Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Eisen became a bar mitzvah at the Conservative synagogue Temple Emanu-El in Oak Lane, Pennsylvania, where his father was president of the Men’s Club and his family were active congregants. “My entire intellectual and spiritual formation was in the Conservative movement,” Eisen says. Most of his important Jewish influences were Conservative, such as rabbis—whether his own or his teachers in the high-school department of Gratz College, a Philadelphia-area transdenominational college of Jewish studies. He was also an active participant in United Synagogue Youth, the youth group of the Conservative movement.

Even as a teenager, however, Eisen picked up on a diminishing intellectualism in the Conservative ranks. “I did see a contrast between the vitality of the Jewish past that I was studying at Gratz and the present,” he says. “A lot went on around me that didn’t seem as vital. There was a certain amount of mediocrity.

“Something happened to religion in the modern world, which moved it from the center of people’s lives to the periphery,” he adds. “It was a set of changes that I only began to understand when I studied [German sociologist] Max Weber at Penn.” A graduate of Central High School, Eisen received a Mayor’s Scholarship and chose to attend the University.

In his description of his own time at Penn, Eisen wholeheartedly acknowledges that, while he always found religion academically interesting, his Judaism was spiritually peripheral to his undergraduate experience. While he attended services at Hillel at the beginning of his freshman year, he became involved in other activities and left Hillel behind. Like many before and after him, he found himself sucked into the offices of The Daily Pennsylvanian, where he worked many evenings and late nights as a writer and, later, an editor. He also was one of the first student columnists for the Gazette, and spent a summer writing for what was then called the University News Bureau on the fifth floor of the Franklin Building with fellow student (and Gazette student columnist) Phyllis Kaniss CW’72, a former assistant dean at the Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Student Voices Project who is now the executive director of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, based at the Fels Institute of Government at Penn.

“I remember that Arnie and I befriended Penn people together, and somehow managed to get ourselves invited out to lunches at La Terrasse or dinner at people’s houses, and we were generally treated better than we probably deserved,” Kaniss says. “And part of it was that Arnie was such a great conversationalist that people just enjoyed hosting him—and, I guess, incidentally, me.”

Last fall, Kaniss went to hear Eisen speak at a Philadelphia synagogue, and was delighted at how little her former co-worker had changed. In addition to retaining his youthful demeanor, she says, “his personality was just as I had remembered it from Penn. He still had that combination of sharp intelligence, humor, great warmth, humility, and just plain niceness. He was making such interesting and original points about modern Judaism, but it all seemed to come from someone who seemed very much like ‘Everyman,’ and in some ways his argument was so much more persuasive because of that very down-to-earth approach.”

Academically, Eisen’s interest in Judaism flourished at Penn, as he worked on an individualized major in contemporary religious thought in a social and intellectual framework. “The great gift of the University was that it helped me to understand what had happened to Judaism in an academic context,” Eisen said. He studied with Professor Van Harvey, who for many years was a leading figure in Penn’s Department of Religious Studies, and who later would bring Eisen to Stanford after moving to the faculty there.

Eisen’s undergraduate coursework laid a foundation for his future scholarship; meanwhile, his extracurricular activities were giving him a virtual apprenticeship in running a large academic institution. In addition to his work for the DP and the Gazette, Eisen was involved in the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE). Then, during Eisen’s junior and senior years at the University, he served as one of two student assistants in the office of then-University President Martin Meyerson Hon’70—a stint which, although Eisen didn’t know it at the time, would give him a sneak preview of his future role as JTS chancellor.

“I never knew that my activity for SCUE would lead me to work in the president’s office, which would kindle a spark years later that would lead me to accept the chancellor job at JTS,” Eisen says. “It was a love of universities and what they are all about—thinking about the university as an institution—which is playing itself out in becoming chancellor.”

Arnold Eisen's Moment by Jordana Horn

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/01/07