Sylvia Cutler Ettenberg shaped generations of Conservative Jews by helping found programs ranging from Ramah camps to the Prozdor Hebrew high school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She became the registrar of JTS in 1946 and collaborated with Dean Moshe Davis the following year to create Ramah camps. After her promotion to associate dean, Ettenberg helped Dean Seymour Fox establish the Melton Research Center in 1960 to improve Jewish day school and supplementary education programs. In 1976 she became dean of educational development. She also helped develop the joint program between JTS’s List College and Columbia University, as well as the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. By the end of her career, she had touched all levels of Jewish education in America.
Early Life, Education, and Early Career
Sylvia Ettenberg dedicated her life to the advancement of Jewish education. Her concern for building strong leaders to represent the Conservative Movement prompted her to develop ways to search for and inspire promising teenagers and young adults to further their studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Many of today’s rabbis, teachers, school administrators, and scholars entered their fields because they were either personally influenced by Sylvia Ettenberg or influenced by the programs she helped to create.
Sylvia Cutler Ettenberg was born on July 27, 1917, in Brooklyn to immigrant parents, Max and Rachel (Amster) Cutler. She was the elder of two daughters. While completing her BA in government at Brooklyn College, she chose to prepare for a teaching career by entering the Teachers Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1937, she received a BA.from Brooklyn College and a bachelor’s of Jewish pedagogy (BJP) from the Jewish Theological Seminary. At the request of the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Louis Finkelstein, she joined the administrative staff of the Jewish Teachers Institute and the Seminary College in 1946 as the registrar. In this role, she managed the day-to-day affairs of the Teachers Institute and Seminary College and imagined, planned, and implemented some of the twentieth century’s most successful programs in Jewish education.
As soon as she arrived at the seminary to assume her position as registrar, she began to take action by convincing the president that the Conservative Movement needed to develop Hebrew-language camps committed to providing a religious environment for Jewish youth. In 1947, together with Dean Moshe Davis, she founded the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Ramah camps. She remembers long, hot train rides to Ramah’s first location in the Midwest, hoping only to ensure the success of her idea. She took responsibility for recruiting staff and campers. She helped to establish the educational agenda, wishing to see a camp committed to providing its campers with a Jewish education. Due to the efforts of Sylvia Ettenberg, Dean Davis, and a devoted staff, Camp Ramah became an indispensable institution that continues to enhance the Jewish education of Conservative youth throughout the United States. In the years since, a network of Ramah camps have opened across North America, attesting to its continued success.
She married Moshe Ettenberg on April 14, 1940. In November 1947, she traveled to Palestine with her husband, a professor of engineering, who had been appointed to teach at the Weizmann Institute. When the War of Independence broke out and Moshe Ettenberg could not assume his position, the Zionist couple refused to leave Palestine. Moshe Ettenberg was called upon to serve in the newly formed Israeli Air Force and established the first radar unit. In the midst of the excitement, the Ettenbergs’ first child was born, Israela (Isa) Ettenberg, later a professor of education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The Ettenbergs’ son David, born after they returned to New York, became a computer operations expert.
Ettenberg resumed her work at the seminary as the registrar in 1949, and for the next forty years encouraged the seminary to expand its course and program offerings. By 1951, the seminary opened the Prozdor, a Hebrew high school, born from Ettenberg’s vision. It was, however, more than a school for Jewish youth. Ettenberg used the Prozdor as a training ground for potential Jewish leaders, recruiting as faculty those she thought might enter the fields of Jewish education, the rabbinate, or academia if only inspired to do so.
When Ettenberg became the first woman to be appointed to the academic administration of the seminary as the associate dean of the undergraduate college, she made time to assist Dean Seymour Fox in the creation of the Melton Research Center, a center committed to the betterment of Jewish supplementary and day school education. As the dean of educational development at the seminary, an appointment that was made in 1976, Ettenberg supervised the Melton Research Center, developed a certification program for Jewish day school principals, enabled the seminary to sustain contact with its alumni, and was responsible for overseeing the growth of all facets of the department of education. Recognized for her contributions to Jewish education, she received the Samuel Rothberg Prize in Jewish Education from Hebrew University (1981), a doctor of humane letters from the Jewish Theological Seminary (1959), and the Behrman House Award presented at the Jewish Educators Assembly (1989).
Sylvia Ettenberg was a tireless and devoted educator dedicated to her mission of enriching the field of Jewish education. Modest about her accomplishments, she was driven by a passion and love for Judaism until her death in 2012.
Ettenberg, Sylvia. “The Changing Image of the Combined Program.” In The Education of American Jewish Teachers (1967);
Ettenberg, Sylvia. Interviews by author, and with Aryeh Davidson. Director, Melton Center, NYC;
Ettenberg, Sylvia, and Moshe Davis. The Ramah Experience: Community and Commitment (1989).