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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.