Where Have All The Rabbis Gone?
Wed, 04/27/2011
Editor and Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

One of the little-discussed effects of the economic recession on the Jewish community is that more rabbis in the later stages of their careers are finding themselves out of work.

And that’s causing a good deal of bitterness and concern in the rabbinic community about the dwindling, and changing nature, of the profession.

“We’re seeing the end of the rabbinate as we know it,” a 56-year-old Reform rabbi insisted, noting that congregations today are looking for “comfort,” not challenges. “The intellectual tradition of the pulpit has died,” said the rabbi, who asked not to be named out of concern for the prospects for his next job search.

The data is sketchy and the reasons differ as to just why the rabbinic market is falling. But a number of people close to the situation say that with Conservative and Reform synagogues losing an estimated 20 to 30 percent of their membership, rabbis increasingly are the sacrificial lambs on the altar of congregational cost-saving.

The Orthodox community does not appear to be experiencing a decline, but within the liberal movements there are stories of rabbis let go to make room for a merger between two synagogues, rabbis finding their full-time position cut to half- or part-time, even rabbis on food stamps.

Rabbi Leonard Thal, who came out of retirement as senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) to serve as interim director of rabbinic placement at the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), said there is “no question that Reform congregations and rabbis have been hit” by what he calls “a perfect storm.”

With the economy hurting and synagogue membership down, congregations are downsizing staff, often deciding not to renew the rabbi’s contract. “The result is fewer overall positions,” he said.

In addition, some rabbis who would be retiring are extending their careers because they need the income, holding up the flow of transition, and recent rabbinic graduates are having a hard time getting placed.

Rabbi Thal said that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the major Reform seminary, did not anticipate the decreasing need for rabbis a few years ago and kept class sizes constant.

In fact, just a decade ago, there was talk of a shortage of rabbis, particularly for communities with small and mid-sized Jewish populations.

“The bottom line is that we have more rabbis looking for positions than we have congregations looking for rabbis,” Rabbi Thal observed.

He advises rabbinic colleagues to “cast their net more widely” and consider moving to areas of the country they might have previously rejected, or think about non-pulpit positions like the chaplaincy or campus Hillel work.

The CCAR is “doing more than ever” in offering professional development courses and support systems, he said.

The 56-year-old Reform rabbi cited earlier observed: “We’re dealing with a generation raised on consumerism, and people want rabbis who can teach, not rabbis who can learn [Torah].”

Based on data he has seen but which has not been made public, the rabbi said congregations are not looking for scholars. “They’re looking for a pastor, not a prophet. It means a Solomon Freehoff or a Milton Steinberg wouldn’t hold a job today,” he said, referring to two rabbinic giants of the 20th century known for their scholarship, knowledge and writings.

Some observers say that conditions for Conservative rabbis are even more dire.

One leader of the movement acknowledged that the problem of “ageism is staggering, with solid, good rabbis” in their 50s “losing jobs and having great difficulty finding other positions.”

That may be due, in part, to the perception that congregations, faced with shrinking membership, feel that rabbis in their 30s will be better able to reach the target audience of young families and attract them to join. But those in the trenches say that the youth-driven culture negates the acquired wisdom and experience that veteran rabbis have to offer.

“The American rabbinate is facing a tremendous challenge, with far-reaching implications, and people are not thinking this through,” one Conservative leader said, noting that the rabbinate may become a less appealing profession “and the community will suffer.”

Rabbi Stephen Listfield, who is serving this year as interim rabbi at a Conservative congregation in Massapequa, L.I., said he knows rabbis who are “scrambling around now,” from one pulpit to another, because they can’t afford to retire. He said the fact that two dozen rabbis have applied for the position coming up this summer at his synagogue, despite its small size and serious financial issues, is proof of the paucity of rabbinic posts. [In the Conservative movement, interim rabbis are ineligible for consideration to stay on in the pulpits they serve.]

He quotes a colleague who observed that “rabbis are the biggest contributors to their synagogues — maybe not in actual dollars but in having their salaries cut.

“Who else is giving 10 percent of their income to the synagogue?” he asked only half-kidding.

Rabbi Listfield said that while the economic recession is an external reality, the synagogue community, and especially the Conservative movement, should be doing some soul-searching as to why it is losing members.

“We should be looking within to see where we might be falling short in this precipitous decline, and asking ourselves, ‘do we have anything to say to people?’

“If people who lead busy lives are going to come to a three-hour service in Hebrew at the same synagogue every Shabbat, they need to hear a message beyond ‘be a mensch,’” he said. “They need to hear that our laws come from God or that we are part of a 4,000-year tradition that has stood the test of time by demanding that people think for themselves and improve themselves.

“But that doesn’t seem to be the message.”

In the meantime, the Conservative movement is working to retrain rabbis; a distance-learning program in management (to become executive directors for large congregations or other nonprofits) is oversubscribed. And officials say that most older rabbis who have been let go are able to find other pulpits in smaller, less prestigious or more remote congregations.

The lingering message, though, is that the synagogue community should be focusing on this issue, not only on the short-term problem about what happens to the older rabbis themselves, but what kind of a rabbi do congregations want, and how can the profession be sustained and invigorated.

The challenge is clear: train, support and honor rabbis who can educate and inspire others with the wisdom and meaning of Judaism, or watch the enterprise continue to decline.

Gary@jewishweek.org
 

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Nicely written article. Just got it via another link so my comments lag behind by a month. Assessing the marketplace for Rabbis can take people down a lot of different avenues. To a large extent, that market is a manipulated one, noted in the parenthetical comment that an interim is not permitted to stay on even if he serves the congregation well and the congregants have benefited from his presence. While many congregations would like to have a young person who is a diamond in the ruff, rules often prevent that, though with the decline in congregation membership among the United Synagogue affiliates, more qualify for the younger Rabbis who would have been excluded from their searches a dozen years ago by the rules of the Rabbis' own professional organization which did little to endear themselves to search committees in a day when their market was more favorable.

There is also often a chasm between what the Rabbi aspires to professionally and what the congregations are seeking. In his rather cynical classic "Elmer Gantry" Sinclair Lewis quoted the young Reverend as giving up his sales job and seeking ordination so that he could live the life of the preacher. I think I lot of candidates have come to congregational interview indicating that their incentive was to live a classic Jewish life and study our Mesorah with the obligation to serve as the price put upon that choice rather than its primary intent. Members of search committees may not be all that observant, they may even want to hire a surrogate observant Jew as part of the committee's mission, but they also understand that the viablity of the congregation depends a lot more on how they function as a minister and inspire from the pulpit than their knowledge of halacha and its implementation.

Many Rabbis especially those in the 60's who have lost jobs or who cannot find any are in need of chizuk. I am certain this holds true of our younger colleagues as well. the job market for Rabbis is horrible. There have been many articles regarding this. Many are too young to retire and if you are past 50 the market is a challenge. Others such as my self struggle to keep small congregations alive. I suggest that we create a mentoring system for Rabbis and their significant others. Now is the time for chizuk, counseling and just showing care and love. I hope many will offer to help. I for one offer whatever chizuk I can offer and so does my wife. I am not a therapist or psychologist just an older RABBI willing to help. Sometimes a little love and caring goes a long way. HAPPY MOTHERS DAY. and HAPPY RABBIS DAY. IF Rabbis want to offer their services I will create a list and make it available on ravnet. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

Shalom Rabbi Levy,

You wrote:

"...the real source of the problem is the following: The main challenge that every rabbi and every Jewish leader faces is to encourage and enable Jews to engage seriously with our Jewish heritage/Torah on a regular basis....to encourage every Jew to commit at least one half hour each week to serious engagement with Torah/Jewish heritage."

The problem with your sense of the problem is that there is no reason for most Jews to want to engage in Jewish study of any kind. Rabbi's, teachers and leaders have yet to define non Orthodox Judaism in a meaningful, relevant and inspiring way.

"On one foot," for the disaffected majority of Jews today, answering the questions "why Judaism? why be Jewish? and why do Jewish?" is where all must begin. The rest is commentary. And in this case (to deviate from my Hillel paraphrase) we've done enough studying; it's time to actually do something that isn't a retread of a prior failure.

Wholeness,
Jordan

This is not a bad thing. Our tradition teaches that we should nor make a living off the Torah. Many a great Rabbi/Teacher of the past has refused paid rabbinic work so as to avoid this prohibition. It is time that Torah learning not be seen as a path to a profession but for its own sake (lishma). This would serve to strengthen our communities.

Gary Rosenblatt’s piece “Where Have All The Rabbis Gone?” raises pointed issues regarding the future of rabbis and synagogues in America. The article describes what I have been living for the past couple of years as a scholar/rabbi in his 50s who has been essentially unemployed. Having had plenty of time to think this through carefully, it appears to me that once one strips off the aggravating factor of the economic downturn, the real source of the problem is the following: The main challenge that every rabbi and every Jewish leader faces is to encourage and enable Jews to engage seriously with our Jewish heritage/Torah on a regular basis. But for most rabbis in most synagogues, the focus is elsewhere, on other goals and challenges that seem to be more urgent in the short term while allowing the long term problem – widespread lack of serious engagement - fester. I suggest that we all focus on an achievable goal – to encourage every Jew to commit at least one half hour each week to serious engagement with Torah/Jewish heritage. I have started a web-based educational project to make that possible for the multitudes of people who can’t or won’t come to their rabbi’s class at a particular date and time: www.torahwithoutborders.org. As our leaders, institutions and community align with this goal, perhaps torahwithoutborders.org will be able to support many of the rabbi/scholars who are no longer being supported by the current institutions.

Gary Rosenblatt's article articulated beautifully the issues. What he doesn't say however is that the liberal movements have been on a decline for decades -perhaps not in numbers, but substance. With Rabbi Richard Jacobs nominated for the top spot in the Reform movement a new challenge has emerged. Jacobs is on the rabbinic committee of J Street, which is no friend of Israel. Jacobs also supports in part the BDS campaign. It would appear that the Reform Movement has hit rock bottom. That, together with their high rate of intermarriage makes the perfect storm. The economy is only the excuse for their deepening and widening malaise.

What about the effect of the Madoff scandal? I am not an American, but didn't a lot of large Jewish institutions lose massive amounts of money when his Ponzi scheme cracked?

AND I THOUGHT THOUGHT THE CANTORATE WAS DEAD OR AT LEAST DYING!

The military is in desperate need of Rabbis. Perhaps the younger folks should check there...

I think this article explains alot about about non Orthodox Rabbis.This Rabbinical student will be spending his Birthday on Yom HaZichoron in Rammalah http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=216024

Shalom All,

Until non orthodox Judaism has an agreed upon definition beyond political Liberalism, anti anti semitism and an accident of birth, the non orthodox movements, their institutions, their teachers/Rabbis, and their "Judaism," will (based on measurable results) continue to decline toward irrelevancy. Attempts to prop up the status quo will fail miserably as the status quo isn't based on anything that excites or empassions most non orthodox Jews today.

Shavu'a Tov,

Jordan

This is absolute nonsense. Older Rabbis can be scholars and spiritual guides and mentors simultaneously. This was always the model of a successful Rabbi. Many of us are young at heart and filled with energy even though we are no longer young in age. I can attest to the vitality and dedication of spirtual leaders who are now seniors. We do not need financial administrators who sometimes act as rabbis, what we need is caring, learned rabbis who serve the congregation with love , compassion and understanding. Being a scholar should be a plus and Torah knowledge is what makes us true leaders and teachers of the faith. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg, CONGREGATION BETH EL, EDISON N.J.

"Where have all the Rabbis gone?
Long time kvetching
Where have all the Rabbis gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the Rabbis gone?
Gone to Temple every one.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?"

Maybe the question is the sorts of people the seminaries are admitting. The rot set in decades ago.
And truly what is the definition of a 'successful rabbi'? Seats in a sanctuary or impact on lives- many seem to have neither!

"The orthodox community does not appear to be experiencing a decline" Actually, we have a growing Shul, a community filled with young families with many children, and multiple rabbeim we pay to learn. The most important part of our lives is our Judaism. The question you pose reminds me of a smoker who is mystified as to why he has cancer. Incidentally, our children are staying orthodox as well. Have a good Shabbos.

Your comment on the growth of the Orthodox movement, aside from its triumphalist tone,misses the point of the article completely.We're not talking about the various rise and fall of denominations here; judged superficially by numbers. We're talking about the decline of the RABBI, RAV, mara d'asra, etc. etc. and his role in that community.Today there are many more Orthodox shuls......Barukh Hashem!!! That does NOT mean that there are more attractive, respectful, financially secure, etc. pulpits to be had in these communities.Just ask your local Rov...if he's not too intimidated to reply to this Shayla

Yeshiva U and JTS will not hire a rabbi to run the place. That's where the clear signals start. By their own back-stabbing underhanded actions they are telling their own movements that their rabbis are not qualified to lead.

Actually, the point that is being ignored is that the "Orthodox" are not having the trouble that the "Reform" and "Conservative" movements are having. The reason is that it is that people are realizing that it is the Orthodox who have maintained the tradition that "our laws come from G0d" and must be upheld rather than pretending that political liberalism is the core of our religion. The trend has been continuing for our entire history as the breakaway movements have continually disappeared as people realize that they are not authentic followers of the Torah.

This article is about rabbis finding jobs, not the success of the movements. Actually, I would wager that the fraction of ordained Orthodox rabbis that do NOT have a pulpit is much higher than for the Reform or Conservative movements. I am always astounded at the number of ordained Orthodox rabbis working as accountants, financial analysts, fourth-grade teachers, etc.

Shalom Joe Q,

You wrote: "This article is about rabbis finding jobs, not the success of the movements."

At root here is an undefined, irrelevant to meaningless non orthodox Judaism that fails to capture the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Jews today. The decline of the non orthodox movements, their teachers/Rabbis and their institutions is a direct consequence of this reality. Searching for answers must begin with a passion producing picture of a preferred future for non Orthodox Judaism, for "In the absence of vision, people will be unrestrained." Mishlei (Proverbs) 29:18. There is no fix for the irreparably broken status quo. You continued:

"Actually, I would wager that the fraction of ordained Orthodox rabbis that do NOT have a pulpit is much higher than for the Reform or Conservative movements."

Where's your data? You continued:

"I am always astounded at the number of ordained Orthodox rabbis working as accountants, financial analysts, fourth-grade teachers, etc."

No data here, but could it be that ordained Orthodox rabbis are more inclined to seek their ordination for the love of Jewish learning rather than for a
rabbinic title as a resume point?

Wholeness,
Jordan

"Where's your data?"

I have no data, which is why I said "I would wager" rather than making a definitive statement.

"No data here, but could it be that ordained Orthodox rabbis are more inclined to seek their ordination for the love of Jewish learning rather than for a rabbinic title as a resume point?"

Love of Jewish learning is a huge factor, but I would actually say that ordained Orthodox rabbis are just as inclined to seek a rabbinic title as a resume point, to improve their standing in their communities. You can spend a lifetime studying Torah without having to get semicha. What fraction of current RIETS students intend to serve as pulpit rabbis or full-time teachers in advanced Jewish institutions?

Re Rabbi Listfield's comment that congregants need more than "be a mensch," if the rabbi's teaching of the 4000 year old tradition doesn't connect to menschlichkeit, what will be the point? When we recite the obligations without measure, ending v'Talmud Torah k'neged kulam, the whole point is that studying Torah leads us to do the right thing -- but only if the connectedness is made clear.

Mr. Rosenblatt discusses the rabbi as teacher, preacher, pastor -- but doesn't mention the rabbi as role model. And again, the role modeling must encompass both being a mensch and being a Jew.

As to Mr. Weil' snide comment about the DNC owning the Reform movement, I wonder if he has considered that the opposite might be true -- that the Reform movement owns the DNC. Or can it be that both stand for the same set of liberal values and standards of social justice and tikkun olam that are often shunted aside in other religious streams in favor of an obsession with ritual stringencies and purity of blood lines?

As for rabbis redirecting their careers, Professor Bernard Martin z"l used to tell about having been introduced as a former rabbi when he lectured to a Christian women's group, and having been asked, Were you unfrocked? To which he replied, No, Ma'am, I was unsuited.

Near the beginning of the article, an unnamed Rabbi says, "The intellectual tradition of the pulpit has died". This is the problem. Rabbis don't get it that we don't want a scholar, we want a spiritual leader - someone that serves the congregation rather than the other way around. No wonder Rabbis of the older generation are finding themselves unemployed. Synagogues can no longer afford to subsidize scholars and receive nothing in return. Younger Rabbis that are willing to truly serve their members on the pulpit, in the classroom and pastorally don't just make financial sense, but are what congregations need to add vitality and meaning to synagogue life.

Rabbis in their 50s have a lifetime of experience that can be used in community organizing for America. I suggest they join the reelection campaign for President Barack Hussein Obama and the DNC. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is going to need hundreds of Rabbis committed to convincing the Jewish Community to support a much smaller Israel and the spread of socialism and tax increases in America. Mr. Rosenberg you must convince these Rabbis to march for socialism in their communities. The Republican Party must be challenged and these Rabbis must use their connections to promote socialism and wide spread social change in their wealthy communities.

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