Seeking to ‘Amplify JTS’s Moral Voice’
An Interview with Shuly Rubin Schwartz
Shuly Rubin Schwartz has broken the ultimate glass ceiling at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the premier educational institution for Conservative Judaism. In June, she became the first woman to be named chancellor since its founding in 1886.
Prior to her appointment, she held numerous leadership roles at JTS, most recently as provost. A scholar of American Jewish history who received both her master’s degree and Ph.D. at JTS, Schwartz, who is in her mid-60s, has brought to light previously overlooked contributions of women to the development of American Judaism, including in her 2006 book, The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life.
Her family has called JTS home for four generations. Her grandfather, Jacob Pearlstein, emigrated from Eastern Europe with a minimal heder education and enrolled in its undergraduate program, then called Teachers Institute. Her parents met at JTS. Her father, Mordecai Rubin, became a rabbi; her mother, Gilla, was a Jewish educator. Both her late husband, Gershon Schwartz, and their son Moshe were ordained by JTS.
A Hadassah life member, Schwartz lives in Manhattan with her second husband, Eric Fishman, an attorney. Together they have five living children and 15 grandchildren.
What does your appointment say about the place of women in Judaism today?
I’m deeply cognizant of the symbolic nature of my being chosen chancellor. It’s huge for Jewish women. When I began here 30 years ago as assistant to the dean of List College, I was often the only woman at the table. Today, two of the three deans are women. My senior leadership team is 50/50 male-
female, and many department chairs are women.
Before becoming chancellor, you helped bring Jewish ethics and gender studies to JTS. What areas need focus today?
I want to amplify JTS’s moral voice. People are looking for guidance on how to live life in this complicated world. How ought we as Jews to respond to issues like the impact of technology, artificial intelligence, income inequality and racism? My goal is to develop a mechanism to make JTS the place where these conversations happen.
How is the pandemic transforming Jewish life?
During this pandemic it would have been easy enough to say, “I can’t cope with my Judaism now. I have to figure out how to get groceries, to find toilet paper, how to educate my kids when they’re home and I have to work, how I’m going to deal with my aging parents when I can’t see them.” And yet, that’s not what Jews have done. The fervor, the experimentation, the commitment to grappling with our tradition and figuring out: How do we celebrate Shabbat? How do we grieve? How do we bury our dead? How do we celebrate rites of passage? We have come to appreciate the ways we can use Zoom effectively.
On a personal level, we celebrated my grandson’s brit milah at the end of September. It was sad not to be surrounded by family, friends and community, but there was deeper religious intensity in this minimalist moment because only 10 of us were present. I am told that the intimacy was also palpable on the Zoom.
I’m moved by the power of ordinary Jews to make meaning of their Judaism and effect transformational change bit by bit, in every era.
You call Henrietta Szold an icon. What can she teach us today?
She was the first female student at JTS. She is a model of what a brilliant, devoted Jewish leader can achieve despite the gendered limitations of one’s era. I learn from her every day.
How can the Hanukkah story guide us in our times?
Jews living in Hellenist times encountered a very attractive, all-consuming civilization with all sorts of enticements. The Maccabees fought the Seleucid Empire under Antiochus, and their Hasmonean descendants created a new holiday: Hanukkah. Contrary to popular interpretation, they found a way to integrate their Judaism with Hellenism in a way that enriched Judaism. So, too, can we.
Rahel Musleah, a frequent contributor to Hadassah Magazine, runs Jewish tours to India and speaks about its communities (explorejewishindia.com).
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