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The New American Judaism – The Atlantic

In November 2021, Temple Israel in Springfield, Missouri, started searching for a brand new rabbi. A fast perusal of job listings from different Reform synagogues left the search committee surprised: Scores of congregations, many providing larger salaries in bigger cities, had been unable to fill their positions for months, generally longer. Ultimately, Temple Israel entered right into a fee-for-service settlement with a rabbi two hours away. He would are available for Shabbat, Excessive Vacation companies, and adult-education lessons, however he wouldn’t attend group conferences, collaborate with native religion leaders, or recruit new members to the synagogue. For under the second time in its 125-year historical past, Temple Israel wouldn’t have a full-time rabbi.

Their expertise is not any outlier. A Conservative congregation simply exterior New York Metropolis, providing $150,000 a yr plus advantages and a free three-bedroom residence, spent three years looking for a alternative for its rabbi after he introduced his retirement in 2019. (Like different rabbis I spoke with, he delayed retirement to tide over the congregation.) There have been merely not sufficient candidates.

Up to now 15 years, the variety of American Jews selecting to develop into rabbis has plummeted, and so has the share of rabbis occupied with serving congregations, as an increasing number of find yourself in nonprofits, hospitals, universities, and elsewhere. This has threatened the vitality of lots of of synagogues in addition to the way forward for the faculties which have ordained rabbis for greater than a century.

With out a rabbi, synagogue membership tends to dwindle to the very devoted. Enrollment within the Hebrew faculty goes down. Fundraising turns into more durable. No one will get a hospital go to from the rabbi or a name of consolation throughout a tough time.

Judaism is way from the one religion custom dealing with this drawback. In lots of Christian denominations, a wave of early retirements through the coronavirus pandemic accelerated long-term declines amongst monks and pastors. Scores of outstanding Christian seminaries have been pressured to promote their campuses because of shrinking enrollment, and lots of have merged sources and properties with different colleges, even these of different denominations. Usually, Catholic monks as soon as needed to wait a decade after ordination earlier than main their very own parish; at this time, the wait time might be lower than three years.

Whether or not this represents a disaster or a possibility for renewal is the topic of a lot debate amongst Jewish leaders.

“Sure, we have to work out what will occur to congregations who usually are not getting rabbis,” says Emily Hendel, who oversees profession companies for the Rabbinical Meeting, a 1,600-member group of Conservative rabbis. “However it doesn’t negate the benefits of having rabbis serve in different places.”

Even because the rabbi scarcity has worsened, new establishments of Jewish studying, social activism, and lay management have flourished, largely because of the rising engagement of youthful Jews. Little or no of this renaissance, nonetheless, is affiliated with giant, established synagogues or the seminaries that offer them with rabbis. Virtually none of it’s tied to the denominations.

A brand new heart of gravity for American Jewish life is rising, far faraway from synagogue life and the establishments which have outlined it. The centralized Judaism of the Twentieth century is giving option to a sequence of unbiased organizations, reflecting a broader development throughout religion communities towards spiritual individualism. This new Judaism raises questions on what a rabbi must be within the twenty first century, whom they need to serve, and what to do now that so many congregations can’t discover one.

The Hebrew phrase for ordination is semikha, “the laying of fingers.” Within the Bible, Moses designates Joshua as the brand new chief of the kids of Israel by putting his fingers on him. Jewish custom holds that this chain of transmission handed from Joshua to the 70 Elders of Israel, all the way in which down—spiritually if not actually—to at this time’s rabbis. Rabbis of all denominations are nonetheless ordained on the authority of somebody who holds semikha, ushering them into the chain of authority that Jews hint to Moses himself on Mount Sinai.

For a lot of the Twentieth century, the American rabbinical profession was comparatively standardized. Rabbis have been ordained in a denomination and served synagogues affiliated with that denomination. There have been two main choices for rabbinical coaching exterior the Orthodox world: Hebrew Union Faculty—whose three American campuses, in Cincinnati, New York, and Los Angeles, ordain rabbis for the Reform motion, America’s largest Jewish denomination—and New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the primary seminary of the Conservative motion. From the Fifties to the early 2000s, HUC recurrently graduated lessons of 45 college students; JTS, 35.

Final yr, persevering with a decline that started within the 2010s and was exacerbated by the pandemic, HUC ordained 30 rabbis. JTS ordained solely 12. About 50 Reform rabbis and 20 Conservative rabbis retire every year, that means that the variety of openings outstrips the availability of accessible rabbis, even if many synagogues have merged or closed. And even that understates the hole between provide and demand. If current tendencies maintain, barely half of the rabbis who graduated from rabbinical colleges final yr will go to work in synagogues.

My father, Joseph Telushkin, acquired his Orthodox ordination from Yeshiva College. I used to be all the time amazed, as a toddler, on the locations he may enter just by explaining that he was a rabbi. Hospital visiting-hour limits and gated-community protocols would vanish within the presence of his prayer guide and black coat. It was not the profession for me—I by no means fairly absorbed my mother and father’ pious religion, and I grew up in a Jewish group the place girls stay excluded from the rabbinate—however I noticed the attraction. He sparks reverence in airport lounges and grocery-store traces. Folks on the road ask him to wish for them. He’s at residence in moments of tragedy, celebration, and worry; he feels wanted in areas the place others really feel uncomfortable.

In contrast to different professions rooted in lofty beliefs (see: humanities professors), congregational rabbis have fairly good job prospects, with respectable salaries and secure advantages. Their work is significant. They are often activists, students, writers, academics. They oversee pivotal moments in individuals’s lives—bat mitzvahs, weddings, conversions, funerals. As a profession, there appears a lot to advocate it.

So why are so few Jews changing into rabbis?

A part of the reply lies in how modernity and assimilation have modified the position. For hundreds of years, a rabbi was a scholar of Jewish authorized texts whose central process was to assist different Jews navigate questions—ethical, technical, on a regular basis, extraordinary—with the knowledge of Jewish regulation. That is nonetheless true of Orthodox rabbis. For many American Jews, nonetheless, the position of the rabbi at this time is to make Jewish traditions significant in a world through which they aren’t all the time acquainted or clearly related.

For instance the purpose, David Wolpe, who just lately retired because the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, recalled to me one thing he heard from Simon Greenberg, a revered rabbi on campus when Wolpe was in seminary within the Nineteen Eighties: “I’ll always remember, he stated to us, ‘Your job as a rabbi is to elucidate America to your congregants.’ For that era of Jews, all dedicated and educated about Judaism, they wanted to learn to be Jews on this new land. For this era, all people is an American. That’s not the difficulty. The problem is how, as an American, do you develop into Jewish? And that could be a more durable process, as a result of it’s countercultural.”

Exterior the Orthodox world, most Jews can simply ignore their Jewish id in the event that they so select. This may be one cause many present rabbinical college students come from minority identities, whether or not they’re queer, converts, or Jews of coloration. These teams needed to extra actively ponder their place within the Jewish world, and for a lot of, that contemplation led to the rabbinate.

Jewish girls didn’t have the choice to develop into rabbis till the Nineteen Seventies. Ultimately, American rabbinical colleges graduated extra girls than males, however doubling the potential pool of rabbinical candidates clearly didn’t result in a rise in rabbis. Why? Students have argued that different professions turned much less prestigious after girls have been allowed to affix them. Whether or not one thing comparable has occurred within the rabbinate is tough to find out, partly as a result of the beginning of feminine ordinations coincided with one other key development: the emergence of a extra assimilated and secular Jewish group.

Whereas earlier generations have been more likely to be raised in a house with educated mother and father or grandparents—giving them a fundamental grasp of Hebrew, holidays, and practices—at this time, fewer Jews soak up this info at residence.

“The hole between what individuals be taught of their childhood Jewish schooling and what you want for rabbinical faculty has grown,” says Rabbi Amber Powers, a pacesetter inside the Reconstructionist motion, one of many extra trendy denominations. Within the ’80s, she instructed me, Jewish kids seemingly attended Hebrew faculty three days every week. Now that many Jews develop up with no formal spiritual schooling, rabbinical faculty can take longer than it used to, and value extra.

The day-to-day lifetime of a rabbi has additionally modified. In lots of communities, the rabbi has gone from being a religious authority whose phrase was akin to regulation to one thing of a group organizer. With larger assimilation, the burden of outreach is now on the rabbi to promote the virtues of Judaism to individuals who can all the time stroll away. This has made the work much less rewarding and extra exhausting, many congregational rabbis instructed me.

“There was by no means work-life steadiness on this position,” stated a Reform rabbi serving a big city congregation, who requested to not be named for worry {of professional} penalties. “However whenever you have been being interrupted on trip, it was as a result of any person was having a disaster, or there was a tragedy in the neighborhood. The work was nonstop, nevertheless it was fulfilling. Right this moment, individuals can even carry these issues to a therapist or different skilled.” Rabbis are nonetheless anticipated to be out there previous enterprise hours, she instructed me, however extra typically for occasion planning, fundraising, and logistics than for religious care or household emergencies.

Many Jewish leaders observe that rabbis not encourage younger Jews to observe within the career—invites that have been as soon as an essential mode of recruitment. One mid-career rabbi instructed me a couple of profitable colleague with 25 years within the pulpit who has despatched solely two or three college students to rabbinical faculty in all that point: “I’ve had mates and colleagues say, ‘Why would I want this type of not possible life on a few of these promising, wonderful individuals?’”

The work has additionally develop into extra contentious. Three-fourths of non-Orthodox Jews now marry a non-Jewish associate. When rabbis decline to carry out interfaith marriages or to permit non-Jewish relations ritual roles in synagogue, these selections are sometimes acquired as intensely private snubs; when rabbis embrace these modifications, nonetheless, they’ll go away extra conventional congregants feeling betrayed. (A number of rabbinical colleges have just lately rescinded their insurance policies towards interfaith relationships, prompting a lot debate.) Assist for Israel was as soon as a unifying drive inside congregations; at this time, it’s typically a supply of division.

Along with all this, changing into a rabbi is pricey. Earlier than the Sixties, rabbinical colleges didn’t cost tuition. This stays the case within the Orthodox world, however in different actions, rabbinical faculty usually requires 5 to eight years of high-cost, full-time research after faculty. Even these with tuition scholarships nonetheless must pay lease and assist themselves in cities corresponding to New York and Los Angeles, with out a wage. Most colleges additionally require a yr in Jerusalem, forcing costly cross-Atlantic strikes.

Gabi Isaac-Herzog, who works as a guide at an insurance coverage firm and graduated from Macalester Faculty in 2022, was one in every of many younger individuals who instructed me they crunched the numbers senior yr and realized with deep unhappiness that they wanted to decide on a well-paying job after faculty as a substitute of a lower-paying one that will put together them for rabbinical faculty. Though Isaac-Herzog beloved studying Hebrew and was concerned with Jewish life on campus, she merely couldn’t transfer to a metropolis with out an revenue when she had pupil loans to repay.

“The monetary facet was the largest hurdle,” she stated. “If I hadn’t been fascinated about that final yr, I might in all probability not have the job that I’ve now, and could be contemplating going to rabbinical faculty within the subsequent two to a few years.” She’s now considering of going at age 30, as soon as she’s constructed up her financial savings and explored her choices, however the plan turns into extra unsure yearly.

Regardless that the variety of college students attending rabbinical faculty has not grown previously 20 years, the variety of rabbinical colleges has elevated. Some established establishments have tried to develop into extra accessible by decreasing tuition or providing extra remote-friendly choices, caught between their historic construction and the fact of recent life. They’re nonetheless failing to draw extra college students. In 2015, the Jewish Theological Seminary bought off its principal library constructing, lengthy thought of the jewel of its campus. In 2022, Hebrew Union Faculty voted to sundown its rabbinical program in Cincinnati, which was established in 1875.

When Louis Finkelstein, a Twentieth-century chief of the Conservative motion, utilized to JTS in 1915, he was interviewed by Solomon Schechter, the famed scholar and the chancellor on the time, who requested why he needed to attend. Finkelstein stated, fairly, that he needed to be taught. “No!” Schechter replied. “You come right here to be within the presence of nice males.”

Right this moment, younger Jews can discover nice minds throughout—in nondenominational Jewish organizations, progressive religious communities, and the Jewish-studies Ph.D. packages that solely just lately got here into existence. Younger Jews instructed me time and again that they’re keen to sacrifice money and time to obtain management abilities and religious coaching, however they don’t know if rabbinical colleges are nonetheless one of the best locations to try this.

Nice Jewish minds may also be present in a set of faculties which have emerged in current a long time to supply new fashions of studying and Jewish id. The normal however egalitarian Yeshivat Hadar just lately ordained eight college students in a four-year program centered on mastery of Jewish regulation. The Shalom Hartman Institute, a hub of Jewish thought and management, is launching a program for Jews pursuing the rabbinate as a second profession. The nondenominational Hebrew Faculty exterior Boston and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Faculty close to Philadelphia are the uncommon examples of established colleges that aren’t shrinking, partly as a result of each have lengthy centered on rabbinical work past the pulpit, and since they welcome college students who don’t match into typical denominational classes. One regarding development is the rising variety of nonaccredited colleges, which provide rabbinical levels in lower than two years and supply far much less coaching.

Regardless of the declines that conventional seminaries and congregations are dealing with, many inside the Conservative and Reform actions insist that the disaster is overblown. Final yr, for instance, solely eight Reform synagogues have been left with out adequate management to satisfy their spiritual wants, in accordance with representatives from the motion. To fulfill these wants, nonetheless, many synagogues depend on part-time assist, retired rabbis in interim positions, or rabbinical college students. An growing variety of synagogues are trying exterior their denominations, or selecting rabbis from unaccredited colleges. Smaller Conservative congregations specifically are beginning to look exterior their denomination after solely a month of looking, as a substitute of the 2 or three years as soon as anticipated.

“Way back, Jews stopped considering denominationally,” Rabbi Gary Glickstein, a co-leader of the Nationwide Affiliation of Retired Reform Rabbis, instructed me. “Rabbis and establishments nonetheless do. However I don’t know any one who has joined my congregation within the final 30 or 40 years as a result of they have been ideologically a Reform Jew.”

Merging present establishments or hiring candidates throughout denominational traces can solely achieve this a lot, although. Actually revitalizing the rabbinate would require a shift in institutional priorities. For the reason that Nineteen Nineties, grants given by American Jewish establishments have disproportionately centered on unaffiliated Jews, neglecting these already absolutely dedicated to the religion, particularly younger Jews contemplating the rabbinate.

If the group got here collectively and determined to make seminaries reasonably priced, not solely by decreasing the price of tuition but in addition by providing beneficiant dwelling stipends to college students, the influence may very well be vital. Cash alone received’t remedy the issue, however monetary assist would increase the status of the rabbinate and permit extra college students and Jewish leaders to think about it in earnest. Stipends is also used to encourage college students to spend time serving in synagogues, maybe as a two-year dedication following ordination, or through the technique of being ordained.

“We now have college students who come into rabbinical faculty considering, I don’t assume I need to work in a congregation. After which they do it for a number of years, and so they get completely hooked,” Miriam Heller Stern, who directs the college of schooling at Hebrew Union Faculty, instructed me. “Once you’ve gone via that technique of guiding individuals via their most essential holy, intimate moments—of delivery, demise, partnership, even divorce and separation and grief—there’s a magic in making that complete and significant for individuals.”

With none modifications, seminaries will proceed to wither and disperse, dismantling in a number of years the communal infrastructure that took greater than a century to construct. Synagogues—particularly these serving smaller and extra distant communities—will proceed to shrink, leaving extra Jews with out entry to a rabbi or a spiritual group.

A lot good will come from the brand new establishments that exist exterior the seminary, synagogue, and denominations; their success is an indication that the way forward for Jewish life within the U.S. is powerful. However for hundreds of years, the synagogue and the congregational rabbi stood on the heart of Jewish life. They allowed Jews of all kinds to come back collectively to wish, worship, have a good time, argue, and mourn. In the event that they disappear, they are going to be laborious to interchange.

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