Ellen Dubin Photography
Rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York CityEllen Dubin Photography
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Wanted: More Rabbis

Non-Orthodox seminaries try to adapt to changing communal needs—and shrinking enrollment

Paula Jacobs
March 13, 2023
Ellen Dubin Photography
Rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York CityEllen Dubin Photography

When Rabbi Irwin Kula attended the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School 40-plus years ago, his studies emphasized a text-based, academic approach. And when he was ordained in 1982, most of his class of approximately 40 rabbinical graduates—all white and male—took pulpit jobs.

In spring 2023, JTS plans to ordain 12 rabbis and three cantors—a diverse group of graduates in terms of gender, age, and sexual orientation, as well as Jewish and professional journeys, but far smaller than Kula’s class. The current first-year class at the Conservative seminary is even smaller, consisting of seven rabbinical and five cantorial students.

Nor is JTS alone. Non-Orthodox rabbinical schools across America are experiencing a significant decline in enrollment, affecting both these institutions and the American Jewish community at large as the demand for rabbis exceeds supply, particularly as baby boomers retire and others leave because of burnout. “It’s a period of unprecedented disruption and change,” explained Kula, president emeritus of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “People are innovating—there are more people serving as spiritual guides and coaches than ever before—and fewer are studying in seminaries than ever before.”

Indeed, across America, the religious landscape is changing. “People are engaging with religion in a much broader way than they used to, congregational attendance has declined, and affiliation is decreasing,” said Wendy Cadge, founder of the Chaplain Innovation Lab, Barbara Mandel Professor of Humanistic Social Sciences and professor of sociology at Brandeis University, and co-author with Shelly Rambo of the book Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care in the Twenty-First Century. “Rather than going to congregations, people are engaging in online groups, listening to podcasts, and spiritual entrepreneurs are making their resources available in different ways.”

But rabbis are still in demand—a demand that outstrips supply, even as congregations shrink. This year, like last year, the Conservative movement—50% of whose rabbis in North America serve congregations—anticipates a shortage of rabbis to fill available positions, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told Tablet: “There is greater demand, along with smaller numbers of rabbis being ordained. Also, congregations want more rabbis to do education and engagement work. So congregations that used to think about one rabbi for 500 households now understand that in a time when it’s about relationships, they need more rabbis to serve their communities.”

In this environment where denominations matter less than they once did, non-Orthodox rabbinical schools must prepare for the future and clearly differentiate themselves as they compete for a shrinking applicant pool—whether it’s a focus on academic approach, spirituality, internships, or residency requirements. Rabbinical schools are also tackling the current rabbi shortage with rabbinical mentoring and synagogue internships. And, using strategies like curriculum changes, tuition reduction, online options, and para-rabbinic training, they are trying to reverse the current trend and attract candidates to serve the Jewish community as spiritual leaders, chaplains, social justice activists, educators, campus rabbis, and organizational professionals.

When Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, was ordained in 2002, her graduating class consisted of 25 students, including a few women. (The Rabbinical School did not admit openly gay students until 2007.) “The student population now much more reflects the diversity of the Jewish community. So communities can see themselves in their rabbinic leadership, which is very empowering because there is a space for them in their community,” she said.

Since assuming her position last summer, Cohen has conducted an extensive curriculum review, meeting with faculty, students, and other stakeholders to ensure that the curriculum reflects JTS and its expertise in classical Jewish text and learning, while also responding to contemporary needs. That includes integrating the in-house pastoral program with rabbinical studies and deepening the spiritual lives of students. Guest rabbis speak to students about their own spiritual lives and prayer practices so students can begin to experiment with different prayer modalities and mindfulness practices to deepen their skills as prayer leaders. Students also learn about the diversity and complexity of life in Israel during their year of study at the Schechter Institute and Conservative Yeshiva.

“We are living in a time where no one can anticipate being in one job for the entire arc of their professional life. We want our students to be prepared for different kinds of rabbinic work.” explained Cohen.

Eight of the 15 JTS rabbis ordained last year serve congregations, and most of this year’s graduates are seeking pulpit jobs. JTS rabbinical students also intern in a wide variety of settings, tapping into a broad network of rabbinic mentors. For example, fourth-year student Ilana Sandberg, who aspires to work with young adults, has interned at Brandeis University Hillel, Nativ (the Conservative movement’s gap year in Israel program), List College (the JTS undergraduate school), and the Orangetown Jewish Center.

There’s a sea change today in contemporary life including issues of gender, personal choice, hyperpartisanship, and reexamination of Judaism today, says Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Conservative Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which will ordain nine students this year (six students are in the 2022-23 entering class). “Rabbinical schools are the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “Having a rabbinical curriculum of 25 years ago no longer fits the real choices people are facing today.”

Last year, Artson decided to address the situation upfront, assembling a 16-member “blue ribbon” commission of American Jewish University leadership, staff, and alumni, as well as Rabbinical Assembly members. Based on their recommendations, he created a proposal that became a recalibrated rabbinical school program beginning in fall 2023. It will reflect Ziegler’s original goal of integrating spirit, mind, and heart with several key changes: Students will attend Ziegler for four rather than five years; the fourth year will be a paid residency, with practical work experience in various settings; annual tuition will be reduced from $30,000 to $7,000; and a 10- to 12-week intensive Israel experience will replace the full-year Israel program, given the extensive Israel experience of most entering rabbinical students.

“I had many sleepless nights thinking there was no way forward, but once we started the blue ribbon process, I am sleeping through the night,” said Artson, who has now received more serious inquiries from prospective students than since 1999. “We need to be open but also be true to our core, committed to text study, Halacha, and the wisdom of Jewish heritage. I am really excited about what the future is bringing because it is already coming.”

When Miriam Hoffman was applying to rabbinical school, she found Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion the right fit after visiting elsewhere. “HUC was so warm and exciting,” she said of the Reform seminary. “Strategically, I wanted a program to learn how to do practical rabbi things.” After ordination this spring, she will serve at Brandeis University Hillel, leveraging her USC Hillel internship experience and HUC pastoral care classes. “It’s been incredible how I have learned to help people and there has been a lot of invaluable learning, including how HUC builds community.”

“The rabbinate is changing in response to the changing needs of the American Jewish community … We are going through a moment of transformation,” said HUC-JIR President Andrew Rehfeld. “The future for us is to recognize that institutions and denominations change.” For instance, in 2023, HUC will ordain 30 rabbis on all three U.S. campuses (New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati), compared to 29 last year; in 2022-23, 14 students began rabbinical studies.

In spring 2022, HUC announced controversial plans to close the rabbinical program on its Cincinnati campus, a move that may further reduce the number of rabbinical students. The last incoming class in Cincinnati is the current second-year rabbinical class, which will be ordained in 2026, after which the residential rabbinical program will operate only in New York and Los Angeles.

In academic year 2024, Hebrew Union College will launch a “flexible residency pathway” targeted at prospective rabbinical and cantorial students (such as second-career professionals) who cannot relocate to HUC campuses in New York and Los Angeles. It will provide opportunities for online coursework, training in Union for Reform Judaism congregations in a range of communities, and periods of in-person cohort learning.

HUC also offers rabbinical students opportunities to learn new skills with supplementary courses and workshops, including teaching and leading worship online. This past January, 10 rabbinical students participated in a four-day program through One America, gaining the skills to navigate in a polarized society. Rabbinical students can also concurrently enroll in an M.A. or certificate program at HUC’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management to hone their entrepreneurial and management skills.

Despite these initiatives, legacy seminaries still face an uphill battle: Even with financial aid, many prospective students—often saddled with undergraduate debt—cannot afford a five-year, full-time program, with tuition and living expenses topping $60,000 annually in New York and LA.

Historically, JTS and HUC have offered strong academic programs combined with professional training, but the traditional rigid five-year curriculum may no longer fit. “There are now many more options for people to learn rabbinic skills and study Judaics in a serious way,” said Leonard Saxe, Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. “People want flexibility and control of their lives.”

As rabbinical schools look toward the future, they are innovating to address communal needs. For example, in fall 2023, the nondenominational Hebrew Seminary: A Rabbinical School for Deaf & Hearing will launch a two-year online para-rabbinic program that incorporates Torah study with ritual and pastoral training. “It will complement the rabbinic profession as it exists today,” said President and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Jonah Rank. “There are many Jews who want to serve as community leaders but can’t commit to five years in rabbinical school. There are also small communities within and outside the U.S. that can’t afford a rabbi but may wish to invest in a passionate lay leader who can serve as their spiritual leader after completing this program.”

While Jewish text study remains at the core of rabbinical education, spiritual formation, relationship-building, and “meaning-making” are also fundamental. “What difference does this wisdom, text, or practice make,” said Kula, “and what does the study of the text mean for the lives of real people? That needs to be the most important question today.”

Spiritual formation is a critical element in rabbinic education at Hebrew College, for which it recently received a three-year, $150,000 Covenant Foundation Signature Grant. “The basis of rabbinic leadership, as we see it at Hebrew College, is to be a spiritually alive Jew. Torah and need to be the language of your soul and animate your inner life. The reason that it is important is that if one is going to try to help other people find meaningful engagement with Jewish life, it has to be meaningful for you,” explained Rabbi Daniel Klein, dean of students at the pluralistic rabbinical school, which will ordain 14 rabbis this spring—and which recently announced that it would admit students in interfaith relationships, a move that the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced in 2015.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s “spiritual direction” program offers rabbinical students an opportunity to identify and appreciate the sacred in their lives, says Rabbi Melissa Heller, director of admissions and recruitment at RRC, which emphasizes deep learning, inclusivity, social and racial justice, and multifaith engagement. RRC will ordain six rabbis in 2023.

The Academy for Jewish Religion in New York has always flexibly accommodated second-career students like Nicole Goluboff, who began rabbinical school after 20 years practicing law. Its curriculum includes courses like science and Judaism, entrepreneurship and community, and difficult conversations. “Our curriculum is how we address the constantly evolving needs of the Jewish community,” said Ora Horn Prouser, CEO and academic dean of the pluralistic online institution.

The transdenominational Academy for Jewish Religion California also teaches full- and part-time students online. “The transdenominational Jewish element speaks to people’s hearts and exposes them to many lenses of Jewish life and practice,” said Rabbi Rochelle Robins, vice president and academic dean. (The school is not affiliated with AJR in New York.)

Meanwhile, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, founded by the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, offers four online ordination paths. Its approach to renewing Judaism derives from understanding paradigm shifts in the Jewish world, explains Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, professor of philosophy and Jewish thought and director of studies for the rabbinic program.

Rabbis ordained by these nondenominational seminaries serve congregations across the U.S. including Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism pulpits. That includes the majority of alumni of the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York; 40% of rabbinical alumni of Hebrew College, whose first class graduated in 2008; and, since 2003, approximately 80% of graduates of the Academy for Jewish Religion California.

In Judaism we need to be able to pivot and change, emphasizes Rabbi Shmuel Polin. As an HUC rabbinical student, he learned this lesson in an elective class— leading through innovation—taught by Glean Network.” During COVID lockdown, it inspired him to innovate and create the Opening the Ark Project—the reconstruction of a Polish-Lithuanian wooden ark destroyed during the Holocaust.

Today people seek meaning in their lives. “We live in a post-truth moment, in which the color of the sky is up for debate, let alone the meanings of life. Folks today are seeking—more than ever in my lifetime, at least—a handrail to grab onto as the world spins off its axis. And increasingly, they’re seeking out wisdom, traditions, and spiritual communities to serve that purpose,” explained Rabbi Elan Babchuck, executive vice president of Clal and founding director of Glean Network.

Rabbinical schools play an important role in training their students to address this need. Babchuck sums it up: “Rabbis today are faced with increasingly decentralized modes of Jewish practice and profoundly destabilized institutions from which they are expected to serve. This is neither the first nor the last time in Jewish history that these two trends have coincided, and each of the generations past that have navigated similar circumstances has found ways to breathe new life into our rituals, our liturgy, our practices, and our holidays.”

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.