Over a history spanning more than 130 years, JTS has been led by towering figures in Jewish scholarship, the development of North American Judaism, and the dissemination of Conservative Judaism at home and abroad.
Arnold M. Eisen, 2007–2020
A preeminent scholar of modern Jewish religious belief and practice whose research focused on contemporary American Judaism, Arnold M. Eisen applied his expertise to strengthen JTS as a source of innovation, scholarship, and spiritual leadership for Conservative Judaism and the entire Jewish community in North America. He transformed the curriculum to respond to rapid and far-reaching changes in Jewish life, launching initiatives such as the Center for Pastoral Education, the Block / Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts, and the Hendel Center for Ethics and Justice, and expanding JTS’s programs and classes for the broader public in-person and online. Eisen also oversaw a major renovation of the JTS campus designed to create a dynamic hub for Jewish learning and living and for exchanging ideas with the outside world. His writings while chancellor included dozens of essays, Torah commentaries, and a blog called “On My Mind.”
Ismar Schorsch, 1986–2006
In his 21-year tenure as chancellor, Ismar Schorsch advocated serious Jewish education as the top priority for Conservative Judaism, providing leadership for the Ramah camps, Solomon Schechter day schools, and rabbinic alumni. To meet the shortage of qualified teachers, he founded and funded the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. For 13 years he authored an essay on the weekly Torah portion disseminated online and eventually published as Canon Without Closure. In The Sacred Cluster he gave lucid expression to the substance and parameters of Conservative Judaism. Abroad, Schorsch labored to expand and win accreditation for the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem and forged an international network of Conservative institutions of higher education to promote the movement worldwide.
Gerson Cohen, 1972–1986
A prominent historian and inspiring leader, Gerson Cohen further strengthened JTS as the academic and spiritual center of the Conservative Movement. He promoted Conservative Judaism’s religious authenticity and its capacity to speak to contemporary Jews. Cohen enhanced JTS’s academic standing, establishing the Graduate School (later to be renamed after Gershon Kekst) in 1975 and completing construction of a new Library in 1984. Equally important, he will be remembered for ordaining the first woman graduate of The Rabbinical School in 1985. In 1984 Cohen collaborated with the Masorti Movement to open a Conservative rabbinical school for Israel that would quickly grow into the Schechter Institute, which in 2015 celebrated its 30th anniversary.
Louis Finkelstein, 1940–1972
A major intellectual and a visionary leader, Louis Finkelstein transformed JTS into the renowned scholarly and spiritual center it remains today. Finkelstein believed that the widsom and ethics of Judaism could be brought to bear on important societal issues, and saw JTS as a school of religion and ethics not only for Jews “but for the world at large.” He was a pioneer in interfaith outreach, bringing an understanding of Judaism to people of all faiths and consulting frequently with government and other leaders. He created JTS’s Institute for Religious and Social Studies—now named for Finkelstein—where scholars and spritual leaders of diverse religions discussed theology and issues of of the day. Finkelstein showed Jews in America that they could be both modern and Jewish, and built bridges between scholarship and the spiritual needs of the Jewish people.
Cyrus Adler, 1915–1940
Cyrus Adler was a serious scholar, a devoted Jew, and a key figure in shaping and strengthening American Judaism, including JTS. He helped bring Solomon Schechter to the United States to lead JTS, presided over its board, and was instrumental in spearheading an important reorganization of the institution. Adler was one of the founders and president of the United Synagogue of America and took part as well in founding the Jewish Publication Society of America and the American Jewish Committee. A tireless worker on behalf of American Jewry, Adler’s legacy includes the construction of a complex of buildings on the current JTS site, a major increase in the number of graduating rabbis and teachers, and the cultivation of a strong faculty and leadership for the future.
Solomon Schechter, 1902–1915
With his towering intellect, personal magnetism, and deep commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people, Solomon Schechter oversaw the launch of a reorganized Seminary. Born in Romania, he was a prominent academic in England—renowned for bringing to that country the contents of the Cairo Geniza—when he was recruited to come to the United States and lead JTS. From his post as president, Schechter helped plant the seeds for the flowering of American Judaism in the 20th century. He brought major scholars to the JTS faculty and produced English-speaking, college-educated rabbis suited to the education and needs of American Jews. Schechter helped found and served as president of the United Synagogue of America, which became the congregational arm of the Conservative Movement. He is famed for his conception that what Judaism is in any particular period “is mainly a product of changing historical influences” and is best determined by “Catholic Israel”— the entire Jewish community—and their leaders.
Sabato Morais, 1886–1897
Together with a group of prominent Jewish leaders, Sabato Morais helped found The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886, serving as its first president and a professor of Bible until his death. Originally from Italy, Morais was a scholar, a humanitarian, and a Jewish communal leader of the first order. He was instrumental in developing higher Jewish learning in the United States and working on behalf of numerous civic and Jewish causes. Morais also served as spiritual leader of a prominent Philadelphia synagogue. His lasting legacy is the creation of JTS, which he and his cofounders saw as a rabbinical school that would be rooted in Jewish tradition and consistent with modern, democratic American life.