Shuly Rubin Schwartz began her work as the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary nearly two years ago. But it wasn’t until this week that the Conservative movement flagship formally celebrated Schwartz’s appointment, which made her the first woman to lead the 136-year-old seminary.
In a speech delivered Tuesday at the seminary’s Manhattan home, the historian and former JTS provost remarked on her own Conservative Jewish upbringing and the inspiration of her mother — an executive director of a Jewish children’s services agency — and emphasized studies showing that “fewer Jews are building rich, sustaining Jewish lives bound up with the Jewish story, Jewish practice and learning, and helping Jews in need.”
To address this, she said JTS would expand its cultural programming, both in person and virtually.
“My goal is to offer a nuanced educational approach that prepares future leaders to share Judaism’s riches and inspires them to effect needed change,” she said. “In addition, I want to expand our program offerings to the wider community by developing flexible learning opportunities both in-house and online. I see JTS as a vibrant hub for teaching, learning and dialogue that models public discourse across ideological and religious spectra.”
It’s been a transformational time for JTS, which includes an undergraduate college, education school and seminary and operates many affiliated initiatives. In March, the seminary named Rabbi Ayelet Cohen as the first woman to head its rabbinical school. Schwartz’s inauguration also served as the official unveiling of its newly renovated campus, completed just before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The renovation includes a revamped but smaller library, an upgraded residence hall and a 200-seat state-of-the-art auditorium and performance space, where Tuesday’s ceremony took place.
The Conservative movement, representing a centrist approach between Orthodoxy and Reform, was once the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, but Reform now claims more followers. A 2021 Pew survey found that for every respondent who joined Conservative Judaism, nearly three people who were raised in the movement have left it.
In December the movement also warned synagogues that there weren’t enough Conservative rabbis to fill a growing number of pulpit openings. A wave of retirements announced during the pandemic played a role, but the seminary is also ordaining fewer clergy than in years past, and fewer of those being ordained are choosing pulpit positions.
Schwartz succeeds Arnold Eisen, who was the second non-rabbi to hold the position of chancellor of the seminary. She is the eighth chancellor in the school’s history, joining the ranks of such prominent Jewish thought leaders as Solomon Schechter and Louis Finkelstein.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer offered pre-recorded remarks via video, calling JTS an institution filled with the “light of wisdom and understanding” and calling its educators “beacons of light.”
New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, who is Jewish, and other civic leaders attended the ceremony.
Prior to serving as provost at JTS, Schwartz was for 25 years dean of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies, JTS’s undergraduate dual-degree program with Barnard College and Columbia University. In her speech, she noted that her maternal grandfather graduated from JTS’s Teachers Institute.