March 17, 2023
I have often used this space to write about spirituality, contemporary issues we are facing in America, Israel, around the world, and also things happening in the synagogue. This week, however, I want to share with you a concern that is facing the Jewish future. We are facing a shortage of rabbis. It can no longer be taken for granted that every congregation who wants a rabbi will be able to hire one. When I began rabbinical school in 2001, 48 rabbinic students were enrolled in the first-year program at Hebrew Union College. Though not all finished their rabbinical studies, most did. Fast forward two decades and the enrollment numbers at all non-Orthodox rabbinical programs for the first year – including Reform (HUC), Conservative (Ziegler School-LA, and JTS-NY), Reconstructionist (RRC), as well as non-denominational programs like the Academy for Jewish Religion, Hebrew College, and ALEPH, may be only slightly more than the total numbers in my first year when combined.
This year, the HUC first year class includes 14 rabbinical students. In 2007, my ordination class on the Los Angeles campus alone totaled 16 students. There were far more when adding in Cincinnati and New York. In 2023, HUC will ordain a total of 30 students on all three U.S. Campuses. Last year JTS ordained 15 rabbis and this Ziegler School in Los Angeles is enrolling 6 rabbinic students for their first year.
We have a problem! And this problem will deeply impact the Jewish future. I should add that we have many “Rabbis” who are running around communities who attended online rabbinical schools for an hour a week for a year and now are parading around looking for rabbinical jobs, and in many cases getting them when a rabbi from an accredited institution is unable to fill a position. Last year, both the Reform and Conservative movements had more positions open than rabbis looking for positions. Meaning, that jobs went unfilled and communities unserved.
I have always looked upon my rabbinical training, which included courses in all areas of Jewish studies as well as practical rabbinics, as a gift and a blessing. I felt that my additional year of study working towards a Masters in Jewish Education provided me with courses in budgeting, leadership and management, social and philosophical foundations of education, staff supervision, organizational development and more. That degree helped me think differently about my rabbinate and was arguably the most important year of learning. While non-Orthodox rabbinical schools are actively working to reimagine their curricula and learning experiences, there is still more that must be done to understand why fewer and fewer people are entering the rabbinate. Whether it has to do with the 24/7 on call nature of the work we do (I am writing this at 10:55 at night), the toxicity of society that seeps its way into Jewish life, the demands of the profession, the overwhelming costs of rabbinical school where it can take decades to pay off student loans… the reasons are endless.
The trickle-down effect will be felt by communities who may go years without rabbis. Just as rabbinical schools need to innovate, so too do communities need to innovate. The best recruitment tools in the Reform movement are the 1-1 ask from a rabbi. So far, I am an 0-fer. Second best was our youth movement, but with changes in camping enrollment as well as the reform youth movement, we are finding it more challenging to recruit young people. One change that will be welcome to potential second career students will be a new option for enrollees in 2024. HUC will begin offering a “Low-Residency” program where students will take classes online, and train in a reform congregation without relocating to NY or LA. I typically love to write with what rabbinic literature calls a nechemta, a feel-good thought that lifts our spirits. This time however, our future is uncharted and leaves us quite concerned. We will still invest in our youth; I will still plant seeds in the minds of young people who I think could be great rabbis and I am hopeful that our seminaries will be able to chart a course for the future. If you would like to learn more, I suggest reading “Wanted: More Rabbis” by Paula Jacobs in Tablet Magazine from March 13 or this piece in “The Forward” from last year.
As a board member and Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I can assure you that we are working and doing all we can to elevate the growth of rabbis around the country and our mission is to strengthen rabbis, so that reform rabbis, our communities and Reform Jewish values thrive.