Michael Harvey
Former Congregational Rabbi

Apprenticeship in the Rabbinate

Recently, while walking the wide halls of Home Depot, I found myself admiring some of the higher end cabinets they had available. My daughter, perched on my shoulders, was having a good time opening and closing the cabinet doors and so I paused a moment, to let her have her fun. As she found glee in watching the doors swing shut, I thought about the hands that had labored to build them. I could almost smell the sawdust and hear the sound of sandpaper being rubbed meticulously against wood. Soon, my daughter tired (as all 18-month-olds do) of her open and shut game and we moved on. But later that week, as I sat in my office contemplating that week’s set of challenges, my mind drifted back to that imaginary woodshop and to the cabinet maker and his apprentice who busily and meticulously carved wood. And then my mind lingered on the apprentice and it hit me: despite five years in seminary, the rabbinate is, at its best, an apprenticeship model of learning.

An apprentice is someone who learns a trade or craft from a skilled employer. Positions like the rabbinate, then, don’t at first seem to fit under this definition. Apprenticeships, in fact, tend to suggest the opposite. Those who do not learn a trade through traditional educational routes (such as the university or seminary) learn their trade by doing (such as an apprentice cabinet maker). Of course, skills acquired through traditional education alone are generally hardly enough to make someone excellent at their job and a great deal of learning happens at the job site itself, but there is a sense that with the proper amount of education, a person is competent enough to go out and do. Such is the supposed case with the rabbinate. Five years of seminary and you are ready to be a rabbi.

The truth, however, isn’t so simple. While five years of seminary offer a great deal of knowledge necessary for the rabbinate, there’s a lot that can only come from hands on experience and much of it is unique to the specific congregation….

  • Learning who is who in terms of importance
  • Political nature of the congregation
  • History of the place
  • Where are the lines you don’t want to cross

Each of these ideas is learned through an apprenticeship. In an ideal apprenticeship, the new rabbi has a strong head or associate rabbi to guide them. These mentors remember what it was like to be new to the field and provide strong guidance while being gentle, caring, and sensitive to the new slew of challenges presented to the rabbi. For new rabbis taking on solo positions, myself included, it can be a bit harder. Without a more seasoned rabbi embedded into our congregation, we are left to seek out more established congregants to provide us with insight into the place. And, as one might imagine, this insight is colored by being a congregant, and not a rabbi…

So what can you do when you need that strong mentor?

As a rabbinical student, when you reach placement, and you decide you wish to pursue a career in congregational leadership, you are given a choice: solo or assistantship.  With each choice, I have learned, a new rabbi encounters different challenges the first year. An assistantship in a larger congregation becomes what is known as an apprenticeship.  Certainly the new rabbi possesses skills and knowledge that prepare them to teach, to lead services, to provide pastoral care.  However, there are skills that seminary does not teach: interpersonal skills, strategies in navigating difficult congregants, and tactics to build trust and respect.  These are necessary and important skills for any rabbi to have.  Perhaps some new rabbis already have acquired some of those skills in past careers or learning opportunities, but most have not.  The apprenticeship model of being an assistant provides the new rabbi with the ability to learn by doing under the guidance and support of an experienced rabbi who has already mastered these skills.  Assistant rabbis are given an opportunity to swim in the congregant pool, making connections, building a network, and all the while not make any difficult or, perhaps, disputed decisions.  The head rabbi takes the brunt of the responsibility and backs up the assistant, the apprentice.  As the assistant makes mistakes, the head rabbi guides him or her in person, and allows the assistant to watch as the head rabbi, a master of interpersonal skills, navigates congregational difficulties all rabbis encounter.  This model of hands-on-learning works, as most apprenticeship models work.

However, challenges emerge from this model.  The first challenge is that apprenticeship models only work for a certain kind of student.  The new rabbi must be a highly motivated student willing to watch and learn through doing.  The real challenge, therefore is that that too often experienced rabbis, who possess these intangible skills, have forgotten that they too learned them somewhere.  These are learned skills, teachable skills, not only teachable through the apprenticeship model. In this case, a head rabbi may find it difficult to teach the new rabbi these skills, because they have been so ingrained in the rabbi’s career and life.  When Michael Jordan began coaching basketball, he found it difficult to teach, what he had spent years mastering, to new or inexperienced basketball players.  Having worked and lived these skills for so long, Michael Jordan had forgotten that they were learnable and teachable skills.  The same is true for experienced rabbis.  If they cannot “teach by doing,” new rabbis miss out on these very important interpersonal skills of being a rabbi.

The second challenge, which I had to learn by difficult lessons, is that solo rabbis, especially in small and isolated congregations, are on their own in this respect.  There is no one to model, no one to be the master to the apprentice.  The new rabbi must then, after hopefully not too much trial and error, realize that he or she must learn and master these skills another way.  There are books and online courses that are extremely helpful to inexperienced rabbis, helping them to, as Dale Carnegie put it, “arouse in the other person [here a congregant] an eager want.”  Congregants, like any people, do not care what the rabbi wants, only what they want.  It is up to the rabbi to show the congregation that what the rabbi wants is what the congregation wants.  This is a difficult task, of which many have struggled in their first year, because they were not given the skills (or frankly told about the need) to perform this task.  While mentors for solo rabbis are an important part of their growth, too often they forget that they have learned something, it has become innate.  It is easy, therefore, to tell a new rabbi “don’t lose your temper,” “build a thicker skin,” or “make them want what you want.”  But those are just words, not a path to learning new skills.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey was ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, and earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Enrolled at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program. Founder of "Teach Me Judaism": educational and animated Jewish lessons on scholarship: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4vNAB0lVE4munW_znGdEtQ
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