(RNS) — Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, a multifaith consortium of research centers and seminaries, has selected the first non-Christian president in its history.
Daniel Lehmann, an Orthodox rabbi and the president of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass., was picked to lead the Northern California union that offers graduate and doctoral degree programs for students interested in Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
Lehmann will succeed Riess Potterveld, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, who is retiring after five years as president.
For Lehmann, 56, it will be the first time in his career that he will lead a non-Jewish institution. But he said he is passionate about multifaith learning.
“The opportunity to lead an institution that’s at the cutting edge of interreligious scholarship and to help grow it and help expand its impact is both a privilege and a blessing for me,” he said.
Lehmann is chairman of the board of a similar but more modest consortium of theological schools in the Boston area. The Boston Theological Institute includes nine theological schools and seminaries. Students can take courses in each. Lehmann was instrumental in getting his own Hebrew College to join.
The college, which has about 220 graduate students, plus a rabbinical and cantorial school, also partners with Boston University’s School of Theology to publish the online Journal of Interreligious Studies and a blog called State of Formation.
But the chance to lead GTU, with its multifaith partners, was irresistible.
GTU consists of eight member schools, five academic centers and five affiliates. Those include Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Catholic and Unitarian Universalist seminaries, in addition to a host of research centers. It has 280 students in its master's and Ph.D. tracks and more than 500 students studying for ordination in its various seminaries.
Lehmann is not the first Jew to lead a nonsectarian religious institution. Laurie Zoloth, also an Orthodox Jew, served for nearly a year as dean at the prestigious University of Chicago Divinity School before stepping down earlier this month.
But Lehmann's ascension to the GTU presidency comes at a time when many academic institutions are more serious about religious diversity.
Founded in 1962, at a time when Protestant and Catholic tensions were still high, GTU is now seeing its interreligious vision come more fully into fruition, Potterveld said.
"In my five years, we’ve stepped on the gas pedal or the accelerator because my feeling was, ‘If you’re going to cast yourself as interreligious, you really need to have all these traditional groups present through faculty, library studies and students,'" Potterfeld said.
Since 1985, it has added centers studying Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Muslim and Sikh traditions. It is now looking to establish a chair in Chinese religious studies.
"As that evolution has come, it’s natural that you’re open to the idea that leadership would come from any of these faith groups and that the person who comes has passion and vision about the interfaith journey," Potterveld said.
GTU's Center for Jewish Studies, one of the first non-Christian centers, was established in 1968.
Lehmann was educated at Yeshiva University in New York from his undergraduate days through to rabbinical school. He later founded Gann Academy, a coed Jewish high school in Waltham, Mass., that accepts students from all Jewish traditions.
He said he wanted to see GTU develop a global presence. Part of that will happen through digital learning and use of technology, he said, and part of it will happen by engaging with partners across the globe.
Lehmann said he was particularly excited to work with Muslims.
“There’s really no other place like it, not in North America and not in the world in terms of bringing together those kinds of diverse institutions and combining their strengths into something incredibly distinctive,” he said.