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Jewish Journal

New Rabbis Face Tough Job Market

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

April 29, 2009 | 4:45 pm

Joe Hample left his career as a systems analyst at Wells Fargo five years ago to become a rabbi, hoping to make a difference in people’s lives.

“When I quit a secure job to run off to rabbinical school, people told me how brave I was. I didn’t know what they meant,” said Hample, who is 52 and will be ordained May 17. “But now I know.”

Like more than half of his classmates at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), Hample doesn’t have a job.

The rabbinate has been hit hard by this recession. Congregations are pulling in less money, and many larger synagogues are going without assistant rabbis, while some smaller congregations have cut solo rabbis to part-time positions. At the same time, more veteran rabbis are holding on to their jobs as retirement funds shrink, and some retired clergy are back in the job market.

“It’s been really tough,” said Rabbi Hesch Sommer, director of rabbinical placement for the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. “It’s been a really difficult time with this economy and the impact it’s had on the Jewish world and congregations, and how that’s played out with openings for rabbis.”

The Reform movement seems to have been the hardest hit of the denominations in placing its rabbis. HUC-JIR’s three U.S. campuses — in New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles — have placed 17 of the 36 who will be ordained this spring and are looking for congregational positions, a far smaller percentage than is typical at this point in the job placement season. American Jewish University’s Conservative seminary, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, has placed nine of its 12 graduates, and the National Commission that matches new Conservative rabbis with congregations has the same number of job listings this year as it did two years ago, according to Ziegler Associate Dean Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, who sits on the commission.

The nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles is optimistic that it will be able to improve on its current numbers, also lower than in previous years. Ten of its 16 graduates — rabbis, cantors and chaplains — have found work as clergy, and two students are going back to previous careers.

At the Orthodox Yeshiva University in New York, the 50 graduates who want to go into the professional rabbinate are looking at a wider range of jobs than they might normally, but they are finding work, according to Rabbi Kenny Brander, dean of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future. He says that while fewer congregations and schools have job openings, established professionals are not trying to move around in the field, so the competition isn’t fierce.

The fact that the Reform movement is taking the brunt of the rabbinic job shortage isn’t surprising, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

“Historically, Reform congregations have suffered most heavily in downturns. For Jews who attend their temples rarely, synagogue membership is discretionary and something that they drop in hard times,” Sarna said. “In addition, newly minted Reform rabbis have tended to earn higher salaries upon graduation than their Conservative and Orthodox colleagues, so it makes sense that they would have a harder time finding employment in hard times.”

The downturn is hurting the Reform movement on several fronts. HUC-JIR announced that it will close one or two of its U. S. campuses. The Union for Reform Judaism recently began implementing a restructuring that includes consolidating most regional offices into a handful of centers. More than 60 people lost jobs, about a third of them rabbis.

Those rabbis are now out pounding the same pavement as those who are just graduating.

“It seems that there are dozens of applicants for every job, and those of us fresh out of school are competing with people who have years of experience,” said Hample, who had been optimistic about the two callbacks from the initial 10 interviews he did and another one at a nondenominational synagogue. “Why would anyone hire me rather than them?”

He’s especially worried because he doesn’t fit into the box — he’s older than the other ordinees, and gay. But, he notes, classmates who are young and straight are also still unemployed.

He’s expanded his search, looking to chaplaincy in prisons or hospitals, administrative jobs at Jewish organizations, overseas pulpits or freelance writing on Jewish topics.

That kind of broadmindedness might be a blessing, according to Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He said students are reaching for more, and local congregations have responded optimistically to a call to find more job openings for new rabbis.

“Crises often bring out the best in a person, and I think here it’s brought out the resourcefulness of our students and the resourcefulness of our colleagues,” Levy said. “I have always told the students that placement is like the call to being a rabbi in the first place — God’s hand is in this, and often unexpected opportunities open up that we didn’t think about earlier on.”

Hample hopes so.

“I don’t regret my journey, not for a moment,” he said, “although I don’t know where that journey is going from here.”

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