Eisen, in his mid-50s, grew up in the Logan section of Philadelphia and attended the then Congregation Emanu-El. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. from Hebrew University. Eisen spoke with the Jewish Exponent shortly after his appointment and discussed his vision for the future of the New York City institution and that of Conservative Judaism as a whole.
Q:Your assuming the reins of the Jewish Theological Seminary is a bit untraditional. You're only the second non-rabbi to lead the school since its founding in 1886, and until now have not held an official Conservative leadership position. What do you bring to the table that somebody with a non-academic background does not?
A:"I've been, for my entire adult career, a scholar of American Judaism, so they're getting an expert on American Judaism and American Jewish life. I've been working with Jewish communities, especially in synagogues, trying to provide the two things American Jews are looking for in Jewish life: community and tradition.
"The question for the movement has always been how to present Jews with experiences of real, palpable, face-to-face tradition, how to teach Torah that's really exciting. I came to realize quickly when I spoke in synagogues that people hear things from a Stanford professor that they wouldn't want to hear from a rabbi. They'll say: 'Of course he says this. He's a rabbi!' But for a Stanford professor to talk about Jewish community, that's special.
"There are things I can't do. I can't be the arbiter of Jewish law inside this institution. But a rabbi is a teacher first and foremost, and some of my most satisfying teaching has been teaching rabbinic students."
The Conservative movement is, in many ways, at a crossroads. Observers have been looking to the appointment of the seminary's chancellor as an indicator of where the denomination is headed on such questions as religious practice and the more contentious issue of whether to ordain practicing homosexuals. How do you view the movement's future, and can you offer any glimpses on how Conservative Judaism will eventually view such issues?
"The chancellor of JTS is going to be one of many voices contributing to the vitality of the movement. I hope it's not just me out there speaking to Conservative Jews; I'd like to see a lot of rabbis on the road, a lot of lay people.
"I'm hoping we're going to have a reenergizing of the movement. When I travel around, I don't see the doom and gloom indicated by the declining membership numbers. We care about the numbers, but we care about the quality even more. Numbers will follow quality. Although people are worried about the decline of the Jewish community, 60 percent of Jews don't belong to a synagogue. Lets worry about people on the membership lists first and start reaching out to them."
And on questions of practice?
"The movement can hang together despite its differences if we hang on to a common vision. There are diverse opinions in my Palo Alto, Calif., synagogue, on Israel, on halachah, and yet it's a congregation that's very much a community. I've visited synagogues that have instruments on Shabbat. I've visited those that don't. That to me is a model of what the movement can be."
If your vision is a pluralistic one, where do you draw the line? What makes the Conservative movement distinct from Judaism's other streams?
"The Conservative movement is not a set of dogmas, and it's not a big tent. We need to stress the core issues that led to the founding of the movement in the first place – this notion of mitzvah, of scholarship and an earnest approach to tradition.
"There are many synagogues where there is no Shabbat community. There's not enough learning going on. Those things should be a hallmark of Conservative congregations, and often, they're not."
And what about the controversy surrounding the ordination of practicing homosexuals? The movement seems to be split right down the middle on the issue?
"One of the things that's going to distinguish the movement is a halachic process, a certain range of procedures. I am committed to this process. There can be no short-circuiting, whatever decision we reach.
"At the end of the day, there's going to have to be a meeting of the minds between the JTS faculty and the Rabbinical Assembly (the movement's rabbinic arm). What I've been saying is my vote would be in favor of gay and lesbian ordination, but I have to see the process. We're going to resolve this issue, but there are going to be many more issues in the years ahead that Jewish law is going to have to adapt itself to, so it's very important that it be done right."
What are some other items on your agenda?
"Israel is at the top of my agenda. I did my Ph.D. there, I made aliyah, our daughter was born there. Anything I can do to draw American Jews closer to Israel, I'm going to do.
"We don't have accurate statistics, but we know that overall, the age cohorts as they get younger are less connected to Israel. We have a seminary in Jerusalem that we [do not] take advantage of enough, I think. So I want JTS to be an instrument of linking American Jews as a whole to Israel.
"The other thing that excited me about this job is we have associated seminaries in places like Moscow and Argentina. I'm involved in several working groups to get the Jewish people stronger, and I want to use the seminary to continue that. Some people are already talking about a post-denominational world, but for that to happen, all Jewish institutions are going to have to cooperate a lot more."