High Holiday Feature: Where Have All the Rabbis Gone? Congregations, Day Schools Face Shortage
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High Holiday Feature: Where Have All the Rabbis Gone? Congregations, Day Schools Face Shortage

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Temple Shalom in Wheeling, W. Va., was offering $80,000 and various perks to its next spiritual leader, but the 110-family Reform congregation searched for almost two years before finding the rabbi of its dreams.

And some 52 Reform temples, 35 Conservative synagogues and 15 Orthodox congregations are still looking.

Some say it’s the high demands of the job that is keeping rabbis off the pulpit. Others point to a swelling and diversifying field in which rabbis have a range of on-and off-the-bimah career options.

Whatever the reasons, a number of synagogues are approaching the busy High Holiday season without a rabbi, or without enough rabbis, say officials of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.

And leaders in the smaller Reconstructionist movement expect that as their branch of Judaism continues to grow, their congregations also may face a shortage as well.

It’s not a crisis — fewer than 10 percent of any movement’s congregations are without rabbis. But the shortage of rabbis is a concern and is also being felt at educational and organizational institutions.

Especially hard hit for all the denominations are small and mid-sized congregations located in shrinking and isolated Jewish communities, such as Temple Shalom.

“The biggest problem is convincing people that the quality of life is good here, that they’re not entering a cultural wasteland,” said Jack Mendelson, who was chairman of Temple Shalom’s search committee that ultimately chose Rabbi Ronald Goff, the director of Florida State University’s Hillel.

But even large synagogues in big cities — once viewed as the apex of the profession — are experiencing a drop in applications, particularly in the Reform movement.

“Our largest congregations, when looking for a senior rabbi, have among the smallest number of applications,” said Rabbi Charles Kroloff, the new president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Kroloff has placed the issue of his movement’s rabbi shortage at the top of his agenda.

“We’re asking our colleagues and lay leaders to take a look at what kind of lives we rabbis lead: Are we taking good enough care of ourselves so that we can take good care of others, and what is the reality and perception of rabbinic life?” Kroloff said.

The Reform movement — which anticipates more than 70 new positions in the coming years — has experienced a steady drop in rabbinic school enrollment in the past decade. This, officials say, is in part a response to an anticipated shortage of jobs a decade ago.

The shortages in Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, however, come despite steady, even rising seminary enrollments. Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said that while he would like to see more rabbis, he is reluctant to dramatically step up recruitment for fear that the market will experience a glut.

Despite the concerns, there are more American rabbis than ever before, even as the Jewish population is stagnant, if not declining in number. There are now 1,500 Conservative rabbis, compared to 1,200 two decades ago. There are 1,100 members of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, up from approximately 700 over the same time period.

And despite recent drops in seminary enrollment, the total number of Reform rabbis — 1,700 — is still considerably more than the 1,100 two decades ago. The number for all the movements includes pulpit and non-pulpit rabbis.

But the number of jobs is growing faster than the number of rabbis.

Synagogues, seeking to meet demands for alternative services and more programs, are increasingly hiring — or trying to hire — second, third and even fourth rabbis. As they search, they are competing with other institutions, such as day schools, hospitals, campus Hillels and Jewish community centers, which did not used to hire as many rabbis.

“There used to be a time when the pulpit rabbinate was the symbol of the rabbinate,” said Meyers. “There was an assumption that you were second-best if you didn’t have a congregation.”

But that has changed. In this year’s crop of newly ordained rabbis, slightly under half of the 48 Conservative rabbis, one-quarter of the 45 Reform rabbis and half of the 10 Reconstructionist rabbis chose jobs outside synagogues.

The majority of Orthodox rabbis go into educational jobs, but there are not enough of them to fill these posts either, said Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the rabbinical council.

Some rabbis — a growing number of whom are women — perceive non-pulpit jobs as more family-friendly than the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week reputation of the congregation.

All of the liberal movements ordain women; Orthodox Judaism does not.

Many male rabbis, whose wives are more likely to be professionals struggling with their own careers than traditional rebbetzins, are also shying away from congregational work.

Family demands led Rabbi Andrew Bachman to leave a pulpit position in a Brooklyn Reform temple for a slightly less time-consuming job directing New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life.

“I was barely seeing my wife and daughter,” he said. “There’s nothing like the intensity of being a congregational rabbi. It could work out years from now when my kids are grown, but now is not the time to be doing it.”

In response to similar comments and the fear that not enough of its rabbis are choosing the pulpit, the Reconstructionist movement recently formed a commission to examine “the role of the rabbi” and to create recommendations for congregations on how to make the job more manageable.

“The older model was of a rabbi who was supposed to be on call at all times, but today people are more interested in setting reasonable expectations and nurturing the rabbi as a person as well as a professional,” said Rabbi Richard Hirsh, director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which has 200 members.

One female Reform rabbi says the pulpit is often perceived as more unmanageable than it really is today.

“I’ve been a rabbi 20 years and was pregnant with my first child when I was ordained,” said Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Ill.

“It hasn’t been easy, but it’s not easy to balance any career with a family,” she said “If anything, the entry of women into the rabbinate has helped humanize the rabbinate and helped lay people realize that all rabbis need time with their families.”

Not everyone finds the shift away from the pulpit problematic. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., is searching for a third rabbi for his Conservative congregation, but is not troubled by what he describes as “the crisis that’s not a crisis.”

“It’s wonderful how we’ve deployed rabbis,” he said. “In the pulpit, there’s a limited number of people we’re going to meet, but these other jobs are a wonderful way to find Jews in all kinds of places.”

As the liberal movements struggle to fill their pulpits, various ideas are being floated, including a sort of Peace Corps approach in which young rabbis would be recruited to serve in underserved areas, possibly in exchange for forgiving student loans.

The liberal seminaries are also considering accelerated tracks so that a rabbinic degree could be completed quicker — it currently takes five years for Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis and four years for Orthodox ones — and training more people for auxiliary congregational roles, such as program director or executive director, so that all the burdens don’t fall on the rabbi.

“The rabbinate is still a calling and not just a profession one goes into like law or investment banking,” said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

“There has to be a religious passion or it’s not going to work,” he said. “But I do think there are young people out there looking for a Jewish career, and they are the recruitment pool that we can penetrate more deeply.”

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