Training the Rabbinate, Case Study: Five Conservative/Masorti Rabbinical Schools

Until modern times, rabbinic ordination was private, one-on-one. “Smicha” was bestowed by a senior rabbi upon a junior person who had achieved mastery of classic rabbinic texts. The rabbi-to-be had to complete sections of Talmud as well as practical day-to-day Jewish law. The candidate was to be tested on the section of Jewish Legal Codes known as “Yoreh Deah.”

This genre of Smicha training prepared the rabbi for teaching and/or leading a local Yeshivah, for serving on a local Bet Din, and for answering day-to-day halachic questions. As noted by Berlin’s Chief Rabbi Hirschel Levin: [Rabbinic service]… requires… resolution of all related questions and doubts, responsibility for the continuation of Talmudic learning, and… jurisdiction over… juridical cases arising among the nation such as inheritance, divorce, etc.”

With the admission of Jews as citizens in Central and Western European societies, matters of law involving Jewish citizens came before state courts in lieu of the Bet Din. Living in a wide-open, free marketplace of ideas and beliefs, matters of Jewish law became less and less urgent for increasingly secular Jews. For the majority, attendance at full-time yeshivot was replaced by universal public education. The preservation of Jewish identity became challenging and required a different role and different “skill set” for the rabbinate. The focus shifted to the individual congregation.

To gain respect as a learned “profession,” training was to be no longer one-on-one but rather via a graduate professional school format, akin to Harvard Law School and Johns Hopkins Medical School. A prerequisite for entry into late 19th century professionalized institutions for rabbinic training became parallel university study. As noted by Professor Glenn Miller, “Like their Protestant neighbors, Jews found that the governments expected their religious leaders to attend universities and thereby meet the secular [clergy] standards required by law.” Curricula at Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruction rabbinical seminaries, as with modern-day physicians, attorneys, and other long-standing “vocations,” transformed a “calling” into a “profession.”

Case Study: The Five Conservative/Masorti Rabbinical Schools

The Foundation Was Set By The Early Years of the Jewish Theological Seminary [JTS]

Rabbinical Professional Graduate School study expanded beyond the range of sacred texts study previously required. Instruction in Talmud and Codes [Yoreh Deah] remained. Added were courses in a wide range of Judaica texts. This broad-based approach cultivated the skills needed by the rabbinic profession in serving a synagogue. For example, the curriculum of initial years of JTS [1886-1899] added courses suitable for sermons and for educating both young and old. Subjects reflected expectations placed upon a congregational rabbi: Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, Bible, day-to-day issues in Jewish law, Midrash [emphasizing Jewish values]. Informal efforts also were made to address Homiletics [preparing and presenting sermons], and instruction “in conducting services and teaching.”

This initial effort to sustain JTS as a Traditional Yet Modern Seminary came to an end in 1899. Nevertheless, the dream remained and JTS was re-organized in 1901 under the leadership of Solomon Schechter. Schechter recruited a core of gifted scholars as a permanent faculty: Louis Ginzburg, Alexander Marx, Israel Davidson, Mordecai Kaplan, Israel Friedlander, and others. He formalized the course of professional rabbinic study. Schechter’s JTS was tuition-free and demanded full-time study. Thus, JTS required entering students to have completed their undergraduate course of study. As noted by historian Pamela Nadell, “the revamped rabbinical curriculum continued the early Seminary’s emphasis upon both the study of ‘Jewish humanities’ – philosophy, history, and homiletics – and the traditional rabbinical subjects of Talmud and Codes.”

For decades to come, what remained informal was training in the practical skills needed as a synagogue rabbi. Despite protests from the rabbinic alumni, Seminary students were, by and large, left on their own to learn the synagogue-based rabbinic craft. In 1931 Schechter’s successor, Cyrus Adler, made his view clear: “The job of the Seminary was to ground students in the authentic texts of Jewish tradition and to shape a rabbi into ‘another one of the links in the chain of tradition.’ One could always figure out later how to organize synagogue programs or officiate at ceremonies.”

Faculty resistance toward formal instruction in “Practical Rabbinics” remained strong. Nevertheless, during the years of Adler’s successor, Louis Finkelstein, opportunities began to emerge more and more for hands-on training in the rabbinic craft: e.g. Pastoral Psychology [the clinical cases that come to the attention of the rabbi], Officiation at Life Cycle Ceremonies and Synagogue Services, Internships with rabbinic mentors, and Homiletics.

Five Conservative/Masorti Rabbinical Schools Train Graduates for The Jewish World –

  • JTS [NYC]
  • Ziegler [LA] – at the American Jewish University
  • Frankel [Germany] – at the Potsdam University
  • Schechter [Jerusalem]
  • Seminario [Buenos Aires]

Each school offers a multi-fold model of professional rabbinic training

  1. Mastery of Rabbinic Texts, Bible, Jewish History, and Philosophy, and Literature, Israel, and Contemporary Jewish Life
  2. Practical skills to lead a congregation and build a community
  3. The capacity to transform the lives of individual Jews
  4. Access to rabbinic career paths beyond the pulpit [e.g. education, academia, chaplaincy, Jewish communal service, etc.]

Each of the five schools also is part of a Judaica campus with a mission and function that is far broader than training rabbis. Each larger campus is an institution of higher learning out of which thought leadership emerges on a variety of Jewish topics. Each offers training for future Cantors, Educators, Jewish Social Workers, and Judaica Studies professors, as well as Judaica programs within a liberal arts curriculum. JTS, American Jewish University, Seminario, Schechter Institute, and Potsdam University seek to be seen as centers for Jewish learning for all Jews.

A few highlights about each of the Five Schools –

JTS 

During its 130+ year illustrious history, the JTS Rabbinical School has ordained thousands of rabbis serving all over the Jewish world. JTS graduates have served in leadership positions in every facet of Jewish institutional life. JTS of 2019 affirms that it provides: “an education rooted in Jewish living and enlightened scholarship… to be absorbed in Torah study… to grow from spiritual mentorship… to be trained to pursue justice guided by our tradition… to join a community engaged in examining ideas sensitively and implementing them creatively.”

“At JTS, The Rabbinical School education is rooted in spirituality and scholarship, preparing students to become transformative leaders in diverse settings across North America and throughout the world. The Rabbinical School’s programs combine serious learning with superior professional training, supported by a Jewish community deeply committed to t’fillah, study, and practice. Students participate in immersive learning in Israel, spiritual mentorship, field work, and a master’s level curriculum as they prepare for a life of sacred service. JTS rabbis serve the Jewish people in a myriad of roles and settings — in congregations, educational institutions, camps, nonprofits, and more. Graduates of The Rabbinical School are among the most influential and inspiring religious leaders in North America and the world.”

Ziegler 

Rabbinic training school is offered by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism). In 1996 Ziegler became the first independent West Coast rabbinical school. Ziegler ordained its first class in 1999 and has graduated almost 200 rabbis. Like JTS, Ziegler attracts an international student body. Ziegler has educated students from Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Israel, Mexico, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and every region of the USA. Ziegler is “a rabbinical school valuing rigorous scholarship, embracing the splendors of spirituality, and providing students with vast opportunities to grow intellectually and spiritually.”

“The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies is not only a school, but a community. At its core, our community can become a model for the type of community that ordinands seek to create in their rabbinate. Students of the Ziegler School learn together and grow in a community that is open, honest, searching, and supportive. In addition to the classroom experience, our students come together in many ways. Daily minyan, run by students, is an integral part of the day in which everyone, regardless of their class schedule, is invited to join together in moments of personal reflection and communal prayer. Throughout the year, students and faculty also observe Judaism’s sacred moments together through formal and informal Shabbat and holiday programming, shared meals, and discussions. In addition, members of the community celebrate one another’s s’machot in times of joy, and unite to offer consolation during difficult moments of death, illness, or other personal challenges.”

Frankel

During the past decade, Ziegler launched a Conservative/Masorti Judaism’s European rabbinical training school: The Zacharias Frankel College. This venture is being undertaken by Ziegler together with the Leo Baeck Foundation, in partnership with Potsdam University’s School of Jewish Theology. Frankel provides: “a rabbinical school for European Communities that values rigorous scholarship, embraces the splendors of spirituality, and provides students with vast opportunities to grow intellectually and spiritually.

Schechter 

An Israeli path added to Conservative/Masorti rabbinic training was launched in 1984 by the Jewish Theological Seminary along with Israel’s Masorti Movement. Initially known as “The Bet Midrash,” the institution broadened its educational mission and changed its name to “The Schechter Institutes.” The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary has ordained more than 90 rabbinic graduates, serving in various capacities inside Israel, in Europe and in the USA. The Schechter Rabbinical School: “trains the next generation of Jewish leaders who will inspire and influence Israeli society, as well as raise a committed Masorti/Conservative Jewish voice for religious pluralism and tolerance… learning Jewish texts in-depth, along with practical training.”

Seminario 

The Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano (Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, known as the Marshall T. Meyer Latin American Rabbinical Seminary) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was certified in 1962. 110 rabbis have graduated and been ordained by the “Seminario.” The graduates serve in Jewish communities throughout Latin America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Uruguay, and Venezuela, as well as Israel, the United States, and Europe. The Seminario is: “a Jewish religious, cultural, and academic center whose primary purpose is to educate and ordain rabbis from Latin America who will help to strengthen and sustain Jewish communities throughout the region.

The Future  

The depth and breadth of the Five Conservative/Masorti rabbinical training continues to expand under the tutelage of Deans Daniel Nevins, Bradley Artson, Ariel Stofenmacher, and Avi Novis-Deutsch. Additional practical skills have been added. CPE [Clinical pastoral education] has become a standard feature for many graduates. The face of the rabbinate also has changed. The Movement commenced ordaining women in the 1980s and ordaining openly gay and lesbian rabbis [JTS, Ziegler, Frankel] in the mid-2000s. There is a growing number of people entering rabbinical school as a second, or even third career at various stages of adulthood.

Worldwide, dozens of Conservative/Masorti rabbis are ordained each year to serve the Jewish world. The graduates enter into congregations, institutions promoting Jewish formal and informal education, a wide range of chaplaincy positions, campus work, academia, and Jewish communal service. These graduates become a source of great blessing to the entire Jewish World.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.
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