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A Westward Shift for Jewish Spirituality

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

For more than a hundred years, New York has been the undisputed center of Jewish faith and influence in America. From its distinctive Jewish neighborhoods and centers of learning to lox and bagels and Yiddish idioms, Jewish life and culture have radiated from New York across the country.

But an event this week, West Coast Jewish leaders say, confirms that Los Angeles has emerged from New York’s shadow as a center of American Judaism, and suggests a continental shift in Jewish spirituality.

For the first time ever, students from a full-fledged West Coast rabbinical school affiliated with the Conservative movement will be ordained Monday in Los Angeles. Until now, all such ordinations have taken place in New York.

“The signal is obvious. The West Coast, and especially Los Angeles, has become one of the most important centers of Jewish life in America,” said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.

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Adds Rabbi Perry Netter, past president of the Conservative movement’s Western regional rabbinical organization, “There used to be this sense that we were just ‘the Coast’ and that the center of Conservative Judaism was the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Now we have two vibrant centers.”

One might dismiss such talk as so much West Coast boosterism except for one central fact. The ordinations of the first eight rabbinical students from the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at the University of Judaism are only the first wave.

Within the next several years the nation’s largest Jewish denomination--the Reform movement--will join the Conservative movement in ordaining rabbis in Los Angeles, breaking the monopoly on Reform ordinations by the movement’s campuses in Cincinnati and New York.

A different kind of rabbi willing to break the mold is likely to come out of Los Angeles schools, Jewish leaders here say. To be sure, they will be rigorously schooled in Jewish texts, rituals and customs. But free from what some see as the ossified traditions of the East, West Coast rabbis are likely to be far more open--and far more likely to join their congregants in wrestling with existential questions of life and meaning, backers of the new school hope.

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On knotty issues--for example, whether gay men and lesbians should be ordained by the Conservative movement--California culture is likely to make discussions at West Coast seminaries more open, they said.

Beyond such specific issues, the Ziegler school hopes its newly minted rabbis will help forge a new way of relating to the questions that concern modern American Jews.

“We need new models--new models of Rabbinic training, new models of Rabbinic service, new conceptions of what it means to be a rabbi in the American Jewish community,” said Rabbi Daniel Gordis, dean of the Ziegler school.

Sara Ellen Zacharia, 45, and Elon Sunshine, 30--two of the seminary’s first graduates--are examples of that sort of new model.

Twelve years ago, Zacharia, a single mother, was a cancer patient fighting for her life. Six years ago, Sunshine was anticipating his wedding and wondering what he was going to do with his life. Neither at first thought they would become rabbis. Both had worked with the physically or emotionally troubled--she as an audiologist working with the deaf and he working with severely emotionally disturbed children. Later, both of them taught in Jewish schools.

Sunshine for years had resisted suggestions that he become a rabbi. “What I didn’t want to do was to be a boring old rabbi who tells people when to stand up and sit down and calls pages during services. Even though I had wonderful role models as rabbis during my life who did not fit that image, that was the image I had in my mind,” he said.

One morning in the predawn darkness while he and his future wife were visiting her parents’ home, Sunshine recalled, he walked barefoot downstairs in jogging sweats. He poured himself a glass of orange juice and leaned against the kitchen counter.

“The thought that went through my mind was, ‘Too bad. Some people really have a passion and maybe a calling and something they’re really just good at, and they can go into it and they can just find their way right in and be successful and shine and do great things. Too bad I don’t have anything like that.’ ”

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“Then there was the second thought. ‘Maybe there really is. Maybe what I really want to do is to pursue a career in the rabbinate.’ ”

Life-Changing Moment Recalled

Zacharia, too, vividly recalls the life-changing moment when she could no longer resist a still but insistent small inner voice that gently ushered her toward the rabbinate.

She had been struggling with her own mortality. She had lymphoma. She writhed from pain beyond belief from chemotherapy and radiation treatments, “and all the poking and inhumanity that goes along with it.” She was in and out of the hospital. She remembers how her daughter, Sasha, now 12, used to crawl in bed with her, stroking her head and holding her hand as she lay sedated.

After the cancer went into remission, Zacharia remembers being alone in her comfortably warm bedroom under the covers in the middle of the night.

“I was looking inside and outside simultaneously,” she said. “It was all black. It was all very, very dark. Then there was just, I would say, a light, maybe my own internalization, but a glimmer of hope. I found [the rabbinate] deep, deep within myself.”

After his ordination, Sunshine will become an assistant rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas. Zacharia is still considering several offers as a teaching rabbi.

It is through the crucible of such experiences, vivified and validated and explored during seminary years, that Gordis believes a new generations of rabbis will be able to relate to congregants and the larger Jewish community. They should, he hopes, be able to tap the deep wells within from which spring eternal questions as well as the strength for meeting life’s challenges.

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Four years ago, when the University of Judaism announced an anonymous $22-million gift that made possible the new rabbinical school, the decision to open a seminary here caused tensions within the Conservative movement. Today, although competition remains between the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler school, those tensions have largely abated, according to leaders in Los Angeles and New York. At least on the record, officials of both schools speak in complimentary terms about each other.

Still, officials of the Ziegler school are determined to make their seminary different.

Americans are looking for religious experiences that “touch the inner core of their sense of their humanity,” said Gordis. “Who am I? What am I all about? I don’t feel most people feel that walking into the typical American synagogue, which is very stodgy, not particularly experimental.”

The new Ziegler school places far more emphasis than the New York seminary on equipping its students to deal with such questions, Gordis maintains.

He points to the school’s Thursday afternoon colloquia, at which students gather to share their personal quests, questions, even misgivings. Or they may talk about how a particular Scripture speaks to them personally.

“There’s no real space for that in as many other places,” Gordis said. “It’s a warm, supportive, nurturing environment. No right. No wrong. Just levels of honesty.”

Not surprisingly, officials at the 113-year-old Jewish Theological Seminary dispute the comparisons. “I don’t want to get into competition, but spiritual training and religious training are as important to the seminary as the text,” said the New York seminary’s dean, Rabbi William Lebeau.

A Different Jewish Community Exists

Regardless of their school, new rabbis will be serving a different Jewish community than existed a generation ago, Gordis said.

“These are people who are looking for something,” he said. “The Judaism they grew up with didn’t speak to them. It just didn’t work. They were anxious to go to a place where they felt religious traditions spoke of what life was all about.”

Why would Jews want to be a part of a revitalized and energetic Judaism? Gordis thinks he has the answer:

“You’ll be part of this because this tradition has the capacity to help you concentrate not on the stuff that seems to swallow up your day, but the questions at the end of your life.”

“Nobody on their deathbed--at least nobody I’ve spoken to--said, ‘I wish I worked harder.’ I think people say, ‘I wish I had spent more time with so-and-so. I wish I read more. I wish I allowed myself to think about the bigger issues more.’ That’s what people want in Jewish life.”


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