Leon Morris’ life as a Jewish educator began in third grade.
There were only seven other Jewish families in Connellsville, Pa., in the foothills of the Alleghenies. “This,” Morris says, “is a part of the country where the assumption is everyone is Christian. This is a place that hardly knew what a Jew is.” Everyone in Zachariah Connell Elementary School knew 8-year-old Leon was Jewish. “They would ask questions — ‘So you don’t believe in Jesus?’ Lots of questions about holidays.” His classmates never stopped asking, mostly during lunchtime. “They were very interested.”
And Morris liked answering.
“In third grade, I was very confident,” says Morris — Rabbi Morris since 1997 — who left Connellsville after high school and now serves as director of The Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El, a center for intensive Jewish education that opened on the Upper East Side this fall.
“I love explaining to people about Judaism.”
For three years before coming to Temple Emanu-El, he headed the New York Kollel, a similar adult education program based at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Greenwich Village; at both Skirball and the Kollel, Rabbi Morris is at the center of liberal Judaism’s new engagement with tradition.
And before that he worked in Bombay for a year as a teacher under the auspices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
And long before that, Connellsville.
“I started to become intensely interested in Jewish things at the age of 8, 9,” Rabbi Morris says, sitting in a conference room of Temple Emanu-El. He takes a sip from a glass of orange juice; a dedicated biker and jogger, he keeps to a healthful diet.
Back to rural Pennsylvania.
The synagogue in Connellsville had closed a decade before Rabbi Morris was born. His Jewish education began to take shape at the Reform temple of Greensburg, 25 miles away. His parents drove him, twice a week, waiting in the library during lessons or going shopping. “They were adamant about my sister and me getting a Jewish education.”
Connellsville, population 12,000, is in coal country. “This is not a small town with a Starbuck’s. This is real small town America.” A sign on the outskirts of town once proclaimed, “Welcome to the coke capital of America.” Connellsville’s coke ovens, 24-hour operations at one time, produced the coal by-product. Rabbi Morris’ grandmother told him stories of the time when “so many coke ovens lit up the night that you could read a newspaper sitting on your porch.”
Then the ovens closed. The economy took a hit. The area, Rabbi Morris is poor, “but not Appalachian in the sense of people living in huts with barefoot children running around.”
Rabbi Morris’ family had a comfortable, but modest home.
Before them, the Morrises have called the area home for a century.
Charles Morris, Rabbi Morris’ great-grandfather, left Poland in the 1890s, spending 10 years in New York City before settling in western Pennsylvania. “Jews flocked to the small towns to open up businesses,” the rabbi says. Charles Morris opened Charles Morris & Sons, a men’s clothing shop. “The story is he started as a peddler.”
Charles’ son Leon — for whom the rabbi is named — went into the family business. He died a year before his grandson was born. “As a kid, the name” — Leon — “seemed out of fashion,” Rabbi Morris says. “As I learned about my grandfather I came to value the name more. He was very Well respected in the community. He Was a veteran. He was a very compassionate person, very soft-spoken.”
The Morris home was identifiably Jewish, but not particularly observant. “I didn’t grow up in a kosher home,” the rabbi says. “I do now.” Single, he lives on the Upper West where he hosts friends for Shabbat and yom tov meals.
In elementary school, he and his friend Gary Horewitz brought matzah to show their friends, and explained the Jewish holidays in class.
By high school, Rabbi Morris was the only Jew among 1,700 students. “There was no overt anti-Semitism,” he says.
He read “every Jewish book I could get my hands on,” became active in the Reform youth movement, spent summer at Jewish camps and in Israel. “I just always loved everything Jewish.
“I wanted to be a rabbi… a teacher very early on — on-and-off since I was 8 years old,” Rabbi Morris says, laughing at his own precociousness. “I joke that my parents thought it was a phase I was going through.”
At the University of Pennsylvania he was a religious studies major and spent a semester at Hebrew University. Then came rabbinical ordination from Hebrew University, with a year off to study Talmud at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.
“My parents realized I was serious” about a career in Jewish service, he says, “when I graduated from rabbinical school.”
Rabbi Morris has grown more religiously observant than his family. “It’s kind of a BT experience,” he says, using the shorthand for baal teshuvah, someone who has returned to a traditional lifestyle. The expression is more common in Orthodox circles.
Besides his teaching and administrative duties at Skirball, he does textual study, with a havruta, or study partner, three times a week. He worships at “diverse” congregations, from Reform to Orthodox. “Today I don’t travel on Shabbat and holidays.”
He identifies himself as “a rabbi who is intoxicated with learning, with study — my real passion is the study of text,” and while proudly in the Reform camp, avoids painting himself into a denominational corner. “I find that increasingly the labels are becoming problematic. I feel very comfortable in a lot of different atmospheres.”
“Leon has a large soul. He is committed to making Torah accessible to any person who desires,” says Rabbi Benjamin Samuels, an Orthodox rabbi from Boston, whom Rabbi Morris met as a Wexner Fellow 10 years ago. “He is the perfect person to help in the renaissance” of Jewish education.
Larry Moses, president of the Wexner Foundation, which promotes the development of Jewish leadership, says he has observed “how much respect there was for Leon” from colleagues of all denominations at Wexner events. “The respect he always showed for other Jews has always been returned to him.”
Rabbi Morris describes his theological philosophy this way: “The words of the Torah are human words — it’s a human document that is reflective of real revelation that took place. For better or worse, Jewish law is only authoritative to the degree to which it can be persuasive.”
In other words, the Reform movement’s doctrine of informed choice?
“I’m not comfortable with the language of personal choice,” Rabbi Morris says, “because it seems too light. It seems too much like choosing what you eat for breakfast.
“We are 100 percent committed to the idea that Jewish learning can be transformative,” he says. But that, unlike in an Orthodox setting, doesn‘t necessarily mean the acceptance of certain mitzvot. “There are a lot of ways in which Jewish learning can affect people.”
Starting with a stronger affiliation as Jews.
The rabbis’ assignment at Skirball is to bring his enthusiasm for advanced Jewish studies and love for Jewish tradition to Manhattan’s unaffiliated Jews; of the nearly 250 students during the program’s first semester, only half belong to a synagogue or are active in organized, Jewish activities. “They’re looking for community. They’re looking for deep, and not easily answered questions,” Rabbi Morris says.
Particularly after Sept. 11. “There’s a definite post-Sept. 11 phenomenon that has affected us.” Jews have come to Skirball activities in search of answers to “the deepest questions [bout] people’s suffering,” he says.
“There are hundreds of places in New York City to turn to for this sense of cemfort,” Rabbi Morris says. Some provide easy answers of faith, he says. Skirball offers the answers “in a more complex way.”
At Temple Emanu-El, the rabbi finds himself in one of the country’s leading Reform bastions. Skirball, like the New York Kollel, defines itself as liberal, not strictly Reform. In other words, not Orthodox. The classes and public forums at Skirball encourage serious examination of Jewish texts and principles, but with a less dogmatic approach than found in Orthodox yeshivas and adult education programs. “This is indicative of the phenomenon among Reform Jews, liberal Jews” to investigate traditional Jewish sources that were overlooked in previous generations. “We’re getting hundreds of people telling us they’re hungering for this.”
Rabbi Morris “understands what liberal Judaism is about,” says Mark Weisstuch, administrative vice president of Temple Emanu-El. “He’s got the sensibility. He’s done things that created innovative ideas. We are delighted with his work. We are hoping he will be with us for a while.”
Rabbi Morris left the New York Kollel, where he loved his work, when the offer from Skirball came 18 months ago. With a sizable grant from the Skirball family, Temple Emanu-El would spend more than a year establishing an immense adult education program aimed at Jewish adults outside the congregation walls.
“It was a very good shidduch,” he says. “It was an opportunity to build something from the ground up.”
Since June 2000, he led focus groups, helped design Skirball’s 17 initial courses, recruited the center’s “core faculty” and advisory council members, and set up a Web site (www.adultjewishlearning.org).
This semester, in addition to supervising the whole program, he’s teaching one course, “Psychoanalysis and rabbinic literature.”
“This is what I want to be doing,” he says. “I really like the balance.” Rabbi Morris says his Shabbats on the Upper West Side are a part of his continuing Jewish education. “I love walking to West End Avenue on a Shabbat morning, seeing so many people wishing each other Shabbat Shalom. It’s with a community.” The Upper West Side has more Jews than his hometown had residents.
“Because I grew up in Connellsville — the experience of being the lone Jew,” Rabbi Morris says, “I will never lose the sense of what it means to be part of a community.”