Can Rabbinical Schools Teach Entrepreneurial Leadership?

Posted on: December 8th, 2014 by Hayim Herring



The purpose of editing my most recent book, Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, was to spark discussion around significant issues on rabbinical education and leadership. I’d like to thank my colleagues, Rabbi Jason Miller and Rabbi Danny Nevins, Dean, JTS Division of Religious Leadership, for their debate around entrepreneurship and rabbinical education. Thousands of people have viewed this dialogue and I want to encourage them to also share their opinions here.  This is not just an issue that relates to one particular rabbinical program, but to the nature of 21st-century rabbinical education.


Now to the question: can rabbinical schools teach entrepreneurship in their curriculum? Rabbinical programs that are structured for 5-6 years are unlikely to be able to produce rabbinical entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is not the same as innovation. Innovation requires creativity but unlike entrepreneurship does not address issues like tolerance for risk, organizational agility, improvisational ability and speed. In fact, as stewards of a tradition, most rabbis are better wired for adaptation and evolution and not entrepreneurship. Rabbinical schools can teach about entrepreneurship, but not everyone is wired as an entrepreneur, and that’s why it’s simply not a realistic goal to expect that one course, or one fellowship will turn rabbinical students into entrepreneurs. However, is it worthwhile to expose students to these kinds of programs? My answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Even if you’re not wired to be entrepreneurial, and even if schools can’t turn students into entrepreneurs, it’s still a topic that they should know about because it’s a part of our zeitgeist and rabbis will interact with entrepreneurs regularly.


Entrepreneurship is a disposition. It’s a way of looking at the world that enables you to see opportunities that don’t exist but can. It involves upsetting the way things are done. There are some principles involved that can help you become better and more successful at it, but there’s nothing better than a good seasoned serial entrepreneur who has failed and succeeded repeatedly to help you determine if you’re really an entrepreneur and support you along the way to becoming one.


I applaud those schools that have created fellowships for rabbinical students to be exposed to entrepreneurial thinking and practice. I would also recommend that any school offering or thinking of offering such fellowships use people from the business, arts and entertainment worlds who are empathetic and knowledgeable about Jewish community to serve as mentors, along with veteran rabbis and seasoned Jewish professionals. Continuing rabbinical education is really the arena to focus more on these experiences, after rabbis learn more about themselves and their ability to see the possible and learn about how much risk and tension they are able to tolerate and help their communities hold. I also think that if we drew more heavily upon the talent that we have in our volunteer community, we could increase the number of true rabbinical entrepreneurs. But not everyone has this kind of temperament, and while we need more fearless entrepreneurs, we still need people who will help serve as breaks to accelerators of change that don’t always lead us to places that we intend.


I hope these comments will continue to spark some fruitful discussion within the Academy, among providers of continuing rabbinical education, and also in the broader Jewish community. We all have a stake in this discussion.


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