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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“The debt load that newly ordained rabbis carry is staggering,” Henkin wrote in an email to the Forward. “It clearly affects their placement options in that they are not able to accept low-paying positions. They need well-paying rabbinic positions in order to pay down their debt. It is a serious problem for the rabbinate.”

Singer admits that as a recent graduate with debts to pay, he had to be practical when considering his job options. “No one’s going to get rich being a rabbi, but we’ve got to pay our bills,” he said.

Data on rabbinic salaries is difficult to obtain. According to Weisberg, and confirmed by other sources, starting salaries for a Reform congregational rabbi can run anywhere from $80,000 to $95,000 a year. Those who enter the not-for-profit, campus Hillels or entrepreneurial worlds may not earn as much. “You only do it if you’re in love with the profession,” Singer said.

As the Forward’s recent list of “36 Most Inspiring Rabbis” showed, the age of the rabbi is not over — far from it. Like that woman on the A train bound for Brooklyn, Jews continue to seek a place for themselves within the Jewish world. For many young rabbis like Minnen and Singer, the changing landscape is an opportunity.

People crave meaning, Singer said. “The synagogue may look different at the end of the conversation, but in the end, a bunch of Jews, meeting in a place — that’s a synagogue.”

“We all grow and change, he added. “My rabbinate is continually evolving. I’m still figuring out what the heck it means to be a rabbi. When we stop evolving, we stop growing and we start dying.”

Contact Anne Cohen at cohen@forward.com

This article was updated on June 4 to reflect the fact that it originally misstated the yearly tuition at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The tuition for one semester is $13,175. A full year costs $26,350. It was also updated to correct a statement misleadingly attributed to Rabbi Elie Kaunfer. Kaunfer did not comment on the integration between text-based learning and professional development learning.


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