Modern-Day Rabbi Must Be CEO, Teacher and Spiritual Leader at Once

Jewish Seminaries Scramble To Meet Myriad New Demands

Leader of the Flock: Rabbinic student Leslie Hilgeman leads a havdalah ceremony at Congregation Am Haskalah, a Reconstructionist congregation in Bethlehem, Pa.
reconstructionist rabbinical college
Leader of the Flock: Rabbinic student Leslie Hilgeman leads a havdalah ceremony at Congregation Am Haskalah, a Reconstructionist congregation in Bethlehem, Pa.

By Anne Cohen

Published May 13, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Last fall, Jessica Minnen, a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, was on her way to officiate at a wedding in Brooklyn. What started out as an ordinary ride on the A train turned into a spiritual revelation about the 21st-century rabbinate.

Minnen was quietly reviewing a course catalog for a new kind of Hebrew school when she noticed a woman, sitting with her son, who shyly asked her about the document.

Jessica Minnen
Jessica Minnen

As Minnen explained, the woman acknowledged that although she is Jewish, her child hadn’t gone to a Jewish school. By the time the train arrived in Brooklyn, Minnen had played three rabbinical roles: congregation leader, educator and counselor.

“I’m on my way to do a wedding…and I end up having a long pastoral conversation with these people on the train about how to find a place in Jewish New York,” Minnen said. “That’s the rabbinate! It’s not just textual fluency. [That’s] a backbone, it’s a core, but if we can’t live it and we can’t make it meaningful to the next person on the street, then I’m not sure we’re a rabbi in 2013.”

Minnen is one of the many graduating rabbinical students poised to take on a rapidly shifting rabbinate. Expectations have changed: Rabbis are now required to read a spreadsheet as well as the Gemara. They need to be accessible, media-savvy public speakers; business-oriented entrepreneurs; fundraisers; program generators, and in touch with popular trends. In the words of Rabbi Steven Fox, CEO of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbi is the “CEO — chief engagement officer — of his congregation.” Or her congregation.

To prepare rabbinical students for the challenges ahead, seminaries are reassessing their curriculums to focus more on professional development and pastoral skills than ever before. This push for more streamlined professional development has sparked debate across denominations about the danger of straying too far from a rabbi’s core religious obligations. Some, on the other hand, don’t see the changes moving fast enough.

Meantime, the job market is only slowly adjusting to this new reality. In both the Reform and Conservative movements, the number of congregations has shrunk while the number of rabbis has increased. That dynamic has forced young rabbis to branch out of pulpit positions and into education, social justice, not-for-profit management and business — fields not traditionally associated with rabbinical training. With jobs uncertain, and the burden of tuition debt growing, the number of applicants to non-Orthodox rabbinical schools has dropped by almost 30% in the past eight years.

In 1993, the Union for Reform Judaism counted 900 congregations; 10 years later, that number has gone down to 876. But the number of rabbis affiliated with the CCAR has increased during that same time period, to 2,100 from 1,650. In 2003 there were 740 synagogues affiliated with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; today there are 620, while the number of members of the Rabbinical Assembly has gone to 1,690 from 1,500. (Comparative data is not available for the Orthodox or Reconstructionist movements).


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