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The Vanishing American Rabbi – The Atlantic

The Vanishing American Rabbi – The Atlantic
The Vanishing American Rabbi – The Atlantic

In November 2021, Temple Israel in Springfield, Missouri, began looking for a new rabbi. A quick perusal of job listings from other Reform synagogues left the search committee stunned: Scores of congregations, many offering higher salaries in larger cities, had been unable to fill their positions for months, sometimes longer. Eventually, Temple Israel entered into a fee-for-service agreement with a rabbi two hours away. He would come in for Shabbat, High Holiday services, and adult-education classes, but he wouldn’t attend community meetings, collaborate with local faith leaders, or recruit new members to the synagogue. For only the second time in its 125-year history, Temple Israel wouldn’t have a full-time rabbi.

Their experience is no outlier. A Conservative congregation just outside New York City, offering $150,000 a year plus benefits and a free three-bedroom home, spent three years trying to find a replacement for its rabbi after he announced his retirement in 2019. (Like other rabbis I spoke with, he delayed retirement to tide over the congregation.) There were simply not enough interested candidates.

In the past 15 years, the number of American Jews choosing to become rabbis has plummeted, and so has the share of rabbis interested in serving congregations, as more and more end up in nonprofits, hospitals, universities, and elsewhere. This has threatened the vitality of hundreds of synagogues as well as the future of the schools that have ordained rabbis for more than a century.

Without a rabbi, synagogue membership tends to dwindle to the very dedicated. Enrollment in the Hebrew school goes down. Fundraising becomes harder. Nobody gets a hospital visit from the rabbi or a call of comfort during a difficult time.

Judaism is far from the only faith tradition facing this problem. In many Christian denominations, a wave of early retirements during the coronavirus pandemic accelerated long-term declines among priests and pastors. Scores of prominent Christian seminaries have been forced to sell their campuses due to shrinking enrollment, and many have merged resources and properties with other schools, even those of other denominations. Typically, Catholic priests once had to wait a decade after ordination before leading their own parish; today, the wait time can be less than three years.

Whether this represents a crisis or an opportunity for renewal is the subject of much debate among Jewish leaders.

“Yes, we need to figure out what is going to happen to congregations who are not getting rabbis,” says Emily Hendel, who oversees career services for the Rabbinical Assembly, a 1,600-member organization of Conservative rabbis. “But it does not negate the advantages of having rabbis serve in other places.”

Even as the rabbi shortage has worsened, new institutions of Jewish learning, social activism, and lay leadership have flourished, largely thanks to the growing engagement of younger Jews. Very little of this renaissance, however, is affiliated with large, established synagogues or the seminaries that supply them with rabbis. Almost none of it is tied to the denominations.

A new center of gravity for American Jewish life is emerging, far removed from synagogue life and the institutions that have defined it. The centralized Judaism of the 20th century is giving way to a series of independent organizations, reflecting a broader trend across faith communities toward religious individualism. This new Judaism raises questions about what a rabbi should be in the 21st century, whom they should serve, and what to do now that so many congregations can’t find one.

The Hebrew word for ordination is semikha, “the laying of hands.” In the Bible, Moses designates Joshua as the new leader of the children of Israel by placing his hands on him. Jewish tradition holds that this chain of transmission passed from Joshua to the 70 Elders of Israel, all the way down—spiritually if not literally—to today’s rabbis. Rabbis of all denominations are still ordained on the authority of someone who holds semikha, ushering them into the chain of authority that Jews trace to Moses himself on Mount Sinai.

For most of the 20th century, the American rabbinical career was relatively standardized. Rabbis were ordained in a denomination and served synagogues affiliated with that denomination. There were two major options for rabbinical training outside the Orthodox world: Hebrew Union College—whose three American campuses, in Cincinnati, New York, and Los Angeles, ordain rabbis for the Reform movement, America’s largest Jewish denomination—and New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the main seminary of the Conservative movement. From the 1950s to the early 2000s, HUC regularly graduated classes of 45 students; JTS, 35.

Last year, continuing a decline that began in the 2010s and was exacerbated by the pandemic, HUC ordained 30 rabbis. JTS ordained only 12. About 50 Reform rabbis and 20 Conservative rabbis retire each year, meaning that the number of openings outstrips the supply of available rabbis, despite the fact that many synagogues have merged or closed. And even that understates the gap between supply and demand. If recent trends hold, barely half of the rabbis who graduated from rabbinical schools last year will go to work in synagogues.

My father, Joseph Telushkin, received his Orthodox ordination from Yeshiva University. I was always amazed, as a child, at the places he could enter simply by explaining that he was a rabbi. Hospital visiting-hour limits and gated-community protocols would vanish in the presence of his prayer book and black coat. It was not the career for me—I never quite absorbed my parents’ pious faith, and I grew up in a Jewish community where women remain excluded from the rabbinate—but I saw the appeal. He sparks reverence in airport lounges and grocery-store lines. People on the street ask him to pray for them. He is at home in moments of tragedy, celebration, and fear; he feels needed in spaces where others feel uncomfortable.

Unlike other professions rooted in lofty ideals (see: humanities professors), congregational rabbis have pretty good job prospects, with respectable salaries and stable benefits. Their work is meaningful. They can be activists, scholars, writers, teachers. They oversee pivotal moments in people’s lives—bat mitzvahs, weddings, conversions, funerals. As a career, there seems much to recommend it.

So why are so few Jews becoming rabbis?

Part of the answer lies in how modernity and assimilation have changed the role. For centuries, a rabbi was a scholar of Jewish legal texts whose central task was to help other Jews navigate questions—moral, technical, everyday, extraordinary—with the wisdom of Jewish law. This is still true of Orthodox rabbis. For most American Jews, however, the role of the rabbi today is to make Jewish traditions meaningful in a world in which they are not always familiar or obviously relevant.

To illustrate the point, David Wolpe, who recently retired as the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, recalled to me something he heard from Simon Greenberg, a revered rabbi on campus when Wolpe was in seminary in the 1980s: “I will never forget, he said to us, ‘Your job as a rabbi is to explain America to your congregants.’ For that generation of Jews, all committed and knowledgeable about Judaism, they needed to learn how to be Jews in this new land. For this generation, everybody is an American. That’s not the issue. The issue is how, as an American, do you become Jewish? And that is a harder task, because it is countercultural.”

Outside the Orthodox world, most Jews can easily ignore their Jewish identity if they so choose. This might be one reason many current rabbinical students come from minority identities, whether they are queer, converts, or Jews of color. These groups had to more actively contemplate their place in the Jewish world, and for many, that contemplation led to the rabbinate.

Jewish women didn’t have the option to become rabbis until the 1970s. Eventually, American rabbinical schools graduated more women than men, but doubling the potential pool of rabbinical candidates clearly did not lead to an increase in rabbis. Why? Scholars have argued that other professions became less prestigious after women were allowed to join them. Whether something similar has occurred in the rabbinate is hard to determine, in part because the start of female ordinations coincided with another key trend: the emergence of a more assimilated and secular Jewish community.

Whereas earlier generations were likely to be raised in a home with knowledgeable parents or grandparents—giving them a basic grasp of Hebrew, holidays, and practices—today, fewer Jews absorb this information at home.

“The gap between what people learn in their childhood Jewish education and what you need for rabbinical school has grown,” says Rabbi Amber Powers, a leader within the Reconstructionist movement, one of the more modern denominations. In the ’80s, she told me, Jewish children likely attended Hebrew school three days a week. Now that many Jews grow up with no formal religious education, rabbinical school can take longer than it used to, and cost more.

The day-to-day life of a rabbi has also changed. In many communities, the rabbi has gone from being a spiritual authority whose word was akin to law to something of a community organizer. With greater assimilation, the burden of outreach is now on the rabbi to sell the virtues of Judaism to people who can always walk away. This has made the work less rewarding and more exhausting, many congregational rabbis told me.

“There was never work-life balance in this role,” said a Reform rabbi serving a large urban congregation, who asked not to be named for fear of professional consequences. “But when you were being interrupted on vacation, it was because somebody was having a crisis, or there was a tragedy in the community. The work was nonstop, but it was fulfilling. Today, people can also bring those problems to a therapist or other professional.” Rabbis are still expected to be available past business hours, she told me, but more often for event planning, fundraising, and logistics than for spiritual care or family emergencies.

Many Jewish leaders observe that rabbis no longer encourage young Jews to follow in the profession—invitations that were once an important mode of recruitment. One mid-career rabbi told me about a successful colleague with 25 years in the pulpit who has sent only two or three students to rabbinical school in all that time: “I’ve had friends and colleagues say, ‘Why would I wish this sort of impossible life on some of these promising, amazing people?’”

The work has also become more contentious. Three-fourths of non-Orthodox Jews now marry a non-Jewish partner. When rabbis decline to perform interfaith marriages or to allow non-Jewish family members ritual roles in synagogue, those decisions are often received as intensely personal snubs; when rabbis embrace these changes, however, they can leave more traditional congregants feeling betrayed. (Several rabbinical schools have recently rescinded their policies against interfaith relationships, prompting much debate.) Support for Israel was once a unifying force within congregations; today, it is often a source of division.

In addition to all this, becoming a rabbi is expensive. Before the 1960s, rabbinical schools did not charge tuition. This remains the case in the Orthodox world, but in other movements, rabbinical school typically requires five to eight years of high-cost, full-time study after college. Even those with tuition scholarships still need to pay rent and support themselves in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, without a salary. Most schools also require a year in Jerusalem, forcing expensive cross-Atlantic moves.

Gabi Isaac-Herzog, who works as a consultant at an insurance company and graduated from Macalester College in 2022, was one of many young people who told me they crunched the numbers senior year and realized with deep sadness that they needed to choose a well-paying job after college instead of a lower-paying one that would prepare them for rabbinical school. Although Isaac-Herzog loved learning Hebrew and was involved with Jewish life on campus, she simply couldn’t move to a city without an income when she had student loans to repay.

“The financial aspect was the biggest hurdle,” she said. “If I hadn’t been thinking about that last year, I would probably not have the job that I have now, and would be considering going to rabbinical school in the next two to three years.” She’s now thinking of going at age 30, once she’s built up her savings and explored her options, but the plan becomes more uncertain every year.

Even though the number of students attending rabbinical school has not grown in the past two decades, the number of rabbinical schools has increased. Some established institutions have tried to become more accessible by reducing tuition or offering more remote-friendly options, caught between their historic structure and the reality of modern life. They’re still failing to attract more students. In 2015, the Jewish Theological Seminary sold off its main library building, long considered the jewel of its campus. In 2022, Hebrew Union College voted to sunset its rabbinical program in Cincinnati, which was established in 1875.

When Louis Finkelstein, a 20th-century leader of the Conservative movement, applied to JTS in 1915, he was interviewed by Solomon Schechter, the famed scholar and the chancellor at the time, who asked why he wanted to attend. Finkelstein said, reasonably, that he wanted to learn. “No!” Schechter replied. “You come here to be in the presence of great men.”

Today, young Jews can find great minds all over—in nondenominational Jewish organizations, progressive spiritual communities, and the Jewish-studies Ph.D. programs that only recently came into existence. Young Jews told me again and again that they are willing to sacrifice time and money to receive leadership skills and spiritual training, but they don’t know if rabbinical schools are still the best places to do that.

Great Jewish minds can also be found in a set of schools that have emerged in recent decades to offer new models of learning and Jewish identity. The traditional but egalitarian Yeshivat Hadar recently ordained eight students in a four-year program focused on mastery of Jewish law. The Shalom Hartman Institute, a hub of Jewish thought and leadership, is launching a program for Jews pursuing the rabbinate as a second career. The nondenominational Hebrew College outside Boston and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College near Philadelphia are the rare examples of established schools that aren’t shrinking, in part because both have long focused on rabbinical work beyond the pulpit, and because they welcome students who don’t fit into typical denominational categories. One concerning trend is the growing number of nonaccredited schools, which offer rabbinical degrees in less than two years and provide far less training.

Despite the declines that traditional seminaries and congregations are facing, many within the Conservative and Reform movements insist that the crisis is overblown. Last year, for example, only eight Reform synagogues were left without sufficient leadership to meet their religious needs, according to representatives from the movement. To meet those needs, however, many synagogues rely on part-time help, retired rabbis in interim positions, or rabbinical students. An increasing number of synagogues are looking outside their denominations, or choosing rabbis from unaccredited schools. Smaller Conservative congregations in particular are starting to look outside their denomination after only a month of searching, instead of the two or three years once expected.

“Long ago, Jews stopped thinking denominationally,” Rabbi Gary Glickstein, a co-leader of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis, told me. “Rabbis and institutions still do. But I don’t know any person who has joined my congregation in the last 30 or 40 years because they were ideologically a Reform Jew.”

Merging existing institutions or hiring candidates across denominational lines can only do so much, though. Truly revitalizing the rabbinate will require a shift in institutional priorities. Since the 1990s, grants given by American Jewish institutions have disproportionately focused on unaffiliated Jews, neglecting those already fully committed to the faith, especially young Jews considering the rabbinate.

If the community came together and decided to make seminaries affordable, not only by reducing the cost of tuition but also by offering generous living stipends to students, the impact could be significant. Money alone won’t solve the problem, but financial support would boost the prestige of the rabbinate and allow more students and Jewish leaders to consider it in earnest. Stipends could also be used to encourage students to spend time serving in synagogues, perhaps as a two-year commitment following ordination, or during the process of being ordained.

“We have students who come into rabbinical school thinking, I don’t think I want to work in a congregation. And then they do it for a few years, and they get absolutely hooked,” Miriam Heller Stern, who directs the school of education at Hebrew Union College, told me. “When you’ve gone through that process of guiding people through their most important holy, intimate moments—of birth, death, partnership, even divorce and separation and grief—there’s a magic in making that whole and meaningful for people.”

Without any changes, seminaries will continue to wither and disperse, dismantling in a few years the communal infrastructure that took more than a century to build. Synagogues—especially those serving smaller and more remote communities—will continue to shrink, leaving more Jews without access to a rabbi or a religious community.

Much good will come from the new institutions that exist outside the seminary, synagogue, and denominations; their success is a sign that the future of Jewish life in the U.S. is strong. But for centuries, the synagogue and the congregational rabbi stood at the center of Jewish life. They allowed Jews of all sorts to come together to pray, worship, celebrate, argue, and mourn. If they disappear, they will be hard to replace.

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