Rabbinic Job Market Tries Anxious Souls

By Rebecca Dube

Published April 15, 2009, issue of April 24, 2009.
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After five years of rabbinical school, Benjamin Berger was looking forward to leading the life of a pulpit rabbi: getting to know his congregation, sharing his love of the Torah and leading a community.

But when he started searching for jobs in his fifth year at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a Modern Orthodox seminary in New York City, he found that the pickings were decidedly slim.

“There were pulpits available, but they were all part time, with low pay but very high expectations,” Berger said. As a married man with two daughters under the age of 2, he couldn’t afford to take a low-paying job just for the experience.

“That was a discussion my wife and I had,” he said. “I looked for jobs that would sustain a family, but the options were very few.”

This is a tough time for graduates entering the work force in any profession, and newly minted rabbis are no exception. Across every movement, hundreds of rabbinical students are approaching their graduation this spring with a heavy dose of dread.

This is the worst job market for rabbis in years, according to Rabbi Lynn Brody, director of placement and internships at Los Angeles’s interdenominational Academy for Jewish Religion. Brody noted that this month, so far, only about half of the school’s spring graduates have jobs lined up; normally, in April, the employment rate for new graduates is 98%.

Several factors have combined to create such a tight job market. Rabbinical students who dreamed of leading a congregation are finding that synagogues are cutting back because of financial pressure; at the same time, other possible employers, such as day schools, foundations and federations, are also tightening their belts. Rabbis with stable jobs aren’t going anywhere in this economy, so there’s less movement than usual. And everyone is competing for a few precious jobs.

“It’s kind of a nightmare right now, to be honest,” said a graduate who asked not to be named, for fear of hurting her job chances. “There are 18 congregational jobs in the Reform movement for just-ordained rabbis, and 35 of us interviewing for them… not a few of us have specific niches that we’d been sure we could get hired for (Jewish environmental educators, campus rabbis, chaplaincy positions], but the philanthropic money has pretty much dried up.”

Even those viewing the job market from a comfortable distance are feeling the chill.

“It’s just not pretty this year,” said Rabbi Jim Egolf, who leads Beth David Reform Congregation, located near Philadelphia. “I have heard just a lot of anxiety.”

He said students are being forced to get creative, whether by piecing together several part-time jobs or continuing their graduate studies in another direction. But most face the financial imperative of paying off student loans, he noted.

“You didn’t go to school for five years to be unemployed,” Egolf said.

Getting creative is a common theme among those advising new graduates. Rabbinical job watchers say that more entry-level opportunities are starting to open up, though most are of the part-time variety.

“It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. Many people are having to reinvent themselves a little bit,” Brody said.

Rabbinical job seekers should follow the same rules as the rest of the unemployed, said Deborah Grayson Riegel, the life coach and trainer behind MyJewishCoach.com: They should network like crazy, have great résumés and sharpen their interviewing skills. It’s particularly important, she said, for new graduates of rabbinical schools to reach out to people in their communities and get involved in the causes that matter to them, whether or not they can get paid for it.

“Offer to help before being asked. A, it will be memorable, and B, as a rabbi, that’s what you should be doing,” Riegel said. “Be the rabbi you were trained to be, even if you don’t have a house for it.”

As for Berger, he’s one of the lucky ones. He landed a job as a senior Jewish educator for Hillel at Ohio State University. It wasn’t what he started out looking for, but now he’s getting excited about reaching out to college students, sharing the Torah and building a different sort of community than what he’d find at an established congregation, but a community nonetheless.

“It’s a unique opportunity, and one I’m really excited about,” Berger said. “Maybe that’s one bright side to this economy: It forces all of us to be a little more creative and search for things that might not be the obvious choice.”

Contact Rebecca Dube at dube@forward.com.






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