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Hartford Seminary reaches out to Connecticut’s Jewish community

By Stacey Dresner

HARTFORD – When Joel N. Lohr was named the new president of the Hartford Seminary – set to succeed longtime President Heidi Hadsell this July – he explained why the institution’s interreligious work is so important to him.

“The Seminary’s tagline has been my life’s mission: ‘Exploring Differences, Deepening Faith,’” he said. “Together we will continue to cast a vision and forge a path toward ever more meaningful dialogue, effective peacemaking, and higher learning as we build enduring ties across religious communities and work to heal our broken world.”

While not using the Hebrew term, Tikkun Olam – “repairing the world” – which is a major concept in Judaism, Lohr’s sentiments reflect the Hartford Seminary’s increasing interest in including Judaism as part of its Abrahamic Partnerships program.

While known as a Christian seminary for most of its existence, with Islamic Studies offered since the 1970s, the Hartford Seminary has for several years been working to build its Jewish presence.

“There has been a growing movement that started maybe 20 or 30 years ago to get the Seminary to have the original Abrahamic religion a little bit better represented,” said Martin Budd, a member of Greater Hartford Jewish community who has been on the Seminary’s Board of Trustees for approximately 30 years.

Last year Professor Deena Grant was tapped to occupy the Seminary’s Judaic Studies endowed chair, which was established in 2012.

“In my view Deena Grant is a great leap forward. She is an Orthodox Jew and she is really a star,” said Budd.

As associate professor of Jewish studies at the Seminary, Grant teaches courses such as Jewish Culture in History, The Attributes of God, Biblical Hebrew, Dialoguing the Abrahamic Faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and Interpreting Hebrew Bible.

Her students are Jewish, Christian and Muslim.

Class is in session at the Hartford Seminary.

“The Hartford Seminary is a non-denominational graduate school that educates Christians, Muslims and Jews side by side,” she explains. “The interfaith environment is unique in that students on the one hand have the opportunity to delve deeply into their own faith and, on the other hand, learn about the different faith of the student sitting next to them. And so there’s a kind of dual learning going on.

“A Jewish student, for example, might take a New Testament course, and thus, learn about the content, methods and theology within the New Testament. And this student may be sitting in class next to a Muslim student who is also learning the New Testament. The relationship that can grow between these fellow students – through the shared questions, and the excitement about learning – is unique to a multi-faith religious education.”


Founded by the Congregational ministers

The Hartford Seminary was founded in 1833 by a group of Congregational Church clergy to train ministers for its churches. It expanded its work over the years to training church educators and other religious workers, including those from other Christian denominations, as well as women – first admitted to the Seminary in 1889. By 1972, the Hartford Seminary, among other new programs, began to offer Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim relations.

“That was a result of the fact that in the 19th century, they sent missionaries to the Middle East,” Budd explained. “They had a large collection of Islamic art and literature so it started its Christian-Muslim Center.”

Budd said he had for years urged the Seminary to hire some Jewish professors. After arriving in 2000, new president Heidi Hadsell hired Yehezkel Landau, who became the Hartford Seminary’s first Jewish core faculty member, holding the Abrahamic Partnerships Chair and serving as director of the Building Abrahamic Partnerships Program.

For some years, the Seminary did a joint program with the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, the pre-eminent institute for higher learning of the Conservative Jewish movement. A number of Jewish students from JTS came to the Seminary for summer sessions.

“As a result, we started to have a few more kippahs coming on campus,” Budd laughed.

Grant explains that while students at the Seminary receive a “multi-faith” education, Jewish students can also explore their own faith.

“Jewish students who are looking to gain more knowledge about their own faith, about Christianity or Islam, or about the relationships among the three faiths, would be interested in our courses,” Grant says.

“Our courses and programs would interest rabbis looking to support interfaith families, students interested in pursuing the rabbinate eventually. Additionally, Jewish students interested in pursuing politics, international relations, and interfaith work would be served by our programs as well,” she adds. “Among our Jewish students, we currently have a rabbi who is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry and a student bound for Reconstructionist Rabbinical College next year.”

That student bound for rabbinical school is Allyson Zacharoff, who was chosen to be one of eight fellows taking part in the Seminary’s International Peacemaking program (IPP) this past year. The fellows are an international cohort of Jewish, Christian and Muslim students living on campus and taking six courses toward graduate certificates in Interfaith Dialogue or Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations.

“I’ve been involved in interfaith dialogue for a number of years,” said Zacharoff, who hails from Long Island, New York. “After I graduated from college I had a fellowship in Rome… I spent last year in Jerusalem at Yeshiva. I really wanted to focus on Islamic studies especially, which is hard to do if you don’t speak Arabic, so I really liked that Hartford offered those kinds of classes.”

Through the program, Zacharoff took classes on the Koran, the New Testament, Muslims in North America and Western Europe, Themes in the Bible and Koran, Women in Islam and through a consortium with the Boston Theological Institute, she was able to take a class on Jewish History from Hebrew College.

The fellows also took some workshops in things like public speaker, interfaith dialogue and mediation.

Zacharoff said that there are not many Jewish students at the Hartford Seminary, “but that said, I’m comfortable being in situations where I am the only Jewish student or one of very few Jewish students. I’ve only encountered a kind of respectful curiosity, that’s really been my experience. The main experience is that people want to hear my perspective about Judaism.”

Her goal during and after rabbinical school is to continue to work in interfaith dialogue, something she says the Seminary’s peacemaking program has prepared her for.

“To be a Jewish leader in today’s world, especially in the U.S., you need to be able to speak respectfully with people with whom you disagree, whether that’s other Jews or whether that is people of other religions. And specifically in this time when clearly religions are facing such strife, being able to really learn from and learn with people of different religions is essential… I can now text my pastor friends or my imam friends and say, ‘This issue came up, can we talk about it?’ That is such a meaningful thing and to have this in Hartford and to have this kind of resources is really unique. It’s not something you find in a lot of places.”

Today, while there has been an increase in Jewish students at the Hartford Seminary, its Board of Trustees continues to hope for “more kippahs on campus.”

“There’s no question that having Deena Grant, a brilliant, personable Orthodox Jewish scholar can’t but help. What we really need is more Jewish students. Everybody knows that really is the key,” Budd said. “But it’s not just at the Seminary, its outreach to the community. To have someone like Deena go out and talk in mosques and churches is important for the Greater Hartford community.”


Hartford Seminary’s new Jewish studies prof finds the local Jewish community warm and welcoming (but will someone turn on the heat?)

By Stacey Dresner

Dr. Deena Grant, Hartford Seminary’s Judaic Studies professor, leads a class outdoors.

WEST HARTFORD – Deena Grant arrived at the Hartford Seminary last July to occupy the Jewish studies chair.

“Deena is an excellent and dedicated scholar of Hebrew Bible and an engaging and creative teacher,” Hartford Seminary President Heidi Hadsell says. “Deena also has ample experience in interfaith contexts, and hers is a rich contribution to the work we do at Hartford Seminary. We’re happy to have her.”

Grant, 40, is a native Floridian who grew up in what she describes as a “huge” Orthodox community. “People seem to flock there even though it might be covered by the ocean in 50 years,” she joked.

Grant arrived in Hartford last summer from Boca Raton with her husband, Chaim Davis, who runs a hedge fund that invests in biotechnology companies; and their three children: 12-year-old Akiva, eight-year-old Elisheva, and three-year-old Moshe. They have settled into West Hartford where they are now members of Young Israel of West Hartford.

“We love the community feel of West Hartford,” she said, adding that this winter in West Hartford was the first time her kids experienced snow.

“The Jewish community has been incredibly welcoming, helping us Floridians acclimate to the winter,” she says.

Her father was a rabbi in the Orthodox community and also a psychologist. “The two fields intertwined a lot in my house growing up and contributed to my Jewish identity.”

Before she went off to study at Brandeis where she received her BA from in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies, she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps.

“I actually wanted to be a psychologist before I turned to the field of Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies,” she says. “While I was at Brandeis, I took a number of courses in biblical scholarship and was hooked. I thought that the Jewish community as a whole wasn’t necessarily being exposed to academic scholarship and I felt that scholarship could deepen people’s appreciation for Judaism; I wanted to be a part of bringing that about.”

She went on to get her Ph.D. from New York University in Hebrew and Judaic studies. She also studied at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York, Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem, and Midreshet Lindenbaum Women’s Institute for Talmudic Studies in Jerusalem.

“My area of research focus is biblical anthropomorphism – ascribing human attributes to God,” she says. “I wrote my book Divine Anger in the Hebrew Bible on the ways in which the Bible portrays God’s anger across genres. I also addressed the ways in which God’s anger is similar to human anger and the ways in which God’s anger is unique.”

Before coming to Connecticut, Dr. Grant served as associate professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Barry University, a Catholic school in Miami. She was the only Jewish faculty member in the university’s theology department and was a member of its interfaith committee.

“I was able to interact with graduate students and colleagues – many were clergy – and learn how another tradition of deep faith, in this case, Catholicism, engages in the practice of religion,” she says. “It amazes me how people of different religions come to very similar questions about God and faith. The journey and the answers may be very different but the questions are very similar.”

As for her new stomping grounds in West Hartford, Grant said she and her family have settled in and have found a wonderful sense of community.

“We find so many people who are very proud of this community and who are ready and willing to contribute,” she says.



Joel N. Lohr: Hartford Seminary’s next president

On July 16, Dr. Joel N. Lohr will take over as president of Hartford Seminary, succeeding Dr. Heidi Hadsell, who is retiring after leading the Seminary for 18 years.

An award-winning author and scholar, Lohr is currently dean of Religious Life at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, where he holds academic appointments in the School of Education and the Department of Religious Studies.

The son of Dutch immigrants to Canada, he earned a B.A. in Religious Studies from Trinity Western University, Vancouver, Canada, an M.A. in Theological Research and a Ph.D. in Religion and Theology from the University of Durham, England. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto.

Lohr will join Hartford Seminary’s faculty as professor of Bible and Interreligious Dialogue. His research has focused on the Bible, specifically the Torah/Pentateuch, as well as Jewish-Christian relations and dialogue, Abrahamic faith dialogue, and Intercultural Competence, Diversity, and Leadership in Higher Education.

He has published 10 books, both academic and popular. His first monograph, Chosen and Unchosen: Conceptions of Election in the Pentateuch and Jewish-Christian Interpretation, was awarded the R.B.Y. Scott Award by the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies for “outstanding book in the areas of Hebrew Bible and/or the Ancient Near East.”

Despite his academic accomplishments, Lohr says that his real achievements have come through the meaningful relationships he has formed as a leader at diverse institutions in diverse places. He has served in seminary and higher education in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., and before that was a successful leader in construction management. But Lohr says his passion is interreligious dialogue and deepening faith, especially when these work together to lead to reconciliation and deeper levels of human connection.


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