Welcome to the 21st volume of Daf Kesher. In my weekly column I plan to share my view of Schechter Manhattan and thoughts on broader Jewish educational issues. I hope that my writing will offer insights into what makes Schechter Manhattan such a special place to learn and grow. One of the things that makes our school distinctive is the influence of the person we are named for, Solomon Schechter.
Solomon Schechter was a scholar and Rabbi, who was born in Romania in 1847 into a hasidic family. After studying in yeshivot he went on to study Judaism from a modern, critical perspective in Vienna and Berlin. Eventually he made his way to England, where he became a professor of Judaism at Cambridge. During that time he tracked down the Cairo geniza and uncovered a thousand years worth of Jewish historical documents. In 1902 the founders of the new Jewish Theological Seminary of America invited Schechter to come to New York to lead the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism, where he served until the end of his life in 1915.
Schechter observed that Jewish life in America was very different from Europe, which was the center of Jewish life at the turn of the twentieth century. Schechter wrote that “In this great, glorious and free country we Jews need not sacrifice a single iota of our Torah, and in the enjoyment of absolute equality with our fellow citizens we can live to carry out those ideals for which our ancestors so often had to die.” He expressed how living in America was an opportunity to live a full Jewish life, freely, and in the open.
Throughout history, Jews have asked: How can we sustain our distinctiveness while interacting with other people and ideas? In some ways, the religious freedom of America put a new lens on an age old question. In the United States, a nation of immigrants, many different types of people, from different ethnicities, cultural, and religious backgrounds come together. The balance and tension between ethnic and American identity was and continues to be a source of celebration and of concern to many Americans, not only Jews. Solomon Schechter offered important answers to that question for the modern Jew and his approach informs the type of Jewish life we live at Schechter Manhattan. For Schechter, and the other founders of Conservative Judaism, the response to the question of Jewish identity in America was not to separate from American culture, but to integrate modern ideas and modes of living with a commitment to Jewish traditions and heritage.
As one historian describes him “Schechter represented in his very person the kind of integration that was at the heart of everything the Seminary stood for. He spoke both Yiddish and English (as well as German and Hebrew); he had studied both in Romanian yeshivot and in the Science of Judaism schools in Vienna (and Berlin and London); he had written on the mystics of Safed and on Abraham Lincoln (one of his heroes from early childhood);… he was open-minded intellectually and traditionalist in practice.”
Schechter expressed a dual commitment to living in modern America and sustaining Jewish tradition. He stood firmly for studying Judaism in a modern way, including academic studies developed by scholars of all sorts, while at the same time he argued for a traditional Judaism. For Schechter, important ideas from modernity should not be ignored. And at the same, Jewish values should inform how we interact with them. While we should surely stand against and apart from things that are clearly wrong, we should not pretend that all things in our cultural milieu are idolatrous. Schechter believed that this integrative approach, balancing interaction with the surrounding American culture and ideas of modern society with sustaining traditional Jewish values and practice, was essential for the future of the Jewish people. He wrote, “Unless we succeed in effecting an organization which, while loyal to the Torah, to the teachings of our sages, to the traditions of our fathers, to the usages and customs of Israel, shall at the same time introduce the English sermon, and adopt scientific methods in our seminaries, in our training of rabbis and schoolmasters, and for our synagogues and Talmud Torahs… traditional Judaism will not survive another generation in this country.”
I think it is appropriate that our school is named after Solomon Schechter. We aspire for our students to develop wholly integrated identities, Jews, Americans, and New Yorkers. We hope that, like Solomon Schechter, our students will speak both English and Hebrew; they will study both the wisdom of Jewish texts and the Science of the 21st century, like STEAM; they will write both divrei torah, their own explications of Jewish ideas, and also poetry and essays about topics of our day; that they will be critical thinkers in all areas of their studies, general and Jewish, and make commitments to traditional Jewish practices.
We also hope that their participation in our warm Jewish community, critical and careful study of Jewish texts, history and traditions, and developing relationships with Jewish role models will ground them in the heritage and values of their people, so that they can confidently engage with the culture and ideas of people around them, ready to embrace that which is consonant with their values and stand apart from that which is not.
As we start the new school year, I am inspired by the ideas and example of Solomon Schechter. I believe that enacting our school mission is an extension of Schechter’s vision to sustain Judaism into the future. And that the integrative approach to Jewish identity building that Schechter professed will serve us and our students well as we seek to help them find their places in the world.
Each week we will feature the written work of our students. We hope that you will stop back next week and see what they are writing and thinking about.