Rabbi Jan Uhrbach

Faculty Spotlight

What is your academic background, and how does it connect to your position at JTS?

I was ordained at JTS (RS '03), did my undergraduate work at Yale, and earned a JD from Harvard Law School. I'm delighted to rejoin the JTS faculty as director of Liturgical Arts, spearheading a new initiative utilizing the resources of JTS to revitalize prayer in the Conservative Movement and beyond. This year, I'll be teaching a liturgy course open to all students, and a new course called The Art of Leading Prayer for students with advanced skills. Beyond that, I'll be mentoring students in the development of their leadership skills and their own prayer lives, fostering conversations about the nature and power of prayer, and working to bring the most innovative, compelling, and creative prayer leaders to share their gifts with the JTS community. In addition to my teaching, I'm the rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in Bridgehampton, a congregation I helped found, and lead a minyan called Nahar on the Upper West Side.  

Describe the most unique things about yourself, your work, and your philosophy.  

I'm an integrator; I always prefer "both/and" to "either/or." In practical terms, I've always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of different disciplines, and by the creativity that emerges from immersion in entirely different cultures or modalities. So I'm excited to have the opportunity to bring learning from wide-ranging fields-cognitive science, theater, performance arts, and change management, just to give a few examples-and see what they can teach us about creating meaningful and compelling prayer services. On a more personal level, my whole approach to Torah and tefillah-to life, actually-is that I'm always looking for experiences that integrate and elevate the many parts of the self. It's one of the reasons I love teaching prayer. People sometimes think of prayer or spirituality as irrational. But prayer isn't irrational, it's supra-rational, it involves our intellect, and also takes us beyond it. So learning is essential to prayer: there's no substitute for understanding the historical development and structure of the liturgy, its meaning and theological claims, various theories of prayer, etc. But that alone is not sufficient; prayer is also an emotional and aesthetic experience, and of course it partakes of the realm of the spirit. It introduces us to mystery, both outside of and within ourselves. It awakens and challenges our whole being.   I love JTS for the same reasons; very few places are committed to both high-level intellectual heft and profound spiritual, emotional depth in such a serious way. JTS has long been the leader in Torah study that integrates the mind, heart, and soul; it's why so much great Torah commentary comes from our graduates. We're poised now to approach prayer in the same way. 

Is there some particular question or issue you'd like to resolve or gain insight to? List current research, recent articles and books published, and new and upcoming projects.

One of my most exciting projects is my work as associate editor of Siddur Lev Shalem, a new Conservative Shabbat and Festival prayer book to be published next year by the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). I also had the privilege of serving on the editorial committee of the RA's Mahzor Lev Shalem, published in 2010. Under the editorial leadership of Rabbi Ed Feld and support of Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the RA's executive vice president, we're really doing groundbreaking work. These prayer books are changing the way people experience synagogue services; we've heard this over and over from congregants. We're evolving a distinctively Conservative approach to liturgy, one that is both more scholarly and more emotionally connected, more deeply rooted in tradition while also speaking in a more contemporary voice. As the siddur nears publication, I'm focused on taking all that learning and applying it to the way we educate our prayer leaders-rabbis, cantors, educators, and lay people-so that they can better take this creativity and run with it.   

What is the most important thing that studying the various aspects of Judaism, Jewish history, and the Jewish people has taught you? Knowing what you know about Jewish studies, what tips do you have for students just entering your field of expertise?  

I am continually amazed and awed by the sensitivity, depth, and nuance of our tradition, by the way it pushes me to hold paradoxes and contradictions, and by how contemporary and even prescient our ancient texts are. So often, people conflate religion and dogma in their minds. Judaism is the opposite of dogma. For me, it's about growing and questing, about continually challenging who I was and what I thought I knew yesterday. I love the Talmud's preference for the "long shorter way" over the "short longer way." It's so countercultural today; we're impatient for information and results, quick solutions and easy answers. That's the short way that turns out to be much longer, because it doesn't actually get you anywhere. Judaism understands that in the realm of the spirit-in the things that matter most-there are no shortcuts. Wisdom and growth take time. Developing relationships with another person, with God, even with ourselves, takes time.   Certainly it's important to be disciplined and systematic in study, but at the same time, my best advice in beginning Jewish studies is to allow yourself to be drawn after your yearnings. Judaism can't be learned only with the intellect; it speaks to the whole person, our hearts, souls-even our bodies-and our minds. So it's important to keep your passion alive; to do that, be sure to study some of what you absolutely love in addition to the courses and background you know you need. Have dessert with every intellectual meal.  

Discuss your personal background. What teacher, scholar, or person in your life has influenced you the most? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Share about your family if you wish.  

I came to Jewish learning as an adult, and the rabbinate is my second career. I grew up in a Jewishly identified, nonobservant family; serious engagement with Judaism wasn't on my radar screen until my early 30s. My passions as a kid were music (I played classical violin), baseball, and poetry. I also loved to debate (some would say, argue), and had always intended to be a lawyer. So I pursued my English major and then went to law school. I was a law clerk for Judge Kimba Wood, federal judge of the Southern District of New York, in her first year on the bench, and then joined a mid-size firm on Park Avenue. I enjoyed my work, and was not looking to make a career move. But in large part due to a fabulous mentor at the firm, Robert Callagy, I began to look closely at what I claimed to value, and how I was spending my time. The discrepancy became increasingly uncomfortable, and started me on a search for something that would yield greater depth and meaning. Much of what I sought I couldn't yet name, but instinct led me to a synagogue, where I discovered prayer and Torah. I was especially affected by the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Along the way, I discovered that the values my family had instilled in me were, in fact, Jewish values-they just weren't identified as such-and the personal theology I had developed on my own was in fact a very Jewish theology. Less than a year after making partner at my firm, I left the law to begin my studies at JTS.

My rabbinate and teaching continues to be informed by that period in my life. A true mentor is a blessing and gift; having experienced it, it's a great joy to me to be in a position to mentor others. That's one of the things that most excites me about my work at JTS. And I know firsthand the transformative potential of compelling communal prayer and teaching of Torah; I'm thrilled to be able to be in a position to nurture the future prayer leaders, community builders, and Torah teachers of our Movement.  

Discuss future lectures, activities, and events at JTS or elsewhere and any topic or information that you want the various communities to know about you and your work.  

Keep an eye out for exciting things happening around prayer at JTS. I'll be working with all the various schools, the Arts Advisory Board, the Office of Student Life, and the Office of Community Engagement to create new opportunities to experience and learn about prayer-stay tuned.