Jewish Journal


May 20, 1999

Pulpit Phobia


Dorothy Richman finished her rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York this week, and she's about to start her new life. She's off to Honduras next month, leading a group of teens on a summer service program. They'll wind up in Israel in August. After that, her plans are open.

Shai Held, Richman's classmate at the Conservative seminary, knows just where he'll be in the fall: in Boston, working at Harvard University Hillel. Another classmate, Micah Hyman, is headed for Los Angeles, to become assistant director of Camp Ramah.

Neal Loevinger, a member of the first rabbinical graduating class at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, is Toronto-bound, for a job in adult Jewish education.

Where they're not heading is the pulpit. Of 46 new Conservative rabbis ordained this week -- 38 in New York, eight in Los Angeles -- only 26 plan to be congregational rabbis. That's just over half.

It's not for lack of jobs. Right now, with nearly all the spring graduates spoken for, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism still has at least 80 full-time pulpit openings: 60 for senior rabbis, 20 for assistant rabbis. Another 15 shuls are looking for part-timers. That's not counting openings for educators.

"If I had another 100 rabbis, could they all find work? Yes, they could," says Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice-president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly.

These numbers add up to a serious crisis in Conservative Judaism. To an alarming degree, Conservative rabbis appear unwilling to work in Conservative synagogues.

Movement leaders explain it as an "evolution" in the rabbinate, a result of booming demand for rabbis in day schools and community centers, on campus, as hospital chaplains and more. "Being a rabbi does not just mean being a congregational rabbi," says Rabbi William Lebeau, dean of the JTS rabbinical school.

Beyond that, rabbis point to societal changes that reduce the pulpit's appeal. "The model of the traditional pulpit rabbi who gave everything to the congregation and nothing to his own family is no longer acceptable to most young rabbis," says Rabbi Daniel Gordis, dean of the University of Judaism rabbinical school.

That's especially true for women rabbis. "The pulpit eats up your entire life, so you need someone taking care of your personal life," says Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, a 1995 seminary graduate who now administers an Israel travel program. "Women don't have wives."

But while these changes are real, they don't fully explain the Conservative crisis. If they did, the same crisis would confront Reform and Orthodoxy. It doesn't.

Yeshiva University, citadel of modern Orthodoxy, graduates about 30 new rabbis a year. Eight to 10 take pulpits. That just about meets congregation needs, says Rabbi Raphael Butler, executive vice-president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Orthodoxy has a crisis, but it's not in the pulpit. It's in day schools. Two-thirds of YU's rabbinical graduates go that route. That doesn't nearly meet demand, says YU Vice President Rabbi Robert Hirt. To fill in, schools are hiring from smaller, right-wing Orthodox yeshivas. Their influence is fueling Orthodoxy's relentless drift rightward.

As for Reform Judaism, 32 of its 45 graduating rabbis, almost three-fourths, took pulpits this year. That left 17 pulpit openings unfilled, something Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, calls "a major crisis." But it's just supply and demand. The movement cut class sizes six or seven years ago, anticipating fewer jobs. Instead of declining, Reform congregations grew. Now they need to step up recruitment again.

The crisis in Conservative Judaism is of a different order. The jobs are there. The rabbis are there. But too many rabbis don't want the job.

Asked why not, students and recent grads offer the same answers as their elders: variety of options, the rigors of pulpit life, the importance of family. Questioned further, though, most admit there's a deeper reason. The Judaism of Conservative congregations simply isn't the Judaism of Conservative rabbis. "Rabbis don't feel they can implement their Jewish vision in a synagogue, because the congregation is nowhere near where they're at religiously," says Cohler-Esses.

The crisis reflects the old joke that Conservative Judaism is a movement of Orthodox rabbis serving Reform congregants. Nothing new here. Scholars have written for years about the "loneliness of the Conservative rabbi," living alone among people who don't share his values.

But it's getting worse. For one thing, rabbis are becoming more observant. And congregants are becoming less so. Some synagogues now ask for prospective rabbis who drive on Saturday -- either because there's a satellite shul to be serviced in the far suburbs, or because "Rabbi" is expected to appear at off-site bar mitzvah lunches. A few Conservative congregations, unable to find the rabbi they need, sought recruits from the 10 graduates of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Perhaps most important, today's Conservative rabbinical students live and study in a cocoon-like subculture that's harder than ever to leave. Shaped by the 1960s counterculture and the Ramah camping experience, it's a hybrid offshoot of Conservatism, very liberal yet very observant, and highly communal. Pockets exist in New York, Los Angeles, Jerusalem and a handful of other cities, comprising in all several thousand people. Leaving that for congregation life in, say, Phoenix, is inconceivable to many JTS grads.

Fear of congregation life is a major discussion topic among rabbinical students, says 1999 graduate Deborah Wechsler. "People want to know that their kids will have someone to play with on Saturday afternoon," she says.

Increasingly, those graduates who do take pulpits are spurning solo pulpits to become assistant rabbis at large synagogues. "At least then you're in a big city with a large Jewish population," Wechsler says. This year grads chose assistantships over senior posts by two to one.

In the biggest synagogues, the staff alone can be a satisfying community. Wechsler, who never planned a pulpit career, is taking a job at a 1,500-family shul in Baltimore with five rabbis on staff. "At least I know I'm walking into a place with a Shabbos community," she says.

For nearly half her classmates, that's not enough. "I want to be in a situation where the people I daven with are people I can talk to," says Shai Held. For him, that rules out the pulpit.

In large measure, what ails Conservative rabbis is the crisis of American Judaism. We're becoming two communities, strangers to one another. The fault line runs right through the middle of the Conservative movement.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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