Rabbis´ job searches are grueling

Rabbi Judah Dardik of Congregation Beth Jacob, Oakland, CA, with congregant Ruth Smith. (Congregation Beth Jacob)

Rabbi Judah Dardik of Congregation Beth Jacob, Oakland, CA, with congregant Ruth Smith. (Congregation Beth Jacob)

NEW YORK, Sept. 15 (JTA) — Brian Schuldenfrei was wandering around midtown Manhattan one gray March day, clutching his cellphone, when the realization struck. The 28-year-old rabbinic student had recently emerged from the grueling "interview week" at the Conservative movement´s Jewish Theological Seminary, where synagogues meet pulpit candidates for the first time in a kind of rabbinical job fair capping the five-year program. He realized that he was so wrapped up in the job search that he´d forgotten to attend an important theology lecture. Now Schuldenfrei was nervously awaiting call-backs. The call he particularly wanted was from the 1,600-family Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, one of the Conservative movement´s most prestigious congregations, where an assistant rabbi position was available. "I wouldn´t put my phone in my pocket because I was afraid I would miss that call," Schuldenfrei says. "I´ve never experienced more stress." Like other professionals, rabbis must endure the rigors of job hunting — competing for jobs, campaigning to convince prospective employers to hire them and haggling over contract terms. While each religious denomination follows its own set of rules and traditions that shape the rabbinic placement process, the goal is the same across the religious spectrum. "It´s really about making the best match," says Rabbi Joel Alpert, placement director for the Reconstructionist movement. While some of the movements almost have turned the process into a science, the crucial ingredient is the chemistry between rabbi and congregation. "Like falling in love, the subjective is the most important factor in the end," says Rabbi William Lebeau, dean of the rabbinical school at JTS. After what seemed to Schuldenfrei an eternity, Sinai Temple´s senior rabbi, David Wolpe, a rising leader in the movement, invited him for an interview. Schuldenfrei hopped on a flight to Los Angeles, arriving in time to attend Friday night services, eat dinner with Wolpe and congregation lay leaders and polish up a Shabbat sermon. The next day he delivered the sermon to 1,000 congregants, led a luncheon class for about 100 people, including board members, then spent the afternoon with the synagogue president, Wolpe and Sinai Temple´s other assistant rabbi, Sherre Hirsch. On Sunday, Schuldenfrei returned to the synagogue for still more meetings. For the rabbinical job-seeker, that kind of hectic, pressure-filled pace is typical. "It´s very high stress. You´re constantly on your toes, meeting tons of people," says Geri Newburge, 29, ordained this spring at the Reform movement´s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and newly hired assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J. "The synagogue visit is very difficult because you´re wearing two kipot," Schuldenfrei says. "You want to be the most gracious, dynamic, inspiring person, while trying to think critically. You´re evaluating them as much as they´re evaluating you." Others say the challenges surface as they begin searching for a pulpit. Two years ago, Judah Dardick was set to complete his ordination process at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, or RIETS, the rabbinical school of Yeshiva University, modern Orthodoxy´s banner institution. Like many seminary graduates who say demand in the rabbinical marketplace remains steadily strong year after year, Dardick found a land of opportunity: He sent resumes to 13 shuls and was invited for interviews at seven. One position was at Congregation Beth Jacob, a 140-family Orthodox synagogue in Oakland, Calif. Beth Jacob wanted a rabbi to step in and fill the shoes of its longtime leader, Rabbi Howard Zack. "I imagined I would go there and be only the third person for benching," or praying, Dardick says. Unlike the Conservative and Reform movements, which strictly tie experience levels to congregation size, the modern Orthodox and Reconstructionist movement do not maintain such rules. "It´s a little bit more free market," says Rabbi A. Mark Levin, director of the Gertrude and Morris Bienenfeld Department of Rabbinic Services, which is part of RIETS. "The rabbis and the communities determine the fit." But Dardick was worried, despite the congregation´s relatively small size. "What if I don´t know enough?" he said he asked himself. "I´ve never been a rabbi and it´s a big Torah. That was my greatest anxiety — that I couldn´t handle it." From the congregation´s perspective, hiring a rabbi is no small task, either. The search for a new rabbi, especially a senior position, can stretch for months and involve large search committees that spend many hours vetting candidates. In 1997, for instance, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles convened a 55- member search committee that spent six months interviewing candidates before picking Wolpe, who had conducted High Holiday services there. Kenneth Korach, president of the 1,000-family Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, says even the quest for a junior rabbi involved interviewing 15 people at HUC. "You interview everyone," Korach says, in part because the rabbinical market remains highly competitive, with more openings than candidates to fill them. But even a more condensed search saw its share of dilemmas, says Abner Goldstein, former president at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, who helped secure Schuldenfrei. Sinai Temple officials screened 10 candidates in a short time, some of whom quickly began fielding competing offers. "You really have very little time to spend with your candidate," Goldstein says. "It´s hard to feel comfortable that your impressions are valid." Seminary officials say congregations´ competing desires for youth and experience are a dilemma every new rabbi faces. "Every congregation is looking for the messiah," says Levin, of the Yeshiva University rabbinical school. "I share with them that it´s great to have those expectations but they can handicap your search, and it might be more helpful to deal with people in the world we encounter." At Oakland´s Beth Jacob, most officials believed that the small congregation stood little chance of finding another veteran of Zack´s stature to step in, so they looked for a more junior rabbi. Briane Kaye, who led the shul´s search committee, helped interview 18 candidates by phone, 10 of whom made a second cut, and three of whom, including Dardick, became finalists after three months. Despite some anxiety among members over choosing a younger replacement, Kaye says the committee drafted a list of characteristics the synagogue sought in a leader and realized Dardick embodied them. "We were realistic," he recalls. "We realized no one person would be everything." The non-Orthodox denominations steer new rabbis into assistant rabbi roles — partly to alleviate the pressure of being in the main pulpit in the shadows of departed giants, and partly to reduce competition with older rabbis. "The congregation knows it´s not going to find the messiah in its assistant," says Rabbi Richard Levy, director of rabbinic studies at the Los Angeles campus of the Reform movement´s Hebrew Union College. Yet even the journey to an assistant rabbi´s job can prove arduous. Neal Schuster, 33, a recent HUC graduate, used the Internet to research congregations he was interested in, learning about their rabbis, senior staff and synagogue location. Like many of his classmates, he cast a wide net. When Reform congregations sent representatives this spring to HUC´s Cincinnati campus for an annual three-day meet-and-greet with upcoming graduates, Schuster spoke with 14 congregations. The Reform rabbis-to-be then waited for calls from interested synagogues. They spent two to three weeks traveling to interviews. Schuster and his wife decided they wanted to raise their toddler-age children in an affordable area, and his first choice was Congregation B´nai Jehuda in Kansas City, an established temple of 1,400 families. Fortunately, Schuster was the congregation´s first choice, too. Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff, 49, was hired at B´nai Jehuda as senior rabbi just before Schuster. The pair hit it off, discussing working with one another "in terms of partnership and cooperation," Nemitoff says. While he sees the importance of serving as a mentor, Nemitoff says, he also sees drawbacks in thinking of new rabbis as mere assistants. "Whether you´re an assistant or associate rabbi, the first three letters" of the title are the same, he says. Meanwhile, Schuster, who arrived in Los Angeles in midsummer, says so far he´s keeping busy organizing his new office and simply "figuring out what this community is all about." At Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, Schuldenfrei is already making progress. "He is just spontaneously and authentically approachable and kind," Wolpe says of his new hire. "That made a tremendous impression." And Congregation Beth Jacob in Oakland recently renewed Dardick´s two-year contract. Beth Jacob´s lay leaders largely tend to the shul´s administrative and fund-raising needs, leaving Dardick free to teach, answer questions of Jewish law and attend to his congregation´s pastoral needs — in other words, to be "a full-time rabbi" he says. "This is fun," Dardick says. "I often think I am the happiest rabbi in the United States."

NEXT STORY