Schorsch, Ismar

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SCHORSCH, ISMAR (1935– ), Jewish historian and sixth chancellor of the *Jewish Theological Seminary. Born in Germany, Schorsch was three when his family came to the United States in December 1938, a month after Kristallnacht. He grew up in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where his father, Rabbi Emil Schorsch, served as a congregational rabbi. Schorsch was educated at Ursinus College and later at jts, where he was ordained in 1962. At Columbia University he studied under Salo W. *Baron and Fritz Stern and earned his doctorate in Jewish history in 1969. After serving as a U.S. Army chaplain, he joined the faculty of jts, rose to the rank of provost during the tenure of his mentor, Gerson D.*Cohen, and was appointed chancellor upon Cohen's retirement in 1986. Schorsch has announced his intention to retire from that post in 2006 and to return to full-time teaching and scholarship.

As an historian, Schorsch has published many works on aspects of modern German-Jewish history. Stressing that Jews are historical actors, not merely victims of persecution, he analyzed the response of German Jewry to antisemitism in the pre-World War i period. The main focus of his scholarship was the intellectual history of modern Jews, especially the German-Jewish *Wissenschaft des Judentums movement. He studied the rise of historical thinking as a source of authority within modern Judaism and delineated both reformist and conservative tendencies within that new trend. Schorsch assumed the presidency of the Leo Baeck Institute, a research institute devoted to German-Jewish history, in 1985.

Having become chancellor of jts in the midst of an epochal debate over the impact of feminism on Conservative Judaism, Schorsch identified himself as a "militant centrist." He quickly completed the process of opening jts professional schools to qualified women candidates by bringing the Cantorial School into line with the Rabbinical School, which had begun admitting women late in Cohen's tenure. Under his leadership, jts expanded its training program for Jewish educators into a Graduate School of Jewish Education. Schorsch also oversaw the growth of the seminary's Jerusalem campus. He has promoted collaborative initiatives with other institutions, notably the 1991 Project Judaica program, which has brought jts-trained scholars to the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow to help revive Jewish learning in Russia. Near the end of his tenure in 2005, jts had grown significantly, with an enrollment of 700 students in its various programs. With the percentage of American Jews self-identifying as Conservative dropping in recent years, Schorsch has acknowledged that strengthening the center of the Jewish religious spectrum remains a priority for his successor and his movement in the future.

As a spokesperson for Conservative Judaism, Schorsch addressed both his denominational constituency and a broader audience. In October 2005, he completed a twelve-year cycle of weekly Torah commentaries, through which he engaged Conservative Jewry more directly than any of his predecessors. He has been a frequent and outspoken critic of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, charging it with intransigence and disregard of the broader Jewish community. In national affairs, he has brought Jewish perspectives to contemporary political debates over environmentalism, health care, welfare reform, and separation of church and state.

[Michael Panitz (2nd ed.)]