Greenbaum book explores the Finkelstein years at JTS

Jewish Standard


September  18, 2009,

Jane Calem Rosen

Rabbi Michael Greenbaum will never forget a certain family vacation to Disney World. The Teaneck resident was holed up in a motel room, awash in boxes of index cards he had shipped to Orlando, while his wife, Cindy, took their four young children to the park. It was crunch time for the completion of Greenbaum's dissertation for a doctorate in education from Columbia University's Teachers College, which he earned in 1994. The project became the basis for his book, "Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement: Conflict and Growth" (initially published by Global Publications, Binghamton University, 2001). It is, he told The Jewish Standard, "one of the great accomplishments of my life."

Indeed, the book, reissued in June by JTS Press, remains the only study of its kind. Exploring Finkelstein's seminal influence on the Jewish Theological Seminary, on the Conservative movement, on American Jewry, and on religious life in America during the first half of his 32-year tenure as JTS president from 1940-1972, the book also uses JTS as a template for understanding tensions inherent in any academy affiliated with a religious movement. But Greenbaum, a vice chancellor, the chief operating officer, and an assistant professor of educational administration at JTS who has worked under four JTS chancellors, is careful to note the ways in which JTS is simultaneously unique and reflective of this inevitable conflict.

From largely previously unpublished archival material and interviews with many of the major figures of the time, including Finkelstein, Greenbaum reconstructs the fascinating history of the seminary, beginning with its reorganization in 1902 by Rabbi Solomon Schechter. He also closely examines the genesis and evolution of two key Conservative institutions: the Rabbinical Assembly, then composed almost exclusively of JTS-ordained rabbis, and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of movement-affiliated congregations and lay leadership.

With novel-like pacing and narrative, Greenbaum leads readers through his thorough research detailing the conflicts and tensions that continue to dog the seminary and the movement to this day. One can almost hear the whisperings that might have taken place in the seminary halls among Finkelstein's supporters and detractors, as Greenbaum reports the struggles for power and complex relationships that evolved among board members, administration, faculty, and alumni tussling over JTS's mission and programs and how to pay the bills.

Gracing the cover of Time in October 1951 as the magazine's "Man of the Year," Finkelstein loomed large, propelling JTS to the height of Jewish scholarship and to a leading role in the religious life of the era through outreach to unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews alike. A bridge-builder across denominational lines and faith communities and an innovative, creative thinker who understood how to use contemporary technology - i.e. radio and television - to maximum effect, Finkelstein defied those who called for him to concentrate greater attention and resources on growing the ranks of Conservative Judaism. "He had a skin of Teflon. He wasn't easily persuaded by his critics," said Greenbaum. And he cultivated the support of the JTS board, the majority of whom were affluent, politically influential, "Our Crowd" Jews, unaffiliated with the Conservative movement.

But others, especially some prominent rabbis and faculty, considered him "a laughingstock," said Greenbaum, concerned that Finkelstein would virtually bankrupt the seminary to support his determination to promote peace, tolerance, and understanding. His programmatic vision to accomplish that included the Institute for Religious and Social Studies (later renamed the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, it sponsors public lectures and interfaith scholarly conferences) and The Eternal Light radio and television programs, which familiarized audiences of the late 1940s and ‘50s with Jewish life and thought.

Finkelstein's public persona, however, didn't make researching him easy.

"Finkelstein didn't write a lot down," said Greenbaum.

The book's republication this spring prompted Greenbaum to reflect anew on his original conclusions. More recent developments in the Conservative movement, he said, have led him to see things differently from when he first wrote: "If the Seminary is to remain viable into the next century, it will have to take the Movement more seriously than did Finkelstein."

Succeeding Chancellors Gerson Cohen and Ismar Schorsch did, in fact, concentrate on making JTS the denominational fountainhead, perhaps in reaction to Finkelstein and in response to the needs of Conservative Jewry as they perceived them in the last quarter of the 20th and initial years of the 21st centuries, Greenbaum said. Yet the Jewish community at large, he added, appears to be headed down a path more closely aligned with Finkelstein's vision. "People are less concerned about denominational labels and more concerned about [creating] Jewish experiences and [promoting] Jewish learning."

So, too, are today's JTS-ordained rabbis more in tune with Finkelstein's thinking, and Schechter's before him, Greenbaum believes.

"You see graduates of JTS once again in the forefront of change in the community, as they were in the early 1900s when they helped form the Jewish Renewal movement and in the 1940s and ‘50s when they [helped] build the JCCs of North America and in the late ‘60s, the havurah movement. Here again now with people like [Rabbis] Elie Kaunfer, Ethan Tucker, and Sharon Brous, [there is] a whole group doing wonderful things [for whom] ‘Conservative' is secondary, not the primary task of building meaningful Jewish community based on spiritual experiences and meaningful Torah [study]," said Greenbaum. (Kaunfer and Tucker are co-founders with fellow JTS graduate Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar: An Institute for Prayer, Personal Growth, and Jewish Study and Kehilat Hadar, an independent egalitarian community. Brous is founding rabbi of IKAR, a Jewish spiritual community in Los Angeles.)

While the focus of his thesis excluded the latter half of Finkelstein's tenure, he said he was able to conclude his research years later. The resulting essay, "The Finkelstein Era," which appeared in "Tradition Renewed: A History of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America" (JTS Press, 1997), is more critical of Finkelstein and the condition in which he left JTS than Greenbaum's earlier work.

Nonetheless, Greenbaum expresses hope that readers of "Conflict and Growth," particularly those who want to see Conservative Judaism survive and thrive, will gain the historical perspective necessary to strengthen the movement.

"The book [should stimulate] thinking about what was and what is," Greenbaum said, about "how to put the present into the past and how the past affects the present. If you want to be change agents in the movement, you have to understand where we came from, or else you'll be bound to repeat mistakes."

Jane Calem Rosen is director of communications for the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.


The Jewish Standard, September 18, 2009