbis.
One week after the university's announcement, JTS chancellor Ismar Schorsch sent a three-page letter to U.J. president Robert Wexler, with copies to 10 Conservative lay and professional leaders; one recipient characterized it as "blistering."
In the letter, Schorsch objected harshly to the establishment of a second, and competing, rabbinical school on practical, ideological and personal grounds. He warned of "the grave risk of straining the unity of the [Conservative] movement," and "weakening the vital center of American Judaism."
Schorsch argued that there is no need for another Conservative rabbinical school, because JTS and other Jewish denominations are turning out more rabbis than the market can absorb.
"There is a longstanding and well-known overproduction of rabbis in the Orthodox and Reform movements and many of the best graduates from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College end up in Conservative pulpits," Schorsch noted.
With record enrollment at the JTS rabbinical school, currently at 180-190 students, and growing number of graduates working in non-pulpit positions, "there is an unease in the Rabbinical Assembly over our growth," he added.
In addition, he wrote, the proposed four-year curriculum at U.J., in contrast to five to six years at JTS, the elimination of a full year of study at the Conservative Beit Midrash in Jerusalem and other curricular differences will "regionalize" rabbinical education and put the Los Angeles and New York campuses in direct competition.
"The more you seek to differentiate out two institutions, the more you strain the delicate fabric of the [Conservative] movement," Schorsch wrote to Wexler.
"The existence of two rabbinical schools in an adversarial relationship and in unseemly competition can only redound to the profound disadvantage of the movement."
In addition, Schorsch, who also bears the official title of U.J. chancellor, was clearly upset by what he apparently perceived as collegial bad faith and discourtesy on the part of U.J.'s leadership.
He complained that establishment of the rabbinical school in Los Angeles ran counter to longstanding assurances by the university that no such move was contemplated. Schorsch said in a phone interview that he had received such assurances from Wexler, who became U.J. president in 1992, and by the previous president, David Lieber.
Schorsch also said that neither he nor the Rabbinical Assembly had been consulted beforehand about plans for the new school, but that the university confronted him with a "fait accompli."
His letter ended with a plea for collaboration to establish joint guidelines.
Last week, the two top leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly, president Alan Silverstein and executive vice president Joel Meyers, flew from New York to Los Angeles to try and calm the troubled waters, and meet with Wexler, who responded to Schorsch's charges in a phone interview.
Wexler acknowledged that JTS was instrumental in founding U.J. in 1947 and assisted the new institution financially in its first two decades, but he made it clear that he now considers the university an independent institution. Schorsch's designation as U.J. chancellor was purely an honorary title, he said.
Wexler said that he had talked to Schorsch early this year and alerted him that there was considerable pressure to establish a full-scale rabbinical school at U.J. However, such discussions remained hypothetical, until the unexpected $22 million gift transformed abstract hopes into reality.
A source familiar with the background of the split pointed first to the longstanding, two-year rabbinical preparatory program at U.J. This program at the Ziegler School, akin to a junior college, served as a feeder school to JTS, and readied unprepared students to enter the theological seminary.
Despite perceived promises to the contrary, JTS then established a similar program on its New York campus, drastically reducing the number of students entering the U.J. preparatory program.
U.J. was left with little choice but to either close down its two-year program or evolve into a full rabbinical school, the source said.
However, Wexler said that far from splintering Conservative education, the expanded Ziegler School would serve the special needs of the West and the entire country.
"Nobody thinks that there should be only one law or medical school in the country," he said.
As to curriculum differences, including one summer rather than a full year for students in Israel, Wexler said that his program was still evolving and would not take final form until next year.
Wexler also struck a conciliatory note, saying he understood Schorsch's concerns. "We recognize him as our spiritual head and JTS as the primary school of the Conservative movement," he added.
Lieber, the longtime former U.J. president, echoed these sentiments. The U.J. leadership was working to resolve its difficulties with JTS, he said, and there was no intention to provoke a Conservative split.
Lieber will be in a position to play a role in the healing process when he assumes the presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly in May. He will be the first West Coast rabbi named to the post. The Rabbinical Assembly is the accrediting body for Conservative rabbis, and, by extension, of the rabbinical schools from which they graduate.
Francis S. Maas, chairman of U.J.'s board of directors, suggested that besides the specific points of contention, an underlying cause of friction might be found in the increasing role and assertiveness of the West Coast in the life of American Jewry, traditionally controlled by the Jewish leadership in New York.
The new school, the first west of the Mississippi River to grant ordination by any Jewish denomination, "shows the maturation of the West," said Maas.
Other Jewish leaders in Los Angeles also seemed eager to avoid any deepening split, although a few allowed that Schorsch, though a highly respected scholar and spiritual leader, was known for his occasional short temper.
During his two-day mission to Los Angeles, Meyers of the Rabbinical Assembly said the U.J. had asked that its graduates be accorded provisional membership in the R.A. He indicated that his organization will quickly approve the request.
The R.A. now has close to 1,400 members, of whom roughly 15 percent were ordained as Orthodox, Reform or Reconstructionist rabbis but now work within Conservative synagogues or institutions.
The question of whether there is an over-supply of rabbis in his or other Jewish denominations was difficult to answer, said Meyers.
There may not be a shortage of congregational rabbis, he said, but many of them "are now exploring options for other career development in communal service, education and chaplaincy."
As for the U.J.-JTS conflict, Meyers put an optimistic spin on the situation. "Our Conservative family tensions show the vitality of the movement," he said.
During the High Holy Days, Meyers advised, all the protagonists should "step back a little and take a deep breath."