How do you train and prepare future rabbis in a world with Covid-19?
As Principal of our rabbinical seminary, Leo Baeck College, this question has been on my and all my colleagues’ minds these past months – particularly as we began our new academic year in September.
The rabbis of the Talmud never had to deal with Covid-19. They were men (and, of course, they were men) of deep and sustained learning, able to adjudicate on all manner of legal questions; debaters, storytellers, and teachers. The rabbis of this generation were not just leaders; they were the creators of Judaism as we know it today. But that was a couple of millennia or so ago and things have changed a bit since then. By the 19th century rabbis had taken on roles not entirely dissimilar to priests and ministers – pastoral care and social work in addition to duties like leading services (at least in the progressive world) and preaching.
Today, in addition to the roles of teachers, leaders, jurists and creators of Jewish practice; rabbis are expected to read Torah; tend to the sick; train bar and bat mitzvah pupils; be up to date on national and local legislation affecting communities; conduct funerals; lead services; attend and sometimes chair dozens of different committees; prepare couples (of whatever sexual orientation) for weddings and then officiate at that service; prepare and present candidates for the beit din (the Jewish court); ensure the financial sustainability of their congregations; be spiritual advisors and guides; write for the print media; engage on Twitter and Facebook; represent their communities in public spaces and plenty more. How do you train someone to do everything just short of neurosurgery and nuclear engineering?
The list of things we want rabbis to do never gets shorter, only longer. And now, with the Covid-19 pandemic, we also want, even need, our rabbis to become adept at the newest technologies for distance programming, become experts in creating meaningful online and socially-distanced experiences, create protocols for keeping us safe when we can come together, and offer specialist support for the bereaved when we cannot even come together for the one of the most basic human needs – touch. We expect our rabbis to come up with ingenious new ideas – like the drive-in Rosh Hashanah services at FRS last weekend – and manage a team of people to produce those ideas while still doing all the basic stuff we have always expected of them.
So how can we train rabbis to do all the items on the list above and equip them for Covid-19 and everything that is throwing at us?
Ten years ago, Leo Baeck College underwent a major institutional review and following on from that, in September of 2011, I took up the post of Principal. Together with a working party containing students, recent graduates, alumni of long-standing, faculty (academic and vocational), and senior management, as well as direct consultation with synagogues, we came up with a new programme, one which we felt took our training productively into the 21stcentury.
The first students to have gone through that training from start to finish were only ordained in 2017, because like virtually all internationally recognised rabbinic training programmes in the progressive Jewish world, LBC’s rabbinic training is a five-year post-graduate programme. The length, depth, and intensity of rabbinic training are similar to doctors, architects, or barristers, because rabbis, like these other professionals, hold people’s lives in their hands.
The students we train and the rabbis they become are not just functionaries who need to know which bits to read when; they are the people who help us define the meaning of our lives. They may not keep us physically breathing, but they keep us spiritually alive, even more so now. They ensure that when we come through this pandemic in whatever fashion, that we continue to have a community around us, a set of practices and beliefs that hold us together, they ensure that being alive means something to us and, crucially, that all of that meaning comes from a deeply rooted Jewish space. It costs a little over a million pounds annually to keep that hope in the Jewish future alive, but at the risk of sounding like a credit card advert, the training of rabbis in the UK for our communities is actually priceless.
The training of rabbis for a post-Covid world will undoubtedly require some new skills in addition to all of the ones we already teach. But these things are more likely to be about how rabbis deliver, not the content of what they deliver. Our future and the future of the generations that follow us continue to depend on the same core Jewish texts – Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, the siddur and much else besides – texts that rabbis have been taught for millennia.
As we start this new year, I pray that the continued creation of outstanding rabbis is not merely God’s will, but our own as well.