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Strict rules for rabbi hiring

NEW YORK, Sept. 15 (JTA) — When it comes to hiring rabbis, the Conservative and Reform movements are pretty religious. The movements employ stricter rules of engagement than do either modern Orthodoxy or the Reconstructionist movement. At the Conservative movement´s Jewish Theological Seminary, a joint rabbinical placement commission of JTS and the Rabbinical Assembly — the movement´s professional association of rabbis — oversees hiring rules. New graduates are allowed to step into a solo pulpit only in a congregation of up to 250 families. They are encouraged instead to become assistant or associate rabbis, usually in larger synagogues with bigger staffs. The rules are designed in part to encourage rookie Conservative rabbis to gain experience and seasoning before jumping into a solo pulpit. After three years, the new rabbis can move up to a 500-family congregation; after seven years they can lead a synagogue with up to 750 families; and after a decade a rabbi can step into a major pulpit in synagogues with more than 750 families. Yet some say that it´s not congregation size or length of tenure that determines how hard a rabbi works. "I worked as hard when I had a congregation of 60 families as when I had 1,250 families," says Rabbi William Lebeau, dean of JTS´ rabbinical school. "But I learned over the years how to balance time better, to be an administrator and pastor, and to protect my own family life." At JTS, congregations gather for an "interview week" each spring to meet prospective rabbis, then select the ones they want to meet again. Interested students decide whether to meet congregations who call. Many newly ordained JTS rabbis say they interview with six congregations or more in person, and speak by phone with others, before fielding offers. While Conservative rabbinical job-hunting may seem rigid and intense, the rules evolved by the late 1980s in response to criticism that the process relied too much on insider ties, backroom deals and RA discretion. Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of Star — an acronym for Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal — was ordained in 1984 and took his first assistantship at Beth El Synagogue in Minneapolis in 1985. "The placement system was really different back then," Herring says. "There was more of an informal, old-boys network." The Reform movement, meanwhile, has turned rabbinic selection into a science. A joint placement commission of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations´ synagogue umbrella organization and the Central Conference of American Rabbis rabbinical union runs the Reform rabbi market. Rabbis enter the market when Reform temples gather for a few days at HUC´s Cincinnati campus each spring to meet potential recruits. Congregations and students follow a double-blind rating system not unlike the process used for medical-school applications. The system is based on algorithms developed by the Maryland-based Institute for Operations Research and Management Science. Congregations and students get paired if they rank one another as their top choice in anonymous lists. Rankings are weighted in favor of the students. If a congregation ranks second a particular applicant who ranked that temple first — and the congregation´s top choice was matched somewhere else or did not want that congregation — the second choice gets the job. Theoretically, "a congregation or student could get their sixth choice," says Rabbi David Komerofsky, associate dean of HUC in Cincinnati. But that rarely happens, says Aaron Panken of HUC´s New York headquarters, who co-authored a study on the system in June. According to a report on the ratings system that Panken co-wrote, placements between 1997-1999 and 2001-2002 show that most HUC graduates and congregations secured their first or second choices. In 1997, for example, 18 of 26 students got placed with the top-ranked synagogue, while 16 of 35 congregations seeking rabbis got their top choice. In 2002, 10 of 14 students got their top job choice, while eight of 22 congregations got their top choice and three got their second choice. In those years, as in other years rated, a minority of students and congregations settled for a third choice or did not get placed at all. The rankings in 1997 supplanted a more informal system that many also likened to an old-boys network, and the new system aims to level the playing field so that candidates and congregations "have real access to each other," says Rabbi David Komerofsky, associate dean of HUC in Cincinnati. According to Reform rules, a newly ordained student is eligible to serve as an assistant at any sized congregation and as the sole rabbi at congregations up to 300 families. After three years, a rabbi can head a synagogue of up to 600 families; after five years, up to 1,000 families; and after eight years, more than 1,000 families. Like the Conservative movement, the Reform movement prefers that rabbis first take assistant or associate positions, usually at larger synagogues with greater clerical needs. No such rules exist in modern Orthodoxy or the Reconstructionist movement, in part because they deal with fewer rabbinical students each year. Rabbi Joel Alpert, placement director for the Reconstructionist movement, says its system is "completely open" and that a search is based more on meeting the needs of congregations and candidates and less on years of experience. In modern Orthodoxy, the hiring process is similarly informal. In some cases, a rabbi who has served at a small shul for only a few years can jump to a much larger synagogue, says Rabbi A. Mark Levin, director of the rabbinic services division of Yeshiva University´s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Ultimately, the congregation´s requirements shape the hiring process, Levin says. He often counsels congregations to rank their needs, and even draft a secondary wish-list of qualities. "Is this a congregation looking for a young rabbi whose great strength is giving shiurim" — lessons — "in Talmud, but speaking and administrative skills are not as important?" Levin says. "Or is someone needed who can give a synagogue a strong public face, but depth in midrash is not as crucial?" The very nature of the Orthodox synagogue world doesn´t allow for the same tight control over rabbinic hiring, says Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue organization that also trains and places rabbis. "Anybody can open a shtibl in their backyard," he says, referring to the small, storefront-type shuls that meet in homes or beit midrash study halls and rarely seek pulpit rabbis. "They don´t need us, so you can´t sit them down and make demands."