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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Rabbi David Singer is leading such a transition at his Dallas synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel. In the eight months that he has been at the Conservative synagogue, 30-year-old Singer, who graduated from American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2012, has created a program to engage the Jewish youth of Dallas beyond the synagogue walls, which are seen by some as restrictive or old-fashioned. Participants in the Makom program are young Jews who, craving meaning through Judaism, meet for the Sabbath and holidays, and for Torah discussions, in such unlikely places as garages, outdoor tents and wine bars.

“I think the synagogue is a wonderful institution and it’s worked for Jews for 2,000 years, so I’m not prepared to give up on it,” Singer said. “But my generation is increasingly skeptical of organizations in general, and synagogues in particular. They haven’t yet learned why it’s good for them.”

The Ziegler School has also adapted to face these changing needs. Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean and lecturer on practical rabbinics, said that students must take a year-long class on professional skills, in which they learn everything from fundraising to working with a board, writing a résumé, negotiation, supervision and what it means to be a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.

“In order to successfully run the organization, the rabbi has to understand the organization,” she said.

But some, like Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder of Mechon Hadar, in Manhattan, the organization that runs the first egalitarian yeshiva in the United States, called Yeshivat Hadar, feel that schools need to be even more creative. “In some way, it’s nothing new, it’s something old,” Kaunfer explained.

Rabbi Marc Margolius, of Manhattan’s West End Synagogue, thinks that text-based learning and professional development can be creatively related. “There are creative ways of integrating those disciplines instead of having them be silo-ized,” he said. “If you have a class on pastoral care, a class on being an educator, it’s just putting a toe in the water. It’s not enough.”

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where Margolius was ordained, is trying to do just that. Four years ago, the faculty began a comprehensive review of the curriculum.

“We decided that adding a course here or there, or making a few changes, would not allow us to do what we wanted to do, which was to step back and look at where the rabbinate is going,” said Tamar Kamionkowski, RRC’s academic dean and vice president of academic affairs.

The main change, she said, is an end to the strict division between religious text studies and professional skills. Added into the new curriculum, which will be implemented in the coming academic year, will be a series of units integrating both pastoral skills and a foundation of Jewish text, complemented by field experience and consultations with experts.


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