The future of … the rabbinate

The future of … the rabbinate

One might call Howard Cohen a “freelance” rabbi.

Cohen, who lives in Vermont, does not have a traditional pulpit, but he is available for hire to lead High Holy Day and Shabbat services, officiate at life-cycle events and to give talks.

He can also serve as a congregational consultant, and, through his own company, Burning Bush Adventures, lead wilderness tours.

Even with all those irons in the fire, though, Cohen, who retired from pulpit work six years ago, has to supplement his income by teaching in the public school system.

Times have changed for rabbis, according to Cohen.

“If your spouse is not wealthy, you’re not going to be able to work in the rabbinate — if you can even find a job,” he said.

Because many congregations have fewer members these days, pulpit jobs are hard to come by, said Cohen, who is associated with both the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements.

“In the liberal Jewish world, people don’t have a lot of time to engage,” he said. “The amount of time for public Jewish life is limited. The denominational [rabbinic] schools need to do some serious thinking about who they serve and how they are serving their communities.”

Shifting demographics and sociological trends, as well as economic realities, are changing the shape of the rabbinate. With fewer pulpit jobs available, those advising recently ordained rabbis are encouraging them to be flexible in their career goals.

“The new Jewish world will present new opportunities for rabbis,” said Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of rabbinic placement at the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. Henkin said he expects the future will bring more entrepreneurial rabbis, like Cohen, who run their own Jewish websites, or who serve synagogues without walls.

‘Domino effect’

The stock market downturn of 2008 created a different employment market landscape for a lot of professionals, including rabbis.

In 2009, many of the graduating class at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion were underemployed, said Rabbi Renni Altman, associate dean and director of the Rabbinical Program at HUC-JIR in New York.

“They had to be more flexible, taking something other than a pulpit; but there are changing opportunities out there,” she said, noting that students of HUC-JIR are finding work with new types of programs, such as Brooklyn Jews, the outreach arm of Congregation Beth Elohim that specializes in programming for unaffiliated people in their 20s and 30s.

With older rabbis postponing retirement because of a tough economy, and congregations cutting back on assistant rabbi positions, newly minted rabbis may have difficulty finding placement in a congregation.

In addition to the troubled economy, attitude trends of the next generation of liberal Jews are changing the financial realities of their movements. For example, younger Jews are less likely to become dues-paying members of Reform congregations than their elders, Henkin said.

“I think the issue is that their expectations of their Jewish life are quite different than those of previous generations,” he said. “They understand membership in very different terms. There is no question that the different attitudes they are bringing into the world will change the world of synagogues.”

While previous generations understood membership as “filling out forms and paying dues,” Henkin said, the newer generation sees membership in terms of participation.

“Dues won’t be a revenue stream in the future,” he said. “We will have to find different ways of fundraising to pay for our synagogues.”

Because of financial challenges, some jobs are being consolidated, and congregations now commonly seek to hire one person to fill two positions, creating hybrid posts such as rabbi/educator.

“I think we are finding more rabbis who have another area of expertise, like music or education,” Henkin said. “Those rabbis will be in high demand. Folks like that tend to be very employable. I also think congregations are looking for rabbis with expertise in reaching out to 20- and 30-year-olds. That is considered a really important group.”

Some Conservative rabbis are working to enhance their skill sets, and marketability, by engaging in innovative educational opportunities, such as the Rabbinic Management Institute (RMI), a partnership between American Jewish University’s School of Nonprofit Management and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and the Rabbinical Assembly.

The RMI trains rabbis in nonprofit management, focusing on issues pertinent to the daily work of rabbis, such as marketing, fund development, and negotiation and conflict resolution.

While the Conservative movement is still feeling the effects of the recession, economic ebbs and flows should not be given undue weight when planning for the future of the rabbinate and the Jewish community, said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

“If we plan for the future based on the worldwide recession of 2008, we will be doing our community and our children a great disservice,” she said. “I’m not a statistician, I’m a rabbi; my job is to envision the future based on Torah.”

Although recent economic setbacks such as the recession and the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme caused some “contraction” in the rabbinic job market, Schonfeld said, other factors, such as the communication revolution, ultimately will have a bigger impact on the future of the rabbinate, and will engender changing needs of congregants.

“People talk about the trend of lessening affiliation, but that is subject to interpretation,” she said. “Now, affiliation is about the desire for a higher level of personal engagement. People want to own it themselves, and that’s a good thing.”

“We see a generation trying to find ways to fill their own needs,” Schonfeld continued. “Our institutions were formed in a post-World War II economy. These young people are trying to figure our how to fill their needs within an economy that is not as robust as the one that created those institutions.”

‘Community needs rabbis’

Despite facing current job market challenges similar to those faced by his colleagues in the more liberal movements, Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, director of Jewish career development and placement at the Yeshiva University (Orthodox), is confident there will always be a call for pulpit rabbis.

“There is a wonderful, exciting, huge future for rabbis,” Schwarzberg said. “The concept of the community is not going away, and the community needs rabbis. There is a desire to have rabbinic leadership and spiritual leadership. There is a tremendous thirst for that.”

Still, the Orthodox movement was not spared from the fallout of the “economic tsunami — the market crash of 2008,” Schwarzberg said.

“Right now, what is happening in the rabbinate is that people are concerned about retiring because of economics. However, we are beginning to see the end of the cycle,” he said. “There has been an adjustment in the market, and people are making a psychological adjustment. Shuls that didn’t want to broach the subject of retirement with their senior rabbis now are more comfortable broaching it. The cycle is beginning to improve.”

While the Orthodox rabbinate is “young and dynamic,” according to Schwarzberg, the market is finite.

“There are only so many shuls,” he said. “There is no doubt the market tightened. Many [newly ordained rabbis] choose to get another graduate degree. There is still a lot of competition for each position that is available.”

“Day schools and yeshivas are still packed,” he noted. “People are making sacrifices [to send their children to Orthodox schools] because it is the only way to ensure the Jewish future.”

“I’m an optimist by nature,” Schwarzberg continued. “You just have to look at Jewish history. This is minor. An economic downturn is just a bump in the road. There is no doubt in my mind that we will push through this.”

Henkin shares that view.

“[The job market] is looking better than it was looking a couple years ago,” he said. “The synagogue may change, but it is not going away. And as long as synagogues are around, they will have rabbis serving them.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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