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Rabbis in Recession

The recession has hit the rabbinate, too. How are the newly ordained—and laid-off veterans—handling the rabbi glut?

Lynn Harris
September 30, 2009
The ordination ceremony for Hebrew Union's Los Angeles campus, at Temple Israel of Hollywood in May 2009.(HUC/JIR-Los Angeles)
The ordination ceremony for Hebrew Union's Los Angeles campus, at Temple Israel of Hollywood in May 2009.(HUC/JIR-Los Angeles)

Having joined the ranks of the underemployed this spring, Dalia Samansky, 30, found herself trolling Craigslist for jobs in sales or marketing, maybe private-school teaching. “I got one interview, but most didn’t even respond,” she said. “I just sent lots and lots of resumes.” Samansky was frustrated—after all, she has five years of grad school under her belt—but not surprised. “It was a complete long shot,” she says. “The only thing I’m qualified to be is a rabbi.”

Samansky is one of 15 students who graduated in May from the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary. At ordination, fewer than half of her classmates had jobs. On that day, a stirring sense of calling prevailed, she and her classmates say. But then, diploma in hand, it was back to reality. “I really felt like I was going to spend the next year or two filling time, just making enough money to pay student loans, health care, day care,” said Samansky, who has a 15-month-old daughter.

Samansky eventually landed a job as part-time assistant rabbi at a synagogue in Northridge, California, where she handles a mix of adult and youth education, services, programming, and life cycle and senior staff duties—all, somehow, in 15 hours a week. She also teaches two nights a week for the local Florence Melton Mini-School, a pluralistic adult Jewish education network. “I ended up with two amazing jobs,” she said—ideal in content, just not in billable hours. “Five years and a hundred thousand dollars later, I’ll be making slightly less than before I entered rabbinical school.”

As unemployment continues to rise, Samansky and many of her colleagues, both rookie and experienced, have had to invoke their professional training to weather the current dearth of professional placement. “I just decided I’m going to practice what I preach and have a little faith that it’s all going to turn out,” she said.

The recession has not spared the rabbinate. At a bleak and stressful time, when pastoral hand-holding may be more in demand than ever, full-time pulpit jobs in America’s liberal movements—Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—are in short supply. Seminaries and synagogues have had to pare their budgets down to essentials; individual rabbis, likewise, have had to figure out what it means to be a rabbi without working as one. But as painful a moment as it is, some in the field suggest that this perhaps relatively short-term hardship for rabbis and institutions could ultimately prove to be, as they say, good for the Jews.

“It has been an unprecedentedly difficult year,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College, noting that back in early summer—by which time 90 percent of a graduating Hebrew Union class usually has job commitments—almost one-third of the 47 graduates in the class of 2009 were still looking for work. Rabbi Leonard Thal, interim placement director for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional association for Reform rabbis, said that now approximately 10 are still looking. (Those who find work with organizations or cobble together part-time patchwork, like Dalia Samansky—and more of her peers than usual this year—are not obligated to report their status to him.) “Five years ago, when this group entered, an awful lot of folks out there in congregation-land were complaining about a shortage of rabbis,” Thal said. “Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction, even farther.”

Representatives from the main Conservative and Reconstructionist seminaries report that the large majority of their classes of 2009, which number 43 and 10, respectively, have found jobs. It should be noted that the latter two institutions in particular—for philosophical rather than economic reasons—typically encourage their students to look for work beyond the pulpit to begin with; generally about half of Reconstructionist graduates find jobs outside synagogues, in organizations and institutions such as Jewish community centers. That held true this year.

But it’s not only newly minted rabbis who’ve been pounding the pavement. Many mid-career rabbis, their positions eliminated, have also found themselves with nowhere to go. Their employed counterparts, like many other American workers, are postponing retirement or staying put when they might otherwise move on. Cash-strapped synagogues, like many churches, are balking at hiring at all, in some cases giving up the now-luxury of an assistant rabbi. And as part of its massive restructuring last spring, the Union for Reform Judaism—the organization that supports Reform congregations in America—eliminated 20 percent of its employees nationwide, erasing scores of potential positions and sending numerous on-staff rabbis back into the pool. Since it’s not exactly a boom time for organizations, foundations, or non-profits Jewish or otherwise, even non-pulpit jobs can be hard to find.

Exact numbers on the rabbinic employment landscape—past and current—are hard to pinpoint, in part because some rely on self-reporting and are not closely tracked. But the bleakness of the current mood is palpable. “There’s a lot of anxiety and sadness,” said Kim Geringer, 56, a Reform rabbi among those who lost a position at the URJ. “We don’t have a model for this; we haven’t been here before. Up until now I think rabbis felt pretty confident that, let’s say something didn’t work out with a congregation, as difficult and sad as that might be, there was a sense—even if it was in the background, unarticulated—that if you were willing to be flexible, you could always find a job. At the moment, that’s not there.”

Some rabbis, maxed out and disillusioned, are leaving the rabbinate altogether. Amita Jarmon, 48, a second-career Reconstructionist rabbi ordained in 2004, lost her job as the first-ever full-time rabbi at a small synagogue in New England earlier this year when the money to pay her simply ran out. She moved to Massachusetts for a relationship that has since ended and found no work; colleagues there were already losing their jobs as area JCCs and Hillels cut budgets.

“I applied for a job teaching first grade at Solomon Schechter. That’s not what I went to rabbinical school for,” she said, noting that the school, of course, hired someone with teaching experience. “What I’d be reduced to if I were to stay here would probably be teaching and tutoring, which is stuff that I did before I became a rabbi.” Unwilling to work “just anywhere” in the United States, and noting that she saw few listings for Reconstructionist rabbis anyway, she is in the midst of a permanent move back to Israel, where she lived for five years after making aliyah in 1983, and contemplating a return to her training as a physical therapist. “I’m willing to do all kinds of things there just to be in Israel,” she said. “But if I were really attached to being a rabbi, I would be in a bad way.”

Others within the field have found a rather rabbinic way to view the recession. They say it’s painful, to be sure, but it also presents an opportunity for self-reflection, even positive change, for both rabbis and the institutions that support them. While seminaries along with synagogues are struggling—Hebrew Union reportedly came close to shuttering one of its four campuses; the Jewish Theological Seminary has implemented significant pay cuts; the modern Orthodox Yeshiva University reduced its non-academic staff by 120 in response to an endowment decline of 30 percent (thanks in part to Bernard Madoff)—many see an upside to Jewish institutions’ being forced to do more with less. “The economic contraction is going to accelerate a process of reexamination and reorganization that’s already going on in the larger Jewish community, in order to figure out how to best serve a 21st-century population,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of conservative rabbis. “How can we best use our resources to help rabbis work more effectively? How can our synagogues strengthen the Jewish community in times of greater challenge?”

For individual rabbis as well, recession is the mother of invention. Many are exploring—even inventing—new professional options, whether hospital or military chaplaincy, Hillel positions, or a non-pulpit rabbinate of their own design. “This trend has been happening for a few years, but there’s nothing like an economic downturn to really force some innovative thinking in terms of what it means to have this degree and contribute to the Jewish community in ways that aren’t your standard pulpit options,” said Elie Kaunfer, a JTS-ordained rabbi who is executive director of Mechon Hadar, an institute that oversees an egalitarian yeshiva and helps organize independent minyanim. “We’ve been presented with the opportunity to broaden even further what it means to be a rabbi in America.”

Rabbi Howard Cohen, 51, a canoe builder and former volunteer firefighter, left a Reconstructionist congregation in Vermont in 2006 when he became concerned that the congregation might not be able to continue paying for a full-time rabbi. He was until recently the interim dean of Jewish life at a Jewish boarding school in North Carolina. Now he’s no longer setting his sights on existing Jewish institutions. “There are very few jobs to pursue,” he said. In addition to officiating at life cycle events, he’s “considering a constellation of small enterprises: revamping my Jewish outdoor adventure program called Burning Bush Adventures, spiritual and general counseling, and something connected to the graying segment of our society.”

Synagogues continue to be the key to Jewish community, says Hebrew Union College’s Rabbi Ellenson. “But we live in an age when not all congregations are able to hire the set of rabbinic professionals they would normally desire. So rabbis themselves have become more entrepreneurial in terms of bringing their skills into other settings—coffeehouses and elsewhere—venues that provide novel opportunities for teaching and learning. As a result, they’re able to bring the message of Judaism to a larger audience and to forge Jewish community in new, unconventional places.” In this way, the economy can only help accelerate the kind of change already envisioned by, for example, Rabbis Without Borders, founded this spring to encourage and train rabbis to offer Jewish leadership and insight to a broader cross-section of the public.

“Rabbis Without Borders was founded because it was clear even before the recession that rabbis needed to change and grow in order to respond to the postmodern world,” said Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu, its director. “Jews are not found only in synagogues; in fact many Jews never enter a synagogue or Jewish institution. No matter what the economic situation is rabbis need to be more creative in how we teach the meaning of Jewish wisdom.”

Cohen, along with other rabbis interviewed, believes that the rabbinic educational community had laid the groundwork for a bit of a rabbi glut even before the economy began to nosedive. “Rabbinical schools are pumping out rabbis,” Cohen said. “But nobody really addressed the question about where they were all going to work. And where there are jobs—in communities that are dying with no real hope of being revitalized—rabbis are not willing to go.” While the Reform, and Reconstructionist movements each have one affiliated seminary ordaining rabbis, and the Conservative movement has two (in addition to JTS, there is the Ziegler School at American Jewish University in Los Angeles), there are several non-denominational rabbinical schools in operation—including Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts; the “Modern Open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York; and the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, New York, founded in 1956— that also add about 30 new rabbis to the market each spring. Some rabbis claim, with frustration, that graduates of unaffiliated seminaries will work for less, thus “taking” jobs from their affiliated counterparts.

The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, counters that there’s room for everyone. “I am someone who believes there can never be too many rabbis,” he said. “At any given moment the congregations in our movement may not be able to absorb more, but there are other things to do. We need more rabbis on campuses, in JCCs, in federations, in youth work.” Rabbi Ellenson of Hebrew Union echoes that thought. “We need liberal rabbis on college campuses and in Jewish organizations” he says. “There is a strong need for humane, liberal interpretations of Judaism to be put forth in the public arena. By placing our rabbis in these positions we serve the religious needs of a very diverse population, and that is all to the good.”

URJ’s Yoffie even says, perhaps counter-intuitively, that now is a time to redouble recruiting efforts. “There’s this notion that you have more students in, for example, business and law school during economic crisis because while there aren’t jobs now, there will be when they get out. Will that same dynamic work in the rabbinate? It’s not clear. All this talk about there being fewer jobs and all the uncertainties may lead to fewer students,” he says. “My concern is that four or five years from now that as the economy comes roaring back—we hope—we’re going to need more rabbis to serve our congregations and our communities and they aren’t going to be there.” So far, Yoffie can rest easy: seminary admissions officers say applications—from people seeking deeper Jewish meaning and a detour from the job market—are up.

Rabbis in pulpits may be forced to reexamine their roles as well—in ways, some say, that can strengthen the communities they serve. They and those who work with them concur that many synagogues will survive, even thrive, based in large part not just on the size of their endowment, but also on their ability to forge most fully the relatively new model of congregational rabbi as neither autocrat nor employee, but as leader and partner.

While a generation ago, many Jews grew up with “their” rabbi functioning as a top-down (and white, straight, married, male) head of household, healthy congregations—and smart rabbis—today strive for a “brit” (covenant) or “sacred partnership,” said Rabbi Steven E. Kaye, a rabbinic employment coach and consultant based in Denver. It’s even more necessary in the downturn—especially with many rabbis foregoing raises and doing more for less—and it creates an even more vital community for the long term. Eric Yoffie offers the example of congregational bikur cholim, visiting the sick. “If rabbis are saying to their congregants, ‘This is more than I can handle; people are not going to get visited unless our laity comes forward and takes this on as an ongoing project,’ then that’s a wonderful thing,” he said.

For many adult Jews, “their” rabbi was also the same rabbi that saw them through Hebrew school and high school, welcomed them back from college at High Holy Days, perhaps even married them. That model has changed in recent decades as well, with rabbis leaving jobs more frequently, including those they once might have been expected to keep until retirement. Now, though, we may see a return, if small-scale and short-term, to the earlier pattern, with rabbis staying in positions they might otherwise have left. “There is some good in the natural shifting and dynamics of life in terms of positions opening and then being occupied by a new generation,” he said. “In many instances at the current moment, that has certainly been placed on hold.”

Still, individual rabbis are endeavoring to see the upside. One Conservative rabbi in his late 40s is on the last year of his contract at a New England synagogue; while he’s ready for something new, he’s not about to leave: “As much as I don’t want to be looking for a job at age 50 in a bad economy I don’t want to be looking for a job at age 60 in a bad economy, either.” (He requested not to be named because of the sensitivity of his upcoming negotiations.) When it comes time to renew his contract, he said, “I’m going to say this is it: I’m going to stop looking around until I retire.” Much as he’d like to be somewhere “more exciting,” he said, his commitment to not leaving has renewed his dedication to finding ways to build and revitalize the congregation. He also recalled the pleasure of coming back from rabbinical school to visit the rabbi who’d been at his home synagogue since he was 6. “There is a benefit to longevity,” he allowed. “I’m not sure the old pattern wasn’t better.”

Of course there also is a silver lining for synagogues in an economic downturn: those hiring right now are able to choose from more, and more qualified, job applicants. And within a few years, future applicants might have more diverse resumes after they’ve held jobs in universities, social service agencies, Jewish communal organizations—and as some rabbis interviewed reported doing, take college-level classes in the increasingly attractive skill of fundraising.

“It’s a sad and difficult time, no two ways about that,” said Ora Prouser, executive vice president and academic dean of the non-denominational seminary Academy of Jewish Religion. “But the economic situation has also led to some moments of real creativity.” Reform rabbi and former lawyer Tom Alpert, 54, whose interim pulpit job at a Connecticut synagogue recently ended, is considering—among other things—building a circuit-riding rabbi program for underserved communities in the Northeast based on existing models in the South. Margot Stein, a 48-year-old Reconstructionist rabbi, seeing her longtime freelance gigs for Jewish organizations dry up, is launching a tutoring and bar and bat mitzvah prep business for children who, like her son, have special needs.

As more rabbis expand their own horizons, so too do they expand the scope, and definition of Jewish community. Whether in Jewish organizations or fundraising class or even Starbucks, rabbis may come into more contact with unaffiliated Jews, those without a rabbi they call “theirs.” That in itself holds promise. “The Talmud says that when questions of law arise, one way to find the answer is to ‘Go see what the people are doing,’” said Rabbi Alpert. “If we are looking to create, and perpetuate the rabbinate, we have to go see what the people are doing.”

Lynn Harris, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes regularly for Salon, The New York Times, Glamour, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the website

Lynn Harris, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes regularly for Salon, The New York Times, Glamour, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the website