Year in Review: Adapting and Thriving

Dear JTS Community,

This spring, I had the privilege of addressing my first graduating class as chancellor of JTS. Looking at these soon-to-be Jewish leaders, realizing how they’d embraced both their studies and their community despite a stream of obstacles, I was filled with optimism about all they would contribute to our people and our world. 

JTS has thrived over the past year even as a global pandemic altered every aspect of what we do. Learning, prayer, scholarship, community—all took new forms but continued to animate our lives. The resilience and commitment of our students, and that of their professors, deans, and the JTS staff, have been so moving to me—and such a stirring endorsement of the mission of JTS. 

We have met tremendous short-term challenges, but more importantly, we have kept our eyes on the long term, keenly aware that the needs of our students and the needs of the North American Jewish community continue to evolve before our eyes. We are intensely focused on giving students the intellectual and spiritual grounding, training and experience, discernment and sense of mission, to meet not only the needs we know about today but those we cannot yet anticipate.

How do we do this? By educating students to be lifelong learners, continually nourished by the intellectual substance and religious depths of our tradition and able to build upon it to nourish others. We do it by strengthening JTS as both an academic and religious institution, challenging students to search for truth, giving them the tools to read Jewish texts through a critical lens and to analytically probe the experiences, ideas, and literature of the Jewish people. We do it by infusing our community with Jewish religious and cultural life—from daily prayer to cantorial concerts to Yom Ha’atzma’ut celebrations—so that students not only “learn” Judaism but experience directly the rich meaning that Jewish practice brings to their lives.

JTS students become such effective leaders because they develop the skills and confidence to listen deeply to others and to view varied perspectives and searching dialogue not as threats but as opportunities for learning and growth. 

Simply put, a JTS education provides the intellectual sustenance, religious meaning, and moral vision essential for leadership today.

Beyond our campus, JTS has long offered a compelling vision of Judaism and Jewish life to the world. To continue to do so requires expanding the opportunities for people everywhere to study with our renowned faculty. And it means sharing how the powerful ethical insights of Judaism can speak to the moral issues of our day.

Our vision is ambitious, but we have taken steps this year toward realizing it. I’d like to share a few of these with you.

  • We have supported students in turning words of Torah into action through teaching, music, art, and social activism. Several of our rabbinical students have served as fellows for Dayenu, a new Jewish organization combatting climate change. Others have brought creative Jewish learning and Jewish life to college students around the country. Our cantorial students have used Jewish music to bring smiles to children missing summer camp and to synagogue communities missing in-person prayer.Through the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, our undergraduates have worked for an array of nonprofits, including organizations involved in fighting homelessness, pursuing criminal justice reform, and providing legal services to low-income people. And we have expanded the number of graduate-level courses in which students can study ethical and philosophical sources, both Jewish and secular, that allow them to respond thoughtfully to contemporary issues of ethics, justice, and human rights.

  • We have enriched Jewish life at JTS. Even in a virtual environment,we expanded opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to gather for inspiring learning, uplifting song, and artistic productions. This year’s senior sermons and recitals by our rabbinical and cantorial students were especially joyous and religiously meaningful and kept the vitality of our religious mission in everyone’s consciousness. We strived to bring religious thought and observance to a broader range of experiences.Students were empowered, for instance, to create liturgical responses to the intense civic moment of the November presidential election and to our ceremony of remembrance for Yom Hasho’ah. We’re eager for our return to campus this fall when we can do even more in this vein, including creating new ritual markers for the gratitude, anxieties, and celebration that will accompany our return to in-person work and study.

  • We have expanded our already popular community education programs, offering online learning that has reached thousands more people eager for Jewish education, connection, and spiritual nourishment. A new collaboration with the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, ScholarStream, has furthered our ability to bring JTS scholarship into synagogues and homes.

  • We have amplified JTS’s moral and religious voice in the public sphere. Referencing Jewish texts and tradition, we urged participation in last fall’s elections, condemned hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, spoke out on the January 6 capitol riot, and pointed the way toward greater racial justice after the verdict in the murder of George Floyd. We joined interfaith efforts to promote vaccination and underscore the urgency of protecting our planet. And recently, we raised our voice to condemn a spate of brutal attacks on our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community, sadly just the latest in the millennia-old scourge of antisemitism. 

  • We have convened some of our most prominent alumni to explore immediate responses to the pandemic and reflect on what comes next, offering online events for rabbis, day school heads, chaplains, early childhood educators, and religious school leaders.

Over the past year, I have made virtual visits to synagogues across North America to share my vision for JTS and to hear from you about the kinds of leadership and learning that will nourish and strengthen your communities. Each of these conversations has helped me see more clearly than ever how what we do at JTS can invigorate Jewish life everywhere.

Even amid a global pandemic, we have touched so many lives. We’ve seen just how much digital technology can enable us to share our Torah with people far beyond our campus. But we have seen, too, that when it comes to educating future Jewish leaders, there is no substitute for face-to-face community. I so look forward to the fall, when members of this unique academic and religious community can come back together on the gorgeous, renovated campus that most of us have not yet seen, grateful and excited for the chance to resume in-person learning, prayer, and celebration; and to share the joys and sorrows of our everyday lives.

We hope you’ll join us next spring, when we’ll be hosting a series of events celebrating our extended community and our beautiful new spaces. Until then, I thank you sincerely for your continued interest in and support of JTS. 

With my best wishes,

Shuly Rubin Schwartz