Training Rabbis For The Future


‘A 21st century rabbi is uniquely suited to…”

Four rabbinic scholars and practitioners were asked to fill in the blank at a Jewish Week-sponsored forum last Wednesday evening as part of a panel discussion on the role of rabbis today.

The program, inspired by the recently published book, “Keeping Faith In Rabbis: A Community Conversation On Rabbinical Education,” was moderated by Rabbi Hayim Herring, who co-edited the volume (Avenida Books). It consists of 31 essays by a diverse group of authors, rabbinic and lay, and reflects a wide range of topics, from how rabbis are — and should be — trained, to the loneliness of the rabbi in his or her personal life, despite being the center of the community.

Responding to Rabbi Herring’s request for an attribute that best suits a rabbi today, panelist Joshua Davidson, senior rabbi of the host congregation, Temple Emanu-El, said it should be the ability “to make Judaism relevant in a post-assimilationist world.”

Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC Manhattan, said a rabbinic leader must be able to access the Jewish past while living in the present and be committed to “a very uncertain future.”

Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the key is to communicate Jewish values in the cadence of contemporary society. And Erin Leib Smokler, director of spiritual development at Yeshivat Maharat for women, said a rabbi today needs to be “an entrepreneur,” with the skills to “go out and find Jews” rather than wait for them to seek out the synagogue.

Each of the participants spoke of the rapidly changing requirements for rabbis today, from being able to deal with the interfaith marriage issue to possessing the social media skills to reach wider audiences.

On the topic of Israel, Rabbi Herring observed that none of the essays in the book he co-edited dealt with Israel in any meaningful way. Rabbi Levitt asserted that “you can’t be a rabbi today without ahavat Yisrael,” a love for Israel. But she noted that many Jews today prefer “to construct a Jewish identity without Israel” because the subject is “too painful,” as a result of Israel’s policies. While acknowledging that it can be “a hard conversation to have,” particularly with young people, she said, “we [rabbis] abandon our role” in avoiding the subject.

Rabbi Davidson suggested that “Jewish identity is about moral courage,” and that rabbis need to understand their congregants and give them a rounded understanding of Israel and Jewish values.

That means that in the liberal community, with its focus on universalism, “we need to teach about particularism,” he said, and more traditional rabbis should speak out for universal ideals.

Rabbi Herring urged the panelists and members of the audience to continue the conversation in the community and, should they choose, on his Facebook page.