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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But ultimately, some argue that professional skills learned in school are just a start. For a rabbi, most learning is done on the job.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who founded and, for 21 years, led Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, argues that rather than seminaries cramming in more content or shifting emphasis away from necessary Jewish education, seminary training has to be complemented in the field. That’s why he is starting a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation.

“We have woefully underserved the rabbinate, because we’ve decided that after five years of academic study, they’re ready to be spiritual leaders,” he said, “and they’re not.”

But schools may have to rethink more than their academic curriculums to adjust supply to demand. The combination of the economy and the high rates of debt incurred over a five-to-six year rabbinical education has caused the number of applicants to freefall.

According to Rabbi Amber Powers, RRC’s assistant vice president for enrollment and rabbinic formation, the number of students who enroll at non-Orthodox seminaries has decreased by almost 30% in the past eight years. Every summer, the directors of each school share their admissions data. In 2004, Powers said, there were 118 incoming students; in 2012 there were 81.

Except for Y.U., where the $14,750 yearly tuition is covered entirely by scholarships, paying for rabbinical school is a substantial investment. For this academic year, HUC–JIR charged $21,000 a year for five required years of study. RRC charged $20,000 for each of six years. JTS charged $13,175 a semester (and $26,350 for a full year) for a five-to-six year course of study, which also includes a mandatory year in Israel. And Ziegler’s tuition is $26,784 annually for a five-year program. All that is without housing and living expenses, which vary from campus to campus.

All schools offer financial aid. According to Eve Glasberg, head of communications at JTS, almost 69% of students receive some kind of scholarship. At RRC, Powers said, more than half the students qualify for financial aid, though it varies from year to year. HUC-JIR gives need-based scholarships to anyone who qualifies, and, as Weisberg points out, most full-time graduate students qualify.

But even in Y.U.’s exceptional case, a $15,000-a-year housing fee (for those who choose dorm living) on top of living expenses for what can sometimes be a large family requires many students to take out loans.

As Henkin acknowledged, the debt incurred paying for rabbinical education has an impact on what kind of position one looks for after graduation.


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