The New American Judaism – The Atlantic


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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 increased salaries in bigger cities, had been unable to fill their positions for months, generally longer. Finally, 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 neighborhood conferences, collaborate with native religion leaders, or recruit new members to the synagogue. For less than 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 outdoors New York Metropolis, providing $150,000 a yr plus advantages and a free three-bedroom dwelling, spent three years looking for a substitute 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.

Prior to now 15 years, the variety of American Jews selecting to turn out to be rabbis has plummeted, and so has the share of rabbis concerned about serving congregations, as an increasing number of find yourself in nonprofits, hospitals, universities, and elsewhere. This has threatened the vitality of a whole bunch of synagogues in addition to the way forward for the colleges 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 college 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 much from the one religion custom dealing with this downside. In lots of Christian denominations, a wave of early retirements through the coronavirus pandemic accelerated long-term declines amongst clergymen and pastors. Scores of outstanding Christian seminaries have been pressured to promote their campuses attributable to shrinking enrollment, and lots of have merged assets and properties with different colleges, even these of different denominations. Sometimes, Catholic clergymen as soon as needed to wait a decade after ordination earlier than main their very own parish; at this time, the wait time will 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 determine what will occur to congregations who should not getting rabbis,” says Emily Hendel, who oversees profession companies for the Rabbinical Meeting, a 1,600-member group of Conservative rabbis. “Nevertheless it doesn’t negate some great benefits of having rabbis serve somewhere else.”

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 massive, established synagogues or the seminaries that offer them with rabbis. Nearly none of it’s tied to the denominations.

A brand new middle 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 approach to a collection of impartial organizations, reflecting a broader pattern throughout religion communities towards spiritual individualism. This new Judaism raises questions on what a rabbi needs to 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 youngsters of Israel by inserting his fingers on him. Jewish custom holds that this chain of transmission handed from Joshua to the 70 Elders of Israel, all the best way 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 had been ordained in a denomination and served synagogues affiliated with that denomination. There have been two main choices for rabbinical coaching outdoors 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 principle seminary of the Conservative motion. From the Fifties to the early 2000s, HUC frequently 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 annually, that means that the variety of openings outstrips the provision of obtainable rabbis, even if many synagogues have merged or closed. And even that understates the hole between provide and demand. If current developments maintain, barely half of the rabbis who graduated from rabbinical colleges final yr will go to work in synagogues.

My father, Joseph Telushkin, obtained his Orthodox ordination from Yeshiva College. I used to be all the time amazed, as a baby, on the locations he might 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 dad and mom’ pious religion, and I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood the place girls stay excluded from the rabbinate—however I noticed the attraction. He sparks reverence in airport lounges and grocery-store strains. Individuals on the road ask him to wish for them. He’s at dwelling in moments of tragedy, celebration, and worry; he feels wanted in areas the place others really feel uncomfortable.

Not like different professions rooted in lofty beliefs (see: humanities professors), congregational rabbis have fairly good job prospects, with respectable salaries and steady 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 suggest it.

So why are so few Jews turning 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 by which they aren’t all the time acquainted or clearly related.

For example the purpose, David Wolpe, who not too long ago 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 mentioned to us, ‘Your job as a rabbi is to elucidate America to your congregants.’ For that technology of Jews, all dedicated and educated about Judaism, they wanted to learn to be Jews on this new land. For this technology, all people is an American. That’s not the problem. The problem is how, as an American, do you turn out to be Jewish? And that may be a more durable process, as a result of it’s countercultural.”

Outdoors the Orthodox world, most Jews can simply ignore their Jewish id in the event that they so select. This is likely to be one purpose 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 turn out to be rabbis till the Seventies. Finally, 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 grew to become much less prestigious after girls had been allowed to affix them. Whether or not one thing related 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 pattern: the emergence of a extra assimilated and secular Jewish neighborhood.

Whereas earlier generations had been more likely to be raised in a house with educated dad and mom or grandparents—giving them a primary grasp of Hebrew, holidays, and practices—at this time, fewer Jews soak up this data at dwelling.

“The hole between what individuals be taught of their childhood Jewish schooling and what you want for rabbinical college has grown,” says Rabbi Amber Powers, a frontrunner throughout the Reconstructionist motion, one of many extra trendy denominations. Within the ’80s, she instructed me, Jewish youngsters doubtless attended Hebrew college three days per week. Now that many Jews develop up with no formal spiritual schooling, rabbinical college 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 neighborhood 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,” mentioned a Reform rabbi serving a big city congregation, who requested to not be named for worry {of professional} penalties. “However once you had 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, but it surely was fulfilling. Immediately, individuals may also deliver 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 now not encourage younger Jews to observe within the career—invites that had been as soon as an vital 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 college in all that point: “I’ve had associates and colleagues say, ‘Why would I want this form of inconceivable life on a few of these promising, wonderful individuals?’”

The work has additionally turn out to be 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 choices are sometimes obtained 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 not too long ago rescinded their insurance policies in opposition to 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, turning 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 college usually requires 5 to eight years of high-cost, full-time research after faculty. Even these with tuition scholarships nonetheless have to pay lease and help themselves in cities similar to New York and Los Angeles, and not using a wage. Most colleges additionally require a yr in Jerusalem, forcing costly cross-Atlantic strikes.

Gabi Isaac-Herzog, who works as a marketing consultant at an insurance coverage firm and graduated from Macalester Faculty in 2022, was considered one 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 an alternative of a lower-paying one that might put together them for rabbinical college. 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 scholar loans to repay.

“The monetary side was the most important hurdle,” she mentioned. “If I hadn’t been fascinated about that final yr, I might most likely not have the job that I’ve now, and could be contemplating going to rabbinical college within the subsequent two to a few years.” She’s now pondering 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.

Despite the fact that the variety of college students attending rabbinical college has not grown previously twenty years, the variety of rabbinical colleges has elevated. Some established establishments have tried to turn out to be extra accessible by decreasing tuition or providing extra remote-friendly choices, caught between their historic construction and the fact of contemporary life. They’re nonetheless failing to draw extra college students. In 2015, the Jewish Theological Seminary bought off its principal library constructing, lengthy thought-about 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 mentioned, moderately, that he needed to be taught. “No!” Schechter replied. “You come right here to be within the presence of nice males.”

Immediately, younger Jews can discover nice minds throughout—in nondenominational Jewish organizations, progressive religious communities, and the Jewish-studies Ph.D. applications that solely not too long ago 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 the very best locations to try this.

Nice Jewish minds may also be present in a set of faculties which have emerged in current many years to supply new fashions of studying and Jewish id. The normal however egalitarian Yeshivat Hadar not too long ago 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 outdoors 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 pattern is the rising variety of nonaccredited colleges, which supply 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 throughout the Conservative and Reform actions insist that the disaster is overblown. Final yr, for instance, solely eight Reform synagogues had been left with out enough management to satisfy their spiritual wants, based on 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 rising variety of synagogues are wanting outdoors their denominations, or selecting rabbis from unaccredited colleges. Smaller Conservative congregations particularly are beginning to look outdoors their denomination after solely a month of looking out, as an alternative of the 2 or three years as soon as anticipated.

“Way back, Jews stopped pondering 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 had been ideologically a Reform Jew.”

Merging current establishments or hiring candidates throughout denominational strains can solely achieve this a lot, although. Really 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 totally dedicated to the religion, particularly younger Jews contemplating the rabbinate.

If the neighborhood got here collectively and determined to make seminaries reasonably priced, not solely by decreasing the price of tuition but additionally by providing beneficiant residing stipends to college students, the affect might be important. Cash alone gained’t clear up the issue, however monetary help would enhance the status of the rabbinate and permit extra college students and Jewish leaders to think about it in earnest. Stipends may be used to encourage college students to spend time serving in synagogues, maybe as a two-year dedication following ordination, or through the strategy of being ordained.

“We’ve got college students who come into rabbinical college pondering, I don’t assume I wish to work in a congregation. After which they do it for just a few years, and so they get completely hooked,” Miriam Heller Stern, who directs the varsity of schooling at Hebrew Union Faculty, instructed me. “If you’ve gone by way of that strategy of guiding individuals by way of their most vital holy, intimate moments—of beginning, 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 just a few 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 neighborhood.

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

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