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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“Congregations are now often looking for rabbis who are also educators, or rabbis who are cantors, or rabbis who can be executive directors,” said Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of rabbinic placement at CCAR. “Synagogue budgets are shrinking, and they’re looking for people who can cover more than one function in the synagogue.”

Some, like Minnen, are positive about these new demands. Due to graduate in May, Minnen, 31, will remain assistant director of the Jewish Journey Project, where she has worked since February 2012. She will have a semiannual pulpit position at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Maryland, and continue running Seven Wells: Sex Education Redrawn, a program offering a series of seven premarital pastoral workshops for young adults. She founded the program earlier this year.

reconstructionist rabbinical college

“I have all these amazing opportunities, and I want to take advantage of them,” she said. “For me, having a pulpit, working in education, launching a nonprofit and working one-on-one with a family is like living the dream.”

But some are concerned that these administrative roles, which have taken on new importance in the past decade, may encroach on the core of the profession. “The basic skills, like being a good student of Torah and being a good teacher and being a good listener, which were important skills in the Middle Ages, and important skills 40 years ago, are still key skills,” warned Elliot Schoenberg, associate executive director and international director of placement at the R.A.

In the past decade, rabbinical schools across denominations have tried to shift their curriculum to match the demand for practical experience and professional development.

For the past five years, JTS has required all its rabbinical students to complete a master’s degree from one of five separate academic schools — a change from its past arrangement, when all master’s degrees were conferred through the rabbinical school. Options range from education, on which Minnen focused, to academic text, social work and clinical pastoral education. Students are also required to complete a clinical pastoral education class, a 400-hour practical internship that places students in hospices or social service agencies, to deal with real pastoral concerns. The school also partners with entrepreneurial consultants to organize business-training workshops for students who want to launch their own startups.

JTS announced on April 23 that its Center for Pastoral Education had met a $750,000 fundraising challenge to help fund pastoral and counseling initiatives for students, as well as online resources and seminars for those in the field, emphasizing the shift toward so-called practical rabbinics.

“JTS sees that pastoral care is at the heart of the rabbinate today,” said Rabbi Mychal Springer, director of the center.

Yeshiva University has also made changes to emphasize experiential learning in the past five years, according to Marc Penner, associate dean and director of rabbinical training. Professional actors come into pastoral classes to play distressed congregants, forcing the students to deal with real-life issues in concrete ways.


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