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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“Many years ago the feeling was, you’ll figure it out when you get there,” Penner said.

“The rabbis of today [are] talking to an audience that has many options of what to listen to, what to read.”

In the fight to keep congregants’ attention, sermon giving has been elevated to a new art form. Students at Y.U. now have to take between five and seven courses in public speaking instead of one, and those courses are taught by business consultants instead of rabbis.

The focus is also widening. Rabbinical schools used to be thought of as a funnel to the pulpit, but rabbis are increasingly choosing — or forced because of job scarcity — to use their training in fields such as education, social work and entrepreneurship. For the past five years, students at Y.U. have been tracked professionally while still in school, and their coursework is adjusted to fit their intended professional niche, whether on the pulpit or in the boardroom.

“The most important thing is for rabbinical schools to offer both coursework and fieldwork opportunities to meet the needs of students who want to go on to all sorts of things,” explained Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, director of the School of Rabbinical Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus. The seminary now offers certificates in not-for-profit management, communications and synagogue management. Students are also assigned a professional mentor, to whom they can turn with more practical questions about rabbinical life.

Ten years ago, HUC-JIR launched a master’s program in Jewish education, and Weisberg says it is increasingly popular among students. In 2011, four out of seven graduates on the Los Angeles campus chose the education option. In 2012 it was five out of seven. In 2013 it was six out of a class of 13. On the Cincinnati campus, Kenneth Kanter, head of placement, said that 20% to 25% of students now choose that track.

HUC-JIR requires that students take a number of mandatory professional development classes, including a two-semester pastoral counseling course and a “Rabbi 101” class, in which rabbis in the field talk about their experiences based on a specific theme, such as intermarriage.

“We were exposed to a lot of different models,” noted Adena Kemper, 29, who is finishing her master’s degree in Jewish education at the HUC-JIR campus in New York and will be ordained next year. “The four walls of the synagogues are becoming a limitation. We need to meet [Jews] where they’re at.”

Fox agrees. “From a rabbinic point of view, several generations ago, much of it was being Jewish for people,” he said. “Today, it’s more about facilitating people to do Jewish.”


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