Academy for Jewish Religion (New York)
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Since its founding in 1956 as a rabbinical school, The Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR or The Academy) has been at the forefront of pluralistic rabbinic and cantorial training. Located in Yonkers, New York, two miles north of New York City, its graduates and students serve both movement-affiliated and non-affiliated congregations in North America and around the world.
The Academy for Jewish Religion was founded in 1956 as a rabbinical school. Initially called The Academy for Liberal Judaism (and then The Academy for Higher Jewish Learning), it was granted a charter to ordain rabbis and instruct Jewish leaders by the Regents of the University of the State of New York. Renamed The Academy for Jewish Religion during the sixties, it continued to be a much needed ‘still small voice’ on the rabbinical scene.
From its inception, the Academy was inspired by Rabbi Stephen Wise’s vision to educate rabbis and other spiritual leaders for klal Yisrael, the entire Jewish community. Launched with courage and initiative by Rabbi Louis I. Newman, the Academy is indebted to many learned scholars for their superior teaching and extraordinary dedication in forming and sustaining an independent seminary. Rabbis Felix Levy, David Neiman, and Chaim Pearl, along with Professors Cyrus Gordon and Max Kadushin, gave enormous support and enthusiasm during the early years. As Dean, Rabbi Stephen Leon served with distinction and was devoted both to the institution and its students. Rabbis Robert Aronowitz, Michael Gelber, Emily Korzenik, and Albert J. Lowenberg also contributed greatly to the early administration.
In 1987, Rabbi Dr. Shohama Wiener became Executive Dean; in 1994 she was appointed President. With her knowledge and expertise in educational administration, the congregational rabbinate, and the field of spiritual guidance, she promoted a major revision of the Academy’s curriculum and attracted an enlarged and highly gifted faculty and cadre of students. Rabbi Samuel Barth joined the administration in 1991 as Dean. With his national and international education and experience, Rabbi Barth expanded the academic component of programs, as well as the Academy’s role within the Jewish academic community.
In 1992, the Academy officially added a Cantorial Program under the direction of Cantor Kenneth Cohen, gifted hazzan and spiritual leader. The cantorial program has attracted a distinguished faculty, drawn to the vision of training rabbis and cantors as partners in Jewish spiritual leadership. Others have further added their mark on the development of the program, including Hazzan Sol Zim and Hazzan Ram’n Tasat.
In 2001, Rabbi David Greenstein, Ph.D, was appointed President of AJR, and Rabbi Wiener became President Emerita. Rabbi Greenstein is an alumnus and member of the faculty of the Academy. Rabbi Greenstein later took on the position of Rosh Ha-Yeshivah until his departure in 2009. A noted scholar and teacher, Rabbi Greenstein has earned the reputation of combining the best qualities of being a Talmid Chaham (wise scholar) with the vision of progressive spiritual leadership. Rabbi Greenstein’s paintings, which are an expression of his Jewish concerns, have been exhibited through the Phyllis Weil Gallery in shows in the United States and Paris, France.
In this same time period, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, a distinguished scholar and current Professor of Bible at AJR, was appointed Academic Dean. An inspiring teacher and author, Dr. Prouser has made significant contributions toward making the Bible speak to central existential concerns, specifically regarding ethical dilemmas and individual growth. In 2004, Dr. Horn Prouser was appointed the Executive Vice President, overseeing the Academy’s rapid and significant academic and institutional growth.
The Academy has taken its place as a Jewish seminary of major significance preparing men and women to serve the Jewish community as congregational spiritual leaders, chaplains, educators, and administrators in Jewish communal service organizations. A unique feature of the Academy is that the majority of AJR students are ‘second career’ people who come to their studies following successful first careers in law, medicine, education, business, and other professions. AJR graduates serve in Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and unaffiliated congregational settings throughout the world. AJR’s pluralistic communal life, rigorous training in traditional text, and faculty which represents the full range of the Jewish community prepares its students to meet the spiritual needs of twenty-first century Jews in a post-denominational era.
Preliminary Programs of Study
The Academy has two preliminary programs of study specifically designed to prepare students for the Academy's ordination programs. These programs include Gesher and Mechina.
Gesher is Hebrew for bridge. The Gesher program is a bridge into the Academy’s ordination programs. Individuals who are not sure that they want to pursue a course of study leading to ordination may enroll in regular AJR courses as non-matriculating students for up to two semesters. This experience allows them to clarify their goals in order to determine whether the Academy is the right learning environment for them. Gesher students accepted into ordination programs are credited for any courses completed as Gesher students.
Admission to the Gesher program is based upon an interview with the Dean of Admissions, completion of the Gesher application form and a passing grade on the Hebrew placement exam. Cantorial students unable to pass the Hebrew exam may enroll in specific courses at AJR for one year while studying Hebrew.
Participation in the Gesher Program does not represent admission into or preference in admission to the ordination programs. Gesher students are encouraged, though not required, to participate in AJR community activities. Credit for independent studies and financial aid are not available to Gesher students. Transfer credit and advanced standing are evaluated upon admission into one of the ordination programs.
Students who wish to register for a second semester in Gesher must be prepared to make a decision regarding application to an ordination program. In exceptional cases the Academic Dean will grant permission for an additional semester of Gesher status.
The two-semester Mechina program was created to meet the needs of students with limited grounding in Hebrew language and Judaic studies. The Hebrew language component includes basic study of Biblical, rabbinic and modern Hebrew while the Judaic studies component combines an in-depth survey of Jewish history and an introduction to the study of Jewish texts. Mechina classes meet for two full mornings per week for two semesters. Mechina students are part of the Academy community and are expected to participate in AJR community activities, such as the fall Retreat and the spring Intensive.
Admission to the Mechina is based upon an interview with the Dean of Admissions and the completion of the Mechina application form. Participation in the Mechina Program does not represent admission to or preference in admission to one of the ordination programs.
At the heart of the Academy’s work are programs leading to ordination as Rav U-moreh/morah BeYisrael (Rabbi and Teacher in Israel), and Hazzan U-Moreh/Morah BeYisrael (Hazzan/Cantor and Teacher in Israel). These two programs offer depth, rigor and integrity as they embrace academic scholarship, traditional Jewish study, ethical training, professional skills and spiritual preparation. The structure of AJR is designed to support students through the years of formation and study, culminating in ordination.
The atmosphere that is fostered by students, faculty, and administration revolves around the traditional values of ahavat Torah (love of Torah), ahavat Yisrael (love of the people Israel), kavod laTorah (honor and respect for Torah), and ahavat HaShem (love of G-d).
To contend with a rapidly changing Jewish world, the AJR has a pluralistic trans-denominational focus and prepares its students for the realities of professional Jewish service and leadership; be it in a congregation, a chaplaincy, or as an educator or administrator.
The sequence of courses in professional skills equips rabbis and cantors alike to meet the challenges inherent in every field of the contemporary rabbinate and cantorate. Counseling classes develop the ability to listen and respond carefully, and also to appreciate when an expert therapist should become involved. Through sequence courses in education and communication, students learn to teach and “preach” in a manner that is responsible to the values of Torah, and also appreciative of the realities of contemporary Jewish life. Courses in contemporary liturgy and congregational dynamics begin the AJR's graduates in the process of transformational change. Graduates are then qualified to help a congregation or agency develop a vision for the future, and then help to begin the process that will actualize this vision.
The faculty of AJR are available to offer guidance to students and graduates, and are also available as consultants and visiting teachers to congregations. In partnership with congregational leadership, the Academy and its ordinees are active in building vibrant and compelling communities for the future.
The Rabbinical Program leads to ordination as Rav uMoreh/Morah b’Yisrael (Rabbi and Teacher in Israel). Its goal is to assist a student in developing the Jewish learning and professional skills to serve and lead the contemporary Jewish community as well as to help weave its moral fiber. The Academy's diverse faculty easily facilitates the assistance of students to understand the multi-faceted nature and traditions of Judaism. A rabbi is frequently called upon to lead religious services alone to serve as a kol bo. The AJR's program ensures that its graduates are competent to serve in a wide variety of settings. The Academy emphasizes that, "music is the soul of Jewish liturgy and all our rabbinical students gain from studying alongside cantorial students."
Recognizing the evolving role of the cantor or hazzan, who functions as a spiritual leader of the Jewish people, AJR pioneered the full ordination (semikha) of cantorial students as Hazzan uMoreh/Morah b’Yisrael (Cantor and Teacher in Israel).
AJR's vision is for the cantor (hazzan) to be a living resource of all aspects of Jewish musical tradition with a profound mastery of the melodies and chants for all approaches to Jewish prayer, hassidic niggunim, and Yiddish songs. AJR notes that the contemporary cantor is also charged with leadership and responsibility in many other areas, and must be familiar with classical Jewish texts, Biblical traditions, contemporary Judaic scholarship, education, and the skills of working with individuals and communities in times of joy and sorrow.
The Academy also envisions the rabbi and the cantor working with each other as partners, sharing leadership and responsibilities, and recognizing the unique expertise held by each. To enhance mutual understanding, and to foster a common mission of leadership and service, rabbinical and cantorial students study alongside each other to the greatest extent possible. The AJR also anticipates that in some cases a cantor might be the sole spiritual leader of a congregation, where the education offered by AJR supports this possibility.
Future educational programs
The Academy for Jewish Religion is in the process of obtaining accreditation for conferring a master's degree in Jewish Studies. Currently, students enrolled in either ordination program are dual enrolled in Gratz College in Pennsylvania and receive their master's through Gratz's program. After the completion of this process, the AJR will be able to confer a master's in Jewish studies on their own, independent of Gratz college. Gratz College itself does not offer theological training for the rabbinate.