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Help Wanted

With pulpits going unfilled across North America, the Reform movement is looking for a few good Jews.

by Ellen Jaffe-Gill

March 22, 2001 | 7:00 pm

If the New Economy has let you down and the Old Economy holds no charms, there may be a career opportunity for you in the Shul Economy.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the seminary that trains men and women for professions in Reform synagogues and other Jewish institutions, has been stepping up recruitment in response to a severe shortage of rabbis and other personnel for its congregations.

Scores of temples among the 906 affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) can't fill their pulpits, with some waiting up to two years for new rabbis. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, UAHC president, said he expected the shortage in Reform rabbis, cantors, and religious school educators would continue for another five years and called the situation "the most serious issue facing Reform rabbis now."

The roaring economy of the 1990s turned some attention away from the clergy as a less attractive career choice, the Forward reported in February. Rabbi Charles Kroloff, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), Reform's rabbinic organization, said many rabbis have begun to work part time, and many larger congregations have increased their rabbinic staffs. "That just gobbles up the rabbinic supply," Kroloff told the Forward.

HUC-JIR expects to ordain an average of 40 rabbis among its four campuses during each of the next five years, not nearly enough to fill the gap between demand and supply.

Compounding the problem, about a quarter of current Reform rabbinic students don't want jobs with congregations, citing the long hours and lack of privacy in full-time pulpits; the rigors of congregational life can be especially unattractive to young couples with small children or who are contemplating starting a family.

The past few years have also seen growth in jobs for rabbis away from the pulpit, at colleges, JCCs, hospitals, and a wide range of Jewish organizations.

"I'm not sure what my plans are for after ordination," Mari Chernow, 29, a third-year rabbinical student, told The Journal. "The overcommitted nature of pulpit life is definitely a factor for me. I think you have to work very hard to maintain healthy boundaries.... The 'senior rabbi at a large congregation' job doesn't seem to hold the appeal for as many people as it might have at one time."

The problem becomes severe in more remote Western towns. In Sun Valley, Idaho, the 50-family Jewish community has been searching for a rabbi for months. According to Wood River Jewish Community president Adam Kosler, the congregation has had only a handful of applications and is faced with a limited pool from which to choose.

"In Los Angeles, things are under control, but further south, things are a little dicey," said Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of UAHC's Pacific Southwest Council.

"I'm very concerned about it," he added. "There's a trickle-down effect, where people who would normally take part-time positions are in full-time positions." The part-time positions then go begging, he said,without enough rabbinic students in the pipeline to fill them.

The Conservative movement is suffering a shortage of congregational rabbis as well, said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (UJ), but, he told the Journal, both UJ and the New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary have seen recent increases in enrollment.

During the past year, HUC-JIR has begun to recruit more aggressively, training rabbis to identify and approach prospective clergy in their communities, becoming more visible on college campuses, and getting the word out to its laity that new students are needed and welcomed.

"We haven't talked about it enough, the Jewish people as a career path," Rabbi Norman Cohen, provost and acting president of HUC-JIR, said in 1999. "People who are currently professionals in the field don't talk enough about themselves, about careers of service. Rabbis, cantors, educators in the field really are our best recruitment vehicles."

The Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR has expanded the role of admissions dean to "director of recruitment and admissions"; Dr. Lewis Barth, president of the Los Angeles school, said his campus "has devoted intensive efforts to this, to find out where we have to go to attract outstanding Jewish people."

The local and national efforts may already be paying off, with the class of 2006 -- this year's incoming group of rabbinical students -- projected at 50 students, more than half again the size of last fall's incoming class.

Both HUC-JIR and the Conservative seminaries have seen growth in students who are pursuing the rabbinate and cantorate as second careers and have begun to view their "lay elite" as a possible source of clergy. Barth, for example, spoke at last summer's UAHC Kallah in Santa Cruz, a retreat that attracts Reform Jews interested in intensive text study and daily worship, and invited participants to explore careers in Jewish professional life.

Seeing a period of growth for his school, Barth is upbeat, calling the current shortage of congregational personnel a sign of "the enormous success of the Reform movement and other [Jewish] agencies that need professional and spiritual leadership. This is really positive stuff that's happening."

Henkin, expressing the view from the congrega-tions, is less sanguine about the shortage, saying it will take the seminaries several years to boost their output of clergy. "It's quite systemic," he said of the crisis, "and it's going to take us a while to work through it."

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