From his time in the president’s office, Eisen recalls many faculty meetings, work on vision statements and speeches—and “endless” conversations with Meyerson. “Conversation partner was one of my major roles,” Eisen laughs. “He is one of the greatest intellectuals I have known in my time.”

Dr. Renée Fox, the Annenberg Professor Emerita of Sociology, who worked with Eisen in Meyerson’s office as a faculty representative, remembers Eisen as “unusually mature” and “intellectually brilliant.”

“He was always an excellent writer, and was obviously a man of faith, but one who was both a questioning and questing person,” Fox says. “He was strongly anchored in tradition and faith, but was very open-minded.”

Flipping the usual student-faculty dynamic on its head, Eisen invited Fox, as well as other faculty, to his family’s home for meals. “It was sort of a role-reversal—they received me, rather than the other way around.” Fox laughs. “But he always was willing to open his personal life to others in that way. He’s a very kind and compassionate person.”

Eisen received the University’s Thouron scholarship and went on to study at Oxford for two years. “I fully expected that I’d come back and be a journalist,” Eisen confesses. “I got bitten by the academic bug. I realized that I could engage in the study of Judaism.” He subsequently attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he received his Ph.D.

“I regard myself as a kid who grew up at the University of Pennsylvania,” Eisen sums up. “It opened up the world to me. From there to Oxford, to Hebrew University—Penn really did its job.”


In the years since, Eisen has literally written the book on modern American Judaism, several times over. His books—among them Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community; Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America; and Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming—focus on the complexities and changes inherent in contemporary Jewish life. The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America, co-authored with sociologist Steven M. Cohen, examines the definition of Judaism as it applies to contemporary American Jews.

The reception of his books has been overwhelmingly positive. Rethinking Modern Judaism garnered Eisen a National Jewish Book Award in 1999, and the influential Jewish magazine Tikkun called it “fascinating,” and “an insightful entrance point to understanding the evolution of the theologies of America’s largest Jewish denominations.”

The direct relevance of his scholarship, Eisen himself contends, renders him a tailor-made fit for the position of chancellor. “I wouldn’t make the case for a scholar, in general, to hold this position, but a scholar who first of all has always had contemporary American Judaism as his subject—that kind of scholar”—Eisen pauses—“me, I can certainly make a case for.

“A rabbi could do an excellent job, and there are many who I would have chosen. But they didn’t simply choose a non-rabbi. I’m an active Conservative Jew, who is passionate about contemporary Jewish life.”

Additionally, Eisen notes, the seminary is itself first and foremost an academic institution, an intellectual training ground for young rabbis preparing to put theories into practice. “I’m trying to maintain that scholarship as I help the seminary do what I try to do personally—to bring the scholarship to bear on the issues of the day. It’s an exciting time for American Judaism.”

In conversation, Eisen comes across as almost relentlessly upbeat, seeing revitalization where others see potential demise. “You often hear about the decline in numbers of the American Jewish population,” Eisen says. “The numbers of people who belong to synagogues, the numbers of Jews who identify as Jews—these numbers are going down.

Arnold Eisen's Moment by Jordana Horn

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Arnold Eisen was photographed in 1973 for a Gazette article on his time as Penn President Martin Meyerson’s student assistant and “conversation partner.” The experience “kindled a spark years later that would lead me to accept the chancellor job at JTS,” says the older—and less bushy—Eisen today.

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