JTS’s Eternal Light

Beha'alotekha By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 11, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary | Conservative Judaism

Forty-five years ago my marriage to my wife Sally coincided with the weekly Torah portion of Beha’alotekha, “When you (Aaron) mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand” (Numbers 8:2). The passage deals with the kindling of the menorah in the Tabernacle. On the odd verb “to mount” or to raise, Rashi commented that Aaron “was to kindle until the flame would rise on its own.” Marriage is a rite of passage. My father, who officiated at our wedding, offered Rashi’s comment as his prayer to us that our combined flames would long burn brightly on their own.

Three children and eleven grandchildren later, I wish to announce my retirement as Chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary effective June 30, 2006 during the week that we again read the Torah portion of Beha’alotekha. By that date, God willing, I will have completed a score of years in office and reached the biblical age of seventy. I do so with more than a tinge of sadness, because throughout my tenure, I have found my work deeply fulfilling. But I decided long ago to step down while still in top form.

The time, however, has come for me to return to the life of the mind. During the past twenty years, I have planted many seeds that deserve to be tended and harvested. My experiences as Chancellor have been expansive, provocative and richly fertilizing and I return to my study a wiser man.

As I leave office the Seminary’s light burns brightly. In its 120-year history, it has never been larger, stronger or more focused. Imbued by a spirit of truthfulness and tradition, its world-class faculty attracts record numbers of students, who have access to the gamut of Jewish creativity housed in its incomparable library and Jewish Museum. It is governed by an exceptionally prominent and philanthropic board of trustees and administered by a talented and devoted cohort of administrators. Buttressed by a balanced budget, well managed portfolio and vigorous annual campaign, its endowment grows apace.

At the heart of this dynamic learning community beats a passion for serious Jewish education. The core mission of the Seminary is to inspire and prepare the curators of the Jewish legacy who will staff the multiple venues of transmission throughout the Jewish community – rabbis and cantors with pedagogic skills, educators with textual competency and lay and professional leaders with a religious sensibility, and all of them with a command of Hebrew. Hailing from a family of gifted educators, I have labored to make my heritage the agenda of the Seminary and the Conservative movement in the context of an open society.

My work has often given me a ringside seat at historic events in Washington, Jerusalem , Amman and elsewhere. But what I will cherish most is the intimate contact that I have enjoyed over the years with the men and women who support the Seminary loyally and generously. Their respect for tradition, their ability to see the big picture and their unselfishness are the bedrock of the institution. At the forefront of this group stands Gershon Kekst, the beloved chairman of the Seminary’s board, who has served by my side for most of my Chancellorship. His counsel, largess and leadership had everything to do with my success. May God bless them all.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Beha’alotekha have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.