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A practical-impossible dream — Israeli rabbis who know devotion, teshuvah and service, not just halakhah

Israel needs a new rabbinical school to train rabbis from all denominations for their practical and pastoral roles

In recent years — as a growing number of talented women in the Orthodox world have begun to insist both on being able to receive the highest level of Jewish education and on having the resulting expertise recognized in positions of religious leadership — Israel has seen a quiet explosion in Orthodox rabbinic ordination programs. As with the most well-known “open Orthodox” rabbinic school for men — Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, NY — the graduates of these new programs hope to distinguish themselves by bringing a more welcoming, human, open and diverse face to the Orthodox rabbinate, especially by being skilled in addressing pastoral needs — the needs of people around loss, illness, grief and death.

Unfortunately, the founders of these program don’t have a lot of experience themselves in educating people to be effective spiritual caregivers (in Israel, the spiritual care field is called livui ruhani, Hebrew for spiritual accompaniment), and have been left to follow the inefficient path of each “reinventing the wheel” so to speak.

Luckily, there are two excellent models from the United States that can help bring rabbinic education programs together to ensure that their students get the best livui ruhani training possible. And all this can also be helped by a third ‘native’ Jewish model, something that I — inspired by the talmudic structure of holy argument — call the practical-impossible.

Like most well-established rabbinical schools and yeshivot, the new rabbinic education programs are usually run by the same leaders who will ultimately decide who deserves ordination. This idea of doing both education and ordination under the auspices of the same institution has a long tradition in Jewish circles, but it’s not the only model available.

In the typical American Protestant seminary, for example, students from different denominations sit side-by-side in most of their classes for the standard three-year Masters of Divinity program. But finishing their masters is not enough get them ordination. To get ordained they must also separately earn the approval of a committee from their denomination — the Jewish equivalent would be the Beit Din of at least three rabbis who confer ordination.

Often those denominational committees also require the student to complete an additional year of study and internship in the specifics of their denominations’ approach to Christianity. Typically, the committee would also require the student to pass written and oral exams they prepare, assuring that the student’s education and development have met the standards not just of the school that granted the Mdiv, but also of the denomination.

Similarly, the new rabbinic ordination programs could each put their own stamp on their graduates by setting their own standards for receiving rabbinic ordination and by keeping some number of important classes and shiurim — like high-level seminars towards the end of an education — within the walls of their yeshiva or school. But, especially when it came to the “practical” and “professional” topics these institutions are least prepared to teach themselves, the new programs could benefit from a relationship with a new kind of rabbinical education program, one that specializes in teaching in these areas but does not confer ordination itself.

In the area of livui ruhani skills in particular there’s another wonderful US educational model that should be required of all these students — Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE. This 100-year old model — which is the main way of training professional hospital chaplains in the United States — is inspired by the way doctors are trained in hospitals. As anyone who has ever received care in a US teaching hospital knows, most care there is proved by residents under the supervision of a senior attending physician. CPE applies this same intensive hands-on model to livui ruhani. In small-group seminars, students present their actual cases to one another and get support and guidance from the group and supervisor. By requiring CPE of their students, the new rabbinical programs could effectively “farm out” this part of their students’ training. (Full disclosure: I am a CPE supervisor/educator certified by the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education in the States and I teach aspiring Israeli educators in a program run by the Schwartz Center for Health and Spirituality in Jerusalem).

The reason we need these kind of new non-ordaining educational institution and requirements is that today’s Israeli rabbinical schools have not always been able to produce graduates to meet the needs of pluralistic communities. In the Masorti movement (of which I am a member), we have only one rabbinic school, Machon Schechter. And while this institution in Jerusalem has produced many excellent graduates, a great number of Masorti congregations are going without rabbinic leadership or are unable to retain rabbis for any length of time.

The reasons for this are of course complex, but they obviously raise questions about the nature of Schechter’s approach to rabbinic education, which, in contrast to the approach of the Israeli Reform Movement and of most American non-Orthodox rabbinic schools, follows a largely Orthodox model of a primarily text-based education with little if any focus on preparing rabbis for the actual practical skills they will use in the field. I call this model the rabbi-as-posek (halakhic judge) model. There is a certain kind of admirable purity about it and it does provide an excellent overview of ancient and traditional rabbinic concepts, but few rabbis in the Masorti world actually function largely as adjudicators of religious law.

Especially at a time when young people worldwide are losing faith in central institutions and authority, a much better model is what I call the rabbi-as-servant model. This, not surprisingly, describes the model of one of the most dynamic and successful group of rabbis today — Chabad. The Chabad rabbi — with his Chabad house — offers a face of service and hospitality to Jews around the world, and it’s little wonder that people respond positively to that even if they never see themselves ever actually joining Chabad.

But it’s not just hospitality that attracts seeking Jews to Chabad — it’s also the genuine devotion they witness, the personal devotion to Judaism and the Blessed Holy One that is embodied in the person of the Chabad rabbi.

We need a new rabbinical school in Israel where students from the Masorti, Reform and Orthodox worlds can study side-by-side for a good portion of their education. Besides Chabad, we have so many other new exciting and creative educational models that should be integrated into this new school, including from the leading American pluralistic rabbinical school, Hebrew College in Boston. The Aleph program of the Renewal Movement has pioneered the use of distance and retreat-based learning; much could be learned and adopted from their experience for the new rabbinical school.

Teaching the practical and pastoral skills that all rabbis need will be a center of the curriculum of this non-ordaining institution, but so would be a model of rabbi-as-servant — a servant devoted to the Blessed Holy One and who embodies not only that devotion, but also hospitality, humility and a capacity for self-reflection necessary to be a person who can do tesuvah not just in this season, but in every moment.

Every moment!?! Maybe you think that’s impossible, to do tesuvah in every moment. But the impossible is something we find all over Judaism. Surely, looking over the span of the millennia that have seen so many peoples and empires rise and then fall and disappear, it would seem that they very survival of the Jewish people is something that should have been impossible. Every day, we hope for messiah, the tradition tells us, and yet the messiah never comes. In a sense, the messiah is an impossibility as well, something that has never been and, in our lifetimes at least, maybe never will. But the hoping. The desire. The thirst for messiah to come and usher in an age of enlightenment and peace. That is real.

And, perhaps most importantly, it has real, practical implications. Our investment in that messianic vision is what drives us to do good works here in this world, to try and repair it if you will. This is the practical that comes from the impossible, and it is the most Jewish of things.

Israel needs a new non-ordaining rabbinical school, one that will be devoted to our special Jewish practical-impossible vision of how to live in this world and how to walk in the ways of the Holy One. May we see it soon, speedily and in our days.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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