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Eisen: New Camp Ramah symbol of Conservative Judaism

Arnold EisenDr. Arnold Eisen was clearly having a frenzied day, but not too busy to miss a chance to talk about the things he loves.

Just after dashing from DIA, he arrived, flushed and almost breathless, at the Englewood home of David and Charlene Engleberg.

There he would address and hopefully inspire a small crowd of supporters, and potential supporters, of Colorado’s future Camp Ramah in the Rockies, a projected showcase of the Conservative movement’s overnight camping network.

After that, he would join some of those Colorado Jews and head up to see the site of the camp itself, nestled in a former Girl Scouts camp near Deckers, and meet with some of the young Jews who were already camping there — “roughing it” where the newest Camp Ramah, in a number of years, will host what the movement hopes will be hundreds of young Jewish campers.

“I’m really high on this, no pun intended,” quips Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary of the Conservative movement. This will be the highest Ramah camp by quite a ways — 8,400 feet, not bad. We’ll have to take deep breaths and not hike the first day we get there.”

Relaxed, wearing a Camp Ramah baseball cap and sipping a quick cup of coffee, Eisen makes it very clear that he not only supports but loves the Ramah camping system, which is under his purview at JTS.

“I think it’s going to be huge,” he says of Colorado’s Ramah project, currently in its fundraising and planning stages, with actual construction a few years off.

Locating the camp in Colorado, Eisen says, was hardly an incidental decision on the part of JTS and Conservative Judaism.

“The thing is that Jews are on the move in this country and they’re moving from northeast and Midwest to south, southwest and west,” he says. “We’ve just opened a camp in the Atlanta area and it’s really about time that we got to the Rockies, which shows that this area is on the map Jewishly and it’s on the map with Conservative Judaism.

“This is going to give the area a shot in the arm, it’s going to give JTS a shot in the arm and it’s going to give Conservative Judaism a shot in the arm . . .” Eisen says, pausing for another sip of coffee. “Which we could use right now.”

Camp Ramah in the Rockies is a barometric indicator of where his movement, and American Jewry as a whole, is already turning in the never-ending struggle to ensure Jewish identity.

Increasingly, those concerned with that weighty responsibility see youth camping as a valuable, perhaps even the most important, part of that effort.

“I’m a historian of Judaism and especially American Judaism,” Eisen says, “so I try to see these things in perspective. For me, this is not just building another camp somewhere, this is a sign of where this community of American Jews is going and where the Conservative movement is going.”

Ensuring Jewish identity is a challenging and elusive goal, Eisen acknowledges.

“Nobody has the solution. Nobody has the magic pill that we can all take to make our kids into Jews, but the best bet you have, by far, is camps.

“Instead of having Judaism as something off to the side where life goes on and every once in awhile there’s an hour you can spare for something else, here you’ve got people 24-7 in a beautiful place — Jews, having fun — and the learning, and the davening, and the building of community, and the friendships that are formed.

“It’s all part of one thing and you can be cool and be in the sun and see yourself growing and fulfilling yourself all in one big package, and it’s Jewish. There’s nothing we can do outside of camp that compares to this.”

That American Jews seem to have only recently fully appreciated camping as a vital tool in ensuring Jewish continuity says less about camping than about the Jews themselves.

“Ramah has been here for 60 years and we’ve been doing a good job for 60 years and I guess you could say there’s always room for improvement,” he says.
“We’re doing some things differently, adapting to the times, but I think the formula is not a new formula. Maybe the environmental stuff is bigger now, and that will be a big part of this Ramah, but I think we were doing it before and just not calling it that.

“Never before have Jews been as accepted anywhere as they are right now in the United States. Those doors are thoroughly open and Jews are rushing through them, which means it’s really hard to keep our identity together. That was not true when I was growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s, when American Jews were pretty much a self-contained group. Your friends were Jews and of course your marriage partners were Jews.”

If given the choice between the comparatively sequestered American Jews of half a century ago and the largely mainstreamed American Jews of today, Eisen knows exactly which he would choose.

“I like what we’ve got right now a lot better,” he says. “I like the openness, the vibrancy, the opportunity. It’s a great time for Jews in this country.”

Eisen has been chancellor at JTS for a year, and chancellor-elect for a year before that. Following the example set by his predecessor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor is traditionally seen as being the de facto spokesman for the Conservative movement.

It is a platform Eisen has not shied away from, and which he has used frequently to put forward his own energetic visions for a movement which has lately been portrayed as “losing market share” and belabored by difficult decisions concerning its traditional balancing act between Jewish tradition and cultural progressivism.

Eisen has been asked a lot of questions in his two years at the helm of JTS. The most asked, he says, is the most basic: “What’s going to be with Conservative Judaism?”

Shrugging off speculation that he was hired as a “fix it man” who can keep the Conservative ship from sinking — an idea reinforced by the fact that the chancellor post has traditionally been filled by a rabbi — Eisen voices as much optimism about Conservative Judaism as he does about Jewish camping.

“I wouldn’t put it that way because I don’t think the ship is sinking,” he says plainly. “But I think one of the things the search committee and trustees made clear to me was that they wanted me to draw on my expertise as a scholar of American Judaism, and from that perspective, to try to address the issues.”

He acknowledges that JTS has not always been on the vanguard of Conservative change and transition, but that it definitely is today.

“And here we are, with Ramah, which is an unqualified success story in terms of Conservative Judaism and which in many ways embodies what Conservative Judaism is all about.

“A lot of what I want to do is infuse the rest of the Conservative movement insofar as I can with the spirit of Ramah . . . the same kind of total approach to Jewish identity — people joyously celebrating their Jewish life, people not keeping their Judaism separate from the rest of their identities, people really rejoicing in the opportunities Jews have in American society and taking full advantage of them, and yet keeping a meaningful, authentic connection to the Jewish past and to Judaism.

Ramah in the Rockies“That’s what Ramah has always stood for, and that to me is what Conservative Judaism stands for.”

Conservative Judaism, he says, is not a movement in crisis, but it does need some work. “And I try to indicate what I think that work is.”

Eisen feels a sterling example of how the movement can survive and thrive in the future is the recently launched Hekscher Tzedek, a Conservative program which will grant kosher certifications based not only on halachic criteria but such ethical considerations as treatment of workers and concern for the environment.

“You’ll be reading about my endorsement and strong support of that in my Rosh Hashanah message,” Eisen says. “It shows that kashrut has to do with more things than the origin of what you put in your mouth. I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing we’re doing here.”

Such efforts not only put Judaism in tune with modern sensitivities, Eisen feels, but further validate its ancient values.

“We’ve got a need to make ethical issues paramount in people’s minds. Young Jews especially want to see that our tradition matters. It’s got to stand for something concrete in the world. The ritual is all well and good, but the ritual has to lead into ethical action and social justice and changing the world.”

It’s all about making Judaism relevant, Eisen says.

“I would say that’s true of all American Jewish institutions. A lot of our institutions as a community are 50 years old, sometimes 100 years old. A lot has not changed in a long time. It’s true of Conservative Judaism, it’s pretty much true of Orthodox and Reform. We’ve all got this need to get moving because the times are very different.”

Nothing better underscores Eisen’s concern about changing times than the issue of the ordination of homosexuals as rabbis, a most divisive issue between Jewish denominations.

After years of debate, the movement recently came up with a compromise solution that allowed Eisen, as chancellor of the movement’s primary seminary, to open the doors to homosexual ordination.

The Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinical arm, was about evenly divided on the issue, Eisen explains. “Those rabbis occasionally differ as to what the law should say in contemporary circumstances. This is one of the cases where they differ.

“We have a procedure where there can be a majority opinion and a minority opinion, and this case was split exactly down the middle, one saying that Jewish law must be modified to suit new conditions which the framers of the Talmud 2,000 years ago couldnpossibly have imagined — a new understanding of gay and lesbian relationships — and others saying there’s no precedent for this in the law and at least at this point we’re not ready to change.”

That left JTS and other Conservative seminaries free to make their own decision on the matter.

JTS in New York and American Jewish Seminary in Los Angeles both said yes to change; the Schechter Rabbinical School in Jerusalem remained opposed.
Eisen made his own decision only after lengthy deliberation, and finally a vote, by the JTS faculty — “strongly in support of gay and lesbian rabbis,” Eisen says. “We started doing that last year and I can tell you that at JTS it’s been pretty much a non-issue.”

Some parts of the Conservative movement — its Canadian and Israeli branches, in particular — remain opposed, but Eisen expresses confidence that Conservative Judaism is not likely to experience a schism over the issue, as some Christian denominations have.

“As long as there’s much more that unites us than what divides us — and I think we’re aware of that — this is a strength in the movement and not a weakness.

“We differed on [ordaining] women, we’ll differ on this and it’s okay. I don’t see the movement splitting over this, and I don’t think there’s any evidence so far that that’s happening.”

Eisen says that his own scholastic expertise in Judaism tends toward the current and historical and not the religious, so his decision was based on those Conservative halachic and Talmudic experts he consulted.

Since these experts were not deterred by the Torah injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination,” neither was Eisen.

“Yes, the Book of Leviticus uses the word abomination,” Eisen agrees. “The Book of Leviticus uses the word abomination for a lot of things and so does the Book of Deuteronomy, but none of the people opposed to gay and lesbian ordination in the Conservative movement see homosexuality as an abomination, moral or otherwise.”

The ordination decision, in Eisen’s view, was a classic example of how the movement renders decisions based on Jewish law and simultaneously manages to change with the times.

“The question was over the continuity of Jewish law and the proper way to interpret Jewish law in our day,” he says. “To my mind, that’s always been what it’s about. That’s what Jews are called upon to do in every century. As the rabbis say, G-d gave us the Torah, it’s not in heaven, and it’s not only our privilege but our duty to make it live in the present.”

Eisen is politely reminded that a group of camp supporters are waiting in the next room, eager to hear him speak, and he manages to dovetail his conversation nicely.

“And that’s what we’re all here to do today. We’re here to take another generation of Jews and make this 3,000 year-old tradition as alive for them, as vibrant as we can for them, by putting them out there in the mountains, in the sun, playing baseball, with kipot on. That, to me, is what Torah wants of us.”

He smiles, adjusts his cap and prepares to speak — and then head for the hills.

“It’s a great day to be a Jew.”

IJN Assistant Editor |

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