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Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. Credit: Hebrew College.
Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. Credit: Hebrew College.
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Rabbi Daniel Lehmann sees opportunity in interreligious dialogue, BDS challenge in Berkeley

As first Jewish president of Berkeley, California’s Graduate Theological Union, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, former head of Boston-area’s Hebrew College, plans to implement gradual, but significant change.

The Graduate Theological Union (GTU) of Berkeley, Calif., recently announced the selection of Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann as the eighth president in the school’s 56-year history.

Rabbi Lehmann, 56, comes to the position from Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., where he recently completed his tenure as president, and professor of pluralism and Jewish education. He also served as board chair of the Boston Theological Institute, where he successfully led Hebrew College to become the first non-Christian institution to join that theological consortium.

He is married to Dr. Lisa Soleymani Lehmann, a primary-care physician and executive director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for Ethics in Health Care, as well as associate professor of medicine and medical ethics at Harvard Medical School. The couple has three children.

JNS interviewed the rabbi about his appointment and to hear the vision and expectations as what will be the educational institution’s first Jewish president.

Q: What is your vision for GTU?

A: GTU is moving in the direction of intensifying and expanding its interreligious focus that has been in process for quite some time. They’ve had all Christian presidents up until now, and I’m excited to position the GTU as the hub of religious and interreligious education in the Bay Area, but also to move it into the digital age and make it a global institution.

In addition to calling it the Graduate Theological Union, we could use “GTU” to refer to a Global Theological University. There are real opportunities to engage not only the East Bay and Berkeley, which has been the primary focus, but to move into San Francisco and the Silicon Valley to engage the high-tech world, and the business and academic world on the other side of the bay, as a way to deliver interreligious program that the bay area has not yet seen.

I envision partnering with a whole host of institutions—creating a festival of religions, kind of like a limmud, but interreligious for a few days with interreligious text study and conversations.

I also have an idea of taking a number of professors from religious communities, such as the Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Christian communities, and getting into an RV to go across the country, stopping in various towns across America and doing interreligious learning, inviting the public to participate and filming it, creating a documentary of religious engagement and pluralism.

I believe that the GTU is the largest or among the largest Ph.D. programs in religious studies in the country, with 170-plus Ph.D. students per year, and it needs to market itself differently, to be more national and international. There are real opportunities to engage with UC Berkeley more, which recently closed its undergraduate religious-studies program, which could crate an opening to serve the UC undergraduate level as well. I envision creating an interreligious residential experience on the UC campus.

Q: What’s an example of a way you’d like to bring GTU into the digital age?

A: We could open courses and potentially degree programs online. When I came to Hebrew College 10 years ago, I put online a master’s degree in Jewish studies and Jewish education, which opens up a global audience. We could do that for courses and degree programs, as well as programs like a Beit Midrash learning, with Islamic and Jewish texts. That’s how we can engage a global audience, and be seen as a resource for religious education and interreligious engagement. GTU hasn’t been in the digital space yet, and given northern California’s role in digital tech, it’s about time.

Q: As its first Jewish president, how will your appointment affect GTU and beyond?

A: To be a rabbi, and a Jewish educator and leader, at the helm of this interreligious consortium is good for the Jews and enables the growth of the Jewish-studies program, which was the first non-Christian program at GTU, founded early on, and to give it additional prominence. It allows Jewish religious thought and practice to be more front and center. While it’s been a part of the institution since 1968, this will raise the profile.

The way GTU is physically structured is that it has a mirpeset (“balcony”) all around it, so I’m going to put up a sukkah during Sukkot. That’s never happened during Sukkot before here.

So I will bring the exposure as a traditional Jew with an Orthodox background.

There is an opportunity to promote Jewish studies not from a dispassionate secular perspective, but from a practicing religious perspective, bringing that religious commitment into conversation with other practices and thoughts.

In addition, California in particular is more secular, but a place with great spiritual yearning. So there’s an opportunity to bridge those gaps without an agenda.

Q: What do you expect will be the biggest challenges in your new position?

A: GTU has a culture that’s very tolerant and open, but UC Berkeley, from a BDS perspective, is a challenging place. GTU is only a block off the Berkeley campus, and I suspect there will be times in which what happens there will impact me and others at GTU.

Another challenge is that across the street is the first and currently only Muslim undergraduate college, Zaytuna. The relationships so far between them and GTU have been good, but depending on the culture there and what kind of political engagement is taking place on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, there could be challenges. I know they have a prominent member of their community who is a vociferous and vitriolic pro-Palestinian voice from Nablus; he is a concern for me, as I’m interested in making sure the culture is not toxic in any way or has tension as a result of that. I’m pretty out there as a Zionist and politically centrist, while most GTU leadership has been on the progressive Christian side. I’m going in with an optimistic and positive attitude knowing good groundwork has been laid. That could present some opportunities and potentially some interesting challenges.

Q: Why do you believe interreligious education is so important in today’s world?

A: We are living in a pluralistic society. America, in particular, is diverse religiously and a religious place. I think if we are gong to live as religious communities, we have to better understand each other, our profound differences, and explore our commonalities. We can enrich our own religious life by exploring those, and partnering in terms of responding and confronting challenges economically, social, politically, environmentally and deepen religious self-understanding.

I believe that you really get to know your own religious tradition when it’s in dialogue, and in my personal experience and communal experience, it’s enriching, deepening and expanding to engage a broader community in religious and spiritual life.

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