Tuesday, The Rabbi Learns
Fri, 01/15/2010
Associate Editor

 When Jewish leaders talk about underserved populations in need of attention, they often mention the poor, the elderly, unaffiliated 20-somethings, nontraditional families, people with disabilities and so on.

Ironically, those whose needs often go overlooked, however, are right under our proverbial shnozzes: the rabbis.

While many professions offer mentoring and support throughout a person’s career — and still more require continuing post-degree education and licensing in order to ensure that practitioners keep up to date with the field — rabbis, particularly those facing the myriad demands of serving a synagogue community, tend to be left to their own devices.

“They’re taking care of us, and yet no one’s taking care of them,” says Rabbi Rachel Cowan, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. 

Rabbi Cowan, whose organization offers, among other programs, retreats and continuing education for rabbis, says she has noticed over the years how isolated many clergy become once they leave the seminary, and how few get encouragement from their congregations to pursue ongoing learning or professional development.

“Most synagogues don’t allocate time or budget for [the rabbi’s] learning,” she says. “Big congregation do, but smaller ones often say the rabbi should do that while on vacation. ... It should be a source of pride that the rabbi is learning, not like it’s taking time away from the job.”

In part to advocate for the needs of rabbis, and in part to help her group — and others — to serve them better, Rabbi Cowan last year helped create the Alliance for Continuing Rabbinic Education.

The new group, which has hosted two conferences so far, has brought together all the major North American seminaries and rabbinic organizations outside the fervently Orthodox world, spanning the spectrum from centrist Orthodox Yeshiva University to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College to Renewal’s Aleph Rabbinic Program. Many nondenominational seminaries, like Hebrew College and the Academy for Jewish Religion, have also joined, as has STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal.

The Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) has provided staff and other support for the fledgling group.

Of course ongoing education and professional collegiality is hardly unheard of in rabbinic circles. Many rabbis make time for personal text study or interact regularly with clergy outside their own synagogue walls. In addition, the major movements’ rabbinical associations host annual conferences and encourage discussion on e-mail listservs, and most seminaries offer some continuing education programs for their alumni.

However, say Rabbi Cowan, who is ACRE’s co-chair, such programs have an impact on only a tiny percentage of the estimated 3,000 rabbis in North America. And until now, few who work in continuing education programs communicated regularly with others in the field, particularly if they come from other denominations. 

ACRE’s goal, therefore, is less about creating new programs, but about helping the existing players share best practices and resources with each other. 

And it’s bringing together some interesting bedfellows, including institutions and individuals that at times see themselves as rivals and who often espouse radically different politics.

“People leave their egos and alliances at the door when they come to these meetings,” said Steven Kraus, an education consultant at JESNA who is project manager for ACRE.

At last year’s conference, a prominent centrist Orthodox rabbi studied together “with two lesbian rabbis and it didn’t seem to bother him,” observed Kraus. “That’s just the way it is.” 

As Dr. Maury Hoberman, a trustee with the Lasko Family Foundation, ACRE’s primary funder, put it, “We have reached a time in Jewish life when people realize they can’t go it alone.” Indeed, in the Jewish community many denominational walls and turf boundaries appear to be eroding — with the growth of nondenominational independent minyanim and community day schools — and there is a growing recognition that amid shrinking resources, collaboration is necessary. This month for the first time, Orthodox, Conservative, community and Reform day school associations are, instead of sponsoring individual conferences, coming together for a shared national professional development gathering. 

Hoberman noted that rabbis from different denominations share many needs.

“This isn’t about theology,” he said. “It’s about pastoral skills, teaching skills, executive leadership skills, the whole gamut.”

High on the list of sought-after skills is technology, including sharing information about how it can be used to build community and encourage Jewish learning.

The 2009 conference, in October, even featured a session about incorporating Twitter, the trendy micro-blogging tool in which users are limited to 140-character-long posts, into Talmud study.

In the “Twitter Experiment,” participants had, during the weeks leading up to the conference, the opportunity to discuss a section of Talmud via tweets. Bava Batra 21 addresses the relative virtues of a teacher who “gets on fast but with mistakes” versus one who gets on “slowly but without mistakes.” 

Do mistakes “correct themselves in time,” as one sage argues, or is the slow teacher preferable, as another counters, because “once a mistake is implanted it cannot be eradicated?”

The topic seemed an apt metaphor for the tensions inherent in Twitter and, more broadly all high-tech discourse, which offer speed that comes, sometimes, at the price of accuracy or quality.

“It was an experiment to see, could you use Twitter at the same time you’re having a hevruta discussion? Would it be distracting?” said JESNA’s Krause. 

Not surprisingly, the rabbis didn’t agree. But judging from the transcript of tweets, Twitter is not yet spurring any major breakthroughs in Talmudic scholarship.