- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

NEWTON, Mass. (AP) - She’s a former Jewish matchmaker raised in a strict Orthodox tradition in South Africa who still keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath.

He’s a carpenter whose expansive spiritual search included years in a remote interfaith meditation community in New Mexico.

At the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, Judith Ehrlich and Stephen Laudau make perfect classmates.

The school is the country’s only full-time, accredited transdenominational rabbinical school, and this spring, Miss Ehrlich and Mr. Landau will be part of its first graduating class.

“There’s an openness here to the wisdom that comes from everywhere,” Mr. Landau said. “It makes you learn about how the world really is instead of shutting your eyes to people who don’t agree with you.”

Hebrew College President David Gordis opened the seminary five years ago as denominational labels were becoming less relevant in American religious life, including within the Jewish community. He believed rabbis needed a deeper understanding of the full range of Jewish thought.

“There’s no question that for Jews of virtually every persuasion, the label on the door of the synagogue has become much less important,” Mr. Gordis said.

Students hear different views in traditional lectures and “bet midrash,” a study hall where assigned partners, such as Mr. Landau and Miss Ehrlich, tackle dense Jewish texts together. The goal is not to blur denominational differences, but rather make them better understood.

“My mind can be stretched by it, my soul can be stretched by it. I don’t have to be threatened by that,” Mr. Gordis said.

The school’s start-up was a risk because the major branches of American Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist — traditionally draw rabbis from schools within their movements.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism questioned whether an independent school can truly train rabbis for congregations committed to one tradition. Each Jewish stream has traditions and theology that can’t be fully understood if they aren’t the focus of study, he said.

“People who chose to be Conservative Jews or Reform Jews I think are entitled to a leader who is both committed to that and understands it well,” said the rabbi, whose group represents more than 700 North American synagogues. “At this point, I have no evidence that the school will be able to [provide] that.”

The inaugural class of 11 includes three women raised Orthodox, which is the most traditional Jewish stream and only ordains men. There is also a convert from Christianity, several students from the liberal Reform branch, and someone with a Reconstructionist background, which de-emphasizes the supernatural and sees Judaism as an evolving civilization.

Mr. Landau, 53, originally from Dallas, said he grew up more “spiritual” than religiously observant, but always had a strong Jewish identity even as he searched for meaning in nontraditional ways.

For parts of three years, Mr. Landau lived at the Lama Foundation, a meditation community in northern New Mexico, where he mixed with people of various faiths, including a Jewish teacher who sparked a greater commitment to his own roots. He left his carpentry career after a mid-life realization that he wanted to learn more about his own tradition and pass it on.

Miss Ehrlich, 52, grew up Orthodox, but now her outlook is more liberal. Years working as a matchmaker ended after Internet Jewish dating services pushed her out of business. As a rabbi, she could continue working with people during important moments in their lives, and help them develop a Jewish identity.

It was a rigorous step back into academic life for both.

A recent day for Miss Ehrlich involved morning prayer and four hours of study, including a leadership seminar and a preaching class taught by a minister from Andover Newton Theological Seminary, a Protestant school next door.

Students are required to attend prayer services twice weekly, in the tradition of whomever leads prayer that day. Some people find comfort and meaning in traditional ways, others can’t relate.

“Those differences make it difficult at times,” she said.

But Miss Ehrlich is certain her knowledge of different traditions helped her get a job as a full-time rabbi and chaplain at Hebrew SeniorLife, a consortium of Jewish assisted-living facilities with residents of various backgrounds. She also leads an unaffiliated congregation in Winthrop.

Mr. Landau and another student have been hired to lead Conservative congregations after they graduate. The school’s dean, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, said the hires should quiet doubts about the school’s viability.

But Rabbi Epstein said the hires were likely isolated.

Ultimately, the strength of the independent approach to rabbinical training can’t be measured until after graduates go out and prove themselves, Mr. Gordis said.

But he said was excited about the school’s start.

“Everything in life,” he said, “is an experiment.”

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