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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Last fall, Jessica Minnen, a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, was on her way to officiate at a wedding in Brooklyn. What started out as an ordinary ride on the A train turned into a spiritual revelation about the 21st-century rabbinate.

Minnen was quietly reviewing a course catalog for a new kind of Hebrew school when she noticed a woman, sitting with her son, who shyly asked her about the document.

Jessica Minnen
Jessica Minnen

As Minnen explained, the woman acknowledged that although she is Jewish, her child hadn’t gone to a Jewish school. By the time the train arrived in Brooklyn, Minnen had played three rabbinical roles: congregation leader, educator and counselor.

“I’m on my way to do a wedding…and I end up having a long pastoral conversation with these people on the train about how to find a place in Jewish New York,” Minnen said. “That’s the rabbinate! It’s not just textual fluency. [That’s] a backbone, it’s a core, but if we can’t live it and we can’t make it meaningful to the next person on the street, then I’m not sure we’re a rabbi in 2013.”

Minnen is one of the many graduating rabbinical students poised to take on a rapidly shifting rabbinate. Expectations have changed: Rabbis are now required to read a spreadsheet as well as the Gemara. They need to be accessible, media-savvy public speakers; business-oriented entrepreneurs; fundraisers; program generators, and in touch with popular trends. In the words of Rabbi Steven Fox, CEO of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbi is the “CEO — chief engagement officer — of his congregation.” Or her congregation.

To prepare rabbinical students for the challenges ahead, seminaries are reassessing their curriculums to focus more on professional development and pastoral skills than ever before. This push for more streamlined professional development has sparked debate across denominations about the danger of straying too far from a rabbi’s core religious obligations. Some, on the other hand, don’t see the changes moving fast enough.

Meantime, the job market is only slowly adjusting to this new reality. In both the Reform and Conservative movements, the number of congregations has shrunk while the number of rabbis has increased. That dynamic has forced young rabbis to branch out of pulpit positions and into education, social justice, not-for-profit management and business — fields not traditionally associated with rabbinical training. With jobs uncertain, and the burden of tuition debt growing, the number of applicants to non-Orthodox rabbinical schools has dropped by almost 30% in the past eight years.

In 1993, the Union for Reform Judaism counted 900 congregations; 10 years later, that number has gone down to 876. But the number of rabbis affiliated with the CCAR has increased during that same time period, to 2,100 from 1,650. In 2003 there were 740 synagogues affiliated with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; today there are 620, while the number of members of the Rabbinical Assembly has gone to 1,690 from 1,500. (Comparative data is not available for the Orthodox or Reconstructionist movements).

“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.

“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.”

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.

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.

“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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