Jewish communal attention has been focusing increasingly upon “The Great American Rabbi Shortage.” Following the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a sizable number of Baby-Boomer rabbis (those born between 1946 and ‘64) are retiring. What is alarming is that they are not being replaced by adequate numbers of new candidates for rabbinic training. Proactive measures must be taken to ensure the well-being of our Jewish future. It’s time to assess how the role of the American rabbi evolved and where it needs to go. The stakes are too high to be ignored.
Stage One — Rabbi as Synagogue Community Builder
In Colonial-era America, rabbis operated only in city-wide “kehillot,” Jewish autonomous communal settings. They were not assigned to particular synagogues, which served simply as houses of worship for “daveners.” Instead, rabbis were placed into yeshivot and batei din (rabbinic courts).
Once U.S. citizenship became automatic (post-1789), Jews recast the role of the rabbi to emulate Christian clergy. Individual rabbis were then assigned to serve a specific congregation. Working with lay leaders, the rabbi was tasked with being a community builder, promoting synagogue affiliation.
Was this shift necessary? Prior to 1789, virtually all Colonial Americans aligned themselves of necessity with their respective religious “denomination.” Civic institutions did not yet provide for life-cycle rituals (civil marriage, etc.), social welfare, or children’s education. For Colonial-era Jews, kehillot fulfilled these needs; to remain “unaffiliated” was unimaginable. It meant being isolated from a much-needed support system. Once the United States became a national entity, however, citizens of all faiths received related services via public institutions.
Consequently, only regular worshippers “needed” a place that was solely a house of worship. By 1800, less than 8 percent of Americans were church or synagogue members. To expand the agenda of congregations, the church or synagogue’s religious leader was given an entrepreneurial role. Under the direction of rabbis and lay leaders, the mission of the congregation expanded, from a place for communal prayer alone to one that also offered education for children, socialization for adolescents, multi-faceted involvement for men and women, and a venue to build relationships with civic society and other faith groups.
As it became a role pivotal to innovation and growth of the community, the rabbinic career was compelling. By the early 20th century, just as Christians in regard to churches, synagogue affiliation had become mainstream in the adult life-cycle. Additionally, synagogue members came to comprise the primary base of donors for Jewish philanthropy and federations, supporters of Jewish organizations, advocates for Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael and then Israel itself, and consumers of formal and informal Jewish education for themselves and their children.
Stage Two — The Diminished Role of the Synagogue Rabbi
As the men and women in the U.S. armed forces returned in droves from World War II, they married and started families — the Baby Boom. As they settled in emerging urban and suburban neighborhoods, population waves created synagogues at a frantic pace. Success required neither innovation nor community-building strategies; the congregations simply opened their doors to the rush of motivated “consumers.” Synagogues provided a Hebrew School with a path to Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. For many of these families, affiliation became a social imperative once their eldest child reached the age of eight, typically the age for aleph class. Although some families left the congregations following the Bar Mitzvah of their youngest child, no membership crisis ensued; a seemingly endless supply of new families with aleph students easily filled the pews and classrooms.
Overwhelmed by the volume of B’nai Mitzvah, bris ceremonies and baby namings, weddings and funerals, synagogue rabbis saw their role diminished. They no longer had the mandate from lay leadership to be innovators or community builders. The rabbi’s role was reduced to a kind, loving, learned, and articulate officiant. Sermons too became part of a Bar Mitzvah milestone. Rabbinic training centered around “Practical Rabbinics” (homiletics, life-cycle ceremonies) rather than innovation. So, too, rabbinic job “try-outs” focused on the ability to deliver a speech rather than on demonstrated success in community building. The image of the rabbi shifted from the excitement of entrepreneurship to being the gentle custodian of a status quo.
Stage Three — A Different Role Needed to Attract Young People to the Rabbinate
In 2022, young people seem to set their sights on becoming creators of the next start-up in whatever work arena they select. They want to be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, if not necessarily in terms of a huge income, at least in terms of impact. They want to forge something new or transform what exists. Being entrepreneurs is the current generation’s “gold rush.” Skills that showcase innovation, creativity, and breaking old molds are the most prized. That’s one of the reasons STEM disciplines are so popular and the humanities are in a decline.
As we lament the “rabbinic shortage” and “pipeline” problem, wouldn’t it be prudent to reimagine and re-market what it means to be a rabbi. Recasting that role might give us the chance to attract some of the best and the brightest, seeking a newly discovered area of creativity and excitement. A paradigm shift also would help address the malaise among many congregations emerging from COVID. After years of limitations, Judaism and the synagogue need to be creatively reimagined.
So let’s capture the hunger for creativity among our young people. Rather than assuming they will be drawn to a career where they will serve solely as an officiant, let’s consider, “What might it look like to reframe rabbinic work by connecting entrepreneurialism to Judaism?” “How can we reshape the role of the rabbi to be a position with more — and more significant — impact.”
A Case Study: A Different Genre of Recruitment
Last year, I retired after 42 years as senior rabbi at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ. As I look back on my decades in the pulpit, I think about the dozens of B’nai Mitzvah alumni in my congregation who chose to become rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educational professionals. In my view, it was not my sermons or my officiation at ceremonies that primarily motivated them choose a Jewish career path. In most cases, rather, they were inspired by the work and leadership of what we lovingly called “The Troika” — Alan Silverstein (rabbi), Joel Caplan (cantor), and Susan Werk (education director) — a community-building team.
Our community’s growth and intensity emerged due the expansion of roles for the rabbi, cantor, and education director in creative ways. It came about as a result of our professional leadership bringing “best practices” consistently into our midst. It was a byproduct of “The Troika” serving beyond the synagogue walls as leaders in Conservative Judaism, in Jewish federation, and in civic/interfaith settings.
The young adults who were “recruited” into serving Jewish life primarily came from households bonded to friendship networks through which they joyfully engaged with a life of Torah and mitzvot. Inspired by the power of community building, dozens of talented young men and women were drawn into careers that offered an opportunity to be part of Jewish innovation and entrepreneurship.
To address our current “pipeline problem,” Jewish bodies — rabbinical and cantorial schools, educational institutions, professional associations, national congregational bodies, and individual synagogues — should embrace a rebranding of what it means to be a synagogue rabbi, cantor, and educational director. Members of Gen Z who are drawn to Jewish life should be given the chance to make their own impact, not simply trained to be guardians of the status quo.
Let’s recruit applicants on that basis: Let’s structure curricula accordingly. Let’s conduct job interviews with community building in mind. Let’s strive to implement “best practices,” taking risks when necessary.
In short, let’s restore excitement to the task. Torah and mitzvot demand nothing less.