My teacher Rabbi Ismar Schorsch has announced his retirement from The Jewish Theological Seminary effective at the end of June 2006. While twenty years is quite a length of time for his chancellorship, I am certain he could continue to be Chancellor for years to come. During my six years at the Seminary I watched the institution improve by leaps and bounds each year. This was no doubt due to the contributions of many, but ultimately must be attributed to the leadership of Chancellor Schorsch. As a classroom teacher he was simply magnificient. Each Friday morning of one particular semester a few years ago, I was blown away listening to his lectures on the famous Jewish historians. As he helped the class move from their scholarly texts to their context in scholarship I recall feeling that I could sit and listen to Dr. Schorsch all day. The only famous Jewish historian he omitted from that course was himself.
Here is the NY Times coverage of his announcement (from June 17, 2005)
Jewish Theological Seminary to Lose Its Longtime Leader
By JOSEPH BERGER
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who shepherded the Jewish Theological Seminary through 19 years of robust institutional expansion that also saw recurring tensions over the Conservative movement’s traditional standards, has announced that he will retire as chancellor a year from now.
The movement, which combines an adherence to traditional Jewish law with an acceptance of contemporary change, has been through a complicated era under the leadership of Dr. Schorsch, who is 69. In an interview yesterday, he spoke of the difficulty of reconciling those members who prefer more rigorous observance and with those who seek a more contemporary refashioning of worship – one that would, for example, permit more participation by women and gays.
“The long-term question is whether the center can hold, and that is the mission of the Conservative movement, to make sure that the center does not collapse,” he said.
The seminary, at 122nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan, is the heart of the Conservative movement of 1.3 million Jews, and its chancellor is seen as the movement’s head. The seminary prepares most of the movement’s rabbis and cantors, and generates the scholarship that guides movement policies.
Dr. Schorsch, a soft-spoken, courtly refugee from Nazi Germany who is a scholar of European Jewish history, took the helm in March 1986, a year after the movement ordained its first female rabbi. But the issue of how well women are being integrated into leadership and worship continues to percolate, with a recent study finding that most of the 188 female rabbis either work in nonpulpit jobs, as assistant rabbis, or with small congregations. (There are 1,600 Conservative rabbis in all.)
The movement’s Rabbinical Assembly voted in 1992 not to ordain gays as rabbis and said that rabbis should not perform same-sex marriages, a stance Dr. Schorsch supported. But the assembly did not declare the ban a binding standard.
The movement, once American Judaism’s largest, has been unable to expand the ranks of adherents. Two polar tugs are blamed: the attraction of more ardent observance and the losses to Reform Judaism of interfaith couples uncomfortable with the movement’s clinging to the centuries-old principle that Jewish identity stems from the mother alone.
Last winter, articles in Jewish newspapers reported that the seminary had a deficit of at least $40 million and that, to buttress its endowment, was planning to sell property on the West Side. Dr. Schorsch said reports of the financial problems were “overblown.”
Dr. Schorsch turned the seminary into a full-fledged university, with a wider range of graduate programs. In 1994 there were 500 students and 90 faculty members; today there are 700 and 120 respectively.
Dr. Schorsch said that he raised close to a half billion dollars in annual campaigns and $265 million in a capital campaign.
Dr. Schorsch said he will take a sabbatical and then resume teaching and writing.
“I have always wanted to step down in top form,” he said. “I am mindful of the harm one can do by staying on too long. I did not want to be guilty of that mistake.”