Rabbinical schools must train for the gig economy

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

“I know I won’t make a living as a rabbi.” My friend’s Facebook post read.

The reply to her post was just as straight forward. “Same here. I figure I’ll have to cobble together b’nai mitzvah tutoring, weddings, maybe a part time synagogue educator job and some non-Jewish work to make a living.”

After reading this exchange three years ago, I began asking myself this question: are we training rabbis for the gig economy? Because in my experience, the answer is no.

I have been in the position to hire many different kinds of rabbis and purchase curricula from just as many different kinds of Jewish educators. What has struck me is how many simply cannot adjust to new models of Jewish education and mentorship, particularly when those new models are built around social media, technology and fee for service and royalty compensation models. I met people with brilliant academic backgrounds who did not know what a Request For Proposal was, how to calculate the value of their time, or how to negotiate a contract for their time with me.

Rabbinical schools, you have a responsibility to teach your students how to adjust to the new economy, to the world of part time, freelance, independent contract work. It is the future of clergy employment in America and our moral responsibility to respond to.

In my new role as director of innovation for Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary, an online rabbinical smichah (ordination) program, I am tasked with that very same mission. Part academic rabbinical program and Jewish startup incubator, our approach to the question of how we will train students for the gig economy is to help them invent their own Jewish startups through mentorship and training in areas as diverse as marketing, social media management, sales, etc.

But there is a downside to this Silicon Valley-style approach which I will readily admit. As a startup ourselves, we do not have a rabbinical union, day schools, camps, synagogues and other relationships that help graduates enter into the Jewish workforce as it exists today. The job of established seminaries is to continue to shepherd today’s students into today’s roles.

Having said all this, there are many ways that the brick and mortar seminaries can train for the gig economy without sacrificing the level of education you need to provide. While these suggestions are not exhaustive, and I hope people will provide thoughtful comments, I think it is a start towards a much larger conversation that institutions should have.

First, seminaries need to teach rabbinical students sales and marketing. I have sat down with rabbis who understand the ins and outs of the Second Temple Period, but do not know what a Google Ad is, how to use a CRM, what it means to test a synagogue website’s UX, let alone know how to measure the success of any of this.

This is not to say that digital is all that matters. Quite the contrary. I have met rabbinical students who cower at the idea of directly asking someone for money, whether that is a donation or simply to pay for something like b’nai mitzvah tutoring. While the drive for inclusion is something that I deeply value, inclusion cannot happen simply by people being open hearted. If you want to meet people where they are, you have to be physically going where they are, and giving them a sales pitch for why Judaism matters. That pitch also has to be followed up by another conversation, which is how they would like to financially contribute to that future, whether by a fee for a service or a donation to a nonprofit. Teaching that fact of Jewish life is absolutely crucial. There is no perfect playbook, because humanity is imperfect, but that does not mean it should be pushed aside for yet another lecture on Aramaic grammar.

My second belief is that rabbinical students need to be taught the practicalities of being an independent contractor and its implications for their future. How does one anticipate what their tax burden will be each year or even pay those taxes? How does one navigate the US health insurance system? How do contracts work between educators and students? How does one set up their own retirement system? What career training do you need in the event that the best Jewish job you can get is part time? Seminaries are great at teaching the vocation of the rabbinate, but they can do better at teaching the job, especially since the job is evolving so fast.

Finally, I believe that to best prepare students for the gig economy, rabbinic education needs to be moved online, for countless economic reasons I have expressed elsewhere and won’t get into. I understand that some people feel this will harm clergy education. There is an important, interpersonal focus that is at the core of the rabbi-community relationship, and a fear that putting rabbinical education online will diminish that core is not unwarranted.

But if we can save rabbinical students some kind of expense, without cutting the cost of educators, we are doing a mitzvah. If closing a building means more people can go to rabbinical school, and do so with less debt, then it is tikkun. More scholarships are not the key. Seeking more mega donor grants is a stop-gap measure at best. Moving rabbinical learning online will solve a host of problems and perhaps create more opportunities for more people, making the rabbinate a more practical career option and increasing diversity, something we can all agree is a good thing.

Now, an epilogue. It is summer right now. My Facebook is filled with posts of rabbinical students who are now first year rabbis. Soon they will be leaving Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York or wherever they are to start their new careers. The few that I have seen seem the same: thrilled to have a part time job.

Will a part time job pay for five years of student debt? Will an earlier mentioned cobbling together of b’nai mitzvah tutoring, weddings, maybe a part time synagogue educator job pay for health insurance? And even if it does, have we trained these students to live in this world? Probably not. So let’s begin today.

About the Author
Rabbi Patrick Beaulier is director of innovation for Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary, an online rabbinical ordination program taught by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis. He is the founder of Darshan Yeshiva and is the rabbi for Kehillah, a chavurah based in Richmond, VA.
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