On December 3, the Jewish Daily Forward published an article about alternatives to accredited rabbinical ordination. Some alternatives are at best dubious and at worst potentially harmful to communities that these rabbis serve. While accreditation can’t guarantee the religious and ethical qualities of a rabbinical graduate, it does make a powerful statement about the quality and qualifications of rabbis. But are the accredited seminaries putting themselves at risk with their current model of education?
Accredited rabbinical programs typically run between five and six years. That’s already on top of an accredited four-year undergraduate degree, an entrance requirement for rabbinical seminaries. Rabbinical students carry a heavy course load while in school and have a heavy debt load when they graduate, despite working a significant number of hours as students. In a contracting job market, with downward pressure on salaries, high-quality rabbinical schools may be financially freezing excellent future rabbis out of their programs.
This problem is not unique to rabbinical schools, as a recent New York Times story illustrates, although the Forward article doesn’t provide broader context. Developments like the Open Courseware Consortium, Coursera, and the UnCollege Movement foreshadow major changes that are likely to hit higher education as we know it–including accredited rabbinical education. And if future students decide that they want to be rabbis but can’t afford the time and money of rabbinical programs as currently structured that will be a real loss to the American Jewish community.
How do I know? Over the years, I’ve worked with students, graduates and faculty members from all of the accredited seminaries in various programs for rabbis and rabbinical students that I’ve helped to develop. And without exception, I’ve never worried about the quality of their education. Seminary leaders still have time to think about how to maintain the quality of their programs and rethink their structure and required full-time residential requirements. That’s why Hebrew College’s recently announced pilot four-year ordination program for advanced students is welcome news. Hopefully, it will start an overall conversation about rabbinical education in general.