Yehuda Kurtzer, Elevating the conversation.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Yehuda Kurtzer, 35

Twitter: @YehudaKurtzer
www.shalomhartman.org

Growing up, Yehuda Kurtzer was accustomed to high-level discussions around the dinner table.

His father, Daniel Kurtzer, is the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and Israel (2001-2005), and served in more junior positions in the American embassies in Cairo and Tel Aviv during Yehuda’s childhood. In fact, the Kurtzers were living in Cairo — and Yehuda was 4 —when Anwar Sadat was assassinated; soon after, the family was stationed in Tel Aviv, and Yehuda enrolled in an Israeli public elementary school, where he learned Hebrew.

Now his job is to promote high-level discussions in the Jewish community as North American director of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a group whose mission is “to enrich and elevate the conversation in Jewish life around Jewish ideas, learning and text, beyond the crises we talk about all the time and the politics of the institutions we inhabit.”

The 36-year-old Jerusalem institute hired Kurtzer two years ago to launch its North American division, creating partnerships with Jewish organizations and networks of leaders to offer a range of intensive Jewish learning options for lay and professional leaders. Already, the group is partnering with New Jersey’s Berrie Fellows Program and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, among others.

Before taking on his current job, Kurtzer, who has a doctorate in Judaic studies from Harvard, was the Charles Bronfman Visiting Chair in Communal Innovation at Brandeis, a position he won through a highly competitive essay contest.

He just published his first book, entitled “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past.”

Raised Modern Orthodox — although, given that his early childhood was spent in Cairo and Tel Aviv, it “was not the most conventional Modern Orthodox upbringing” — Kurtzer helped found an independent minyan in Brookline, Mass., and is now reluctant to describe himself with any denominational labels.

“We definitely identify in that murky area,” he says, referring to himself and his wife, Stephanie Ives, who is director of education and community engagement at the American Jewish World Service. “We identify with traditional, egalitarian Jews; we’re not totally comfortable with the boxes.”

They live in Riverdale with their two sons, a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old.

Diplomatic dish: Kurtzer praises his parents for managing to “create a stable home environment” for him growing up, even as it was “not out of the ordinary to answer the phone” and have high-level Middle East negotiators on the line. “My dad had an unusual career: he maintained his reputation as an honest broker and a traditional Jew,” he says.

 

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