Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, has just been published. Thanks to our essayists, it’s “#1 new release in Jewish life on Amazon!” I asked Rabbi Jason Miller to share his thoughts on the “entrepreneurial rabbinate.” Some rabbis who work in congregations and other Jewish organizations are clearly innovators, while others have stepped outside of the Jewish organizational world to innovate. Jason’s work keeps one of his feet firmly planted in Jewish world, and the other in the entrepreneurial world. Having a rabbi with a multifaceted rabbinate is a model that is worth exploring as a part of the ongoing conversation on 21st Century rabbinical education and leadership that I hope Keeping Faith in Rabbis will engender.
The Entrepreneurship Education Missing from Seminary Training
Rabbi Jason Miller
When my teacher and friend Rabbi Hayim Herring asked me to write about how well I think rabbinical programs prepare us rabbis for the rabbinate, I was both honored and flustered. Although I write blog posts and articles frequently with no hesitation, I put this task off for several months. Was it writer’s block? No. So why then have I struggled to flesh out my thoughts on what is missing from today’s seminary training of rabbinical students?
Throughout my ten years in the rabbinate I have seen myself as an entrepreneur and marketed myself as such (social media marketing is my niche). It is my strong belief that a successful rabbi (feel free to substitute rabbi with any other faith leader) in the 21st century is as much an entrepreneur as she is an educator, counselor or conduit to God. Today’s seminaries do not adequately train rabbis for a career of entrepreneurship. That’s my simple answer to Rabbi Herring’s question. Why then did I hesitate to simply sit down and articulate that thesis? My hesitation comes from the love and appreciation I have for my rabbinical training.
I recall being sent to a large Conservative synagogue during my first year in the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary to speak about the Seminary on behalf of the development department. I delivered a sermon on Shabbat morning extolling the Seminary and its many contributions to Jewish scholarship. I spoke about how the Seminary was training me well to be a successful 21st century rabbi (we were on the eve of the new century at the time). Walking back to the rabbi’s home following Shabbat services, the rabbi suddenly stopped walking and looked me in the eyes. He asked me if I really believed what I said about the Seminary preparing my colleagues and me for the future or if it was just some bullshit that the Seminary told me to say. When I explained that it was from the heart, he told me about his experience at the same institution some twenty years prior. He told me that he and his classmates called the institution “the Cemetery” because it was a spiritually dead place to be everyday. The rabbi told me that despite — not because of — his Seminary experience, he loves being a rabbi today.
That rabbi’s experience was certainly not shared by me. I am grateful for my Seminary education and the enjoyable experience I had at the Seminary (1998-2004). I learned a great deal from a talented cadre of professors who influenced me in very positive ways. I also met some wonderful people who have become lifelong friends. In short, I appreciated my rabbinical training while I was a Seminary student and I look back on those years with admiration and appreciation. That being said, it doesn’t mean that the Seminary taught its students everything it should have during my time as a student there.
A couple years ago the Jewish Daily Forward published an editorial demonstrating how much the American rabbinate has changed in the 21st century because the economy has made it difficult for many rabbis to find good jobs. The editorial argued that because of the economic downturn at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, rabbis — both young and old — were having to become entrepreneurial in their rabbinate. I would assert that rabbis have always had to be entrepreneurial. Even before the Digital Age when a rabbi can launch a blog and teach Torah to millions around the world, rabbis had to find new and innovative ways to engage. Today, the rabbi has to be even more entrepreneurial and it’s up to the seminaries to shift academic focus and teach more practical business courses.
Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University predicted that rabbis in the 21st century would have to become more entrepreneurial based on shifting demographics and the needs of the community. I don’t see this as a crisis in American Jewry, but rather the perfect opportunity for rabbis to become more entrepreneurial– both as a way to be relevant and to make a significant contribution to our people. Rabbis who see this as a chance to reinvent their rabbinate will ultimately be the most successful in the new era of Jewish life and rabbis who come out of their seminary training thinking like entrepreneurs will be ahead of the game. And that holds true not only for American rabbis, but for rabbis throughout the Jewish world who have the entrepreneurial spirit and the business world training.
There are several programs that work with ordained rabbis to give them practical business skills, but these are all offered several years following the formal training. If the curriculum of these programs (i.e., Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business, the American Jewish University, Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders, the former STAR Foundation’s PEER fellowship, etc.) were being taught during the early years of rabbinic training, these rabbis would not have to apply for these continuing educational programs once they were already in the field. They are essentially playing “catch up” in competency areas that are necessary from the first day on the job.
Talented rabbis are freelancing their skills more often today and founding new institutions and programs. As the number of Jewish families and singles unaffiliated with a congregation rises, there is an increased need for rabbis to perform life-cycle leadership roles. With the growth of the internet it has become easy for people to identify rabbis to officiate at a baby naming ceremony, wedding, funeral or unveiling. These rabbis must possess the entrepreneurial skills to run their own business. They cannot rely on a support staff at an institution to handle the daily operations. They are the CEO, CFO and COO of “Rabbi, Inc.” and if they cannot run their professional services operation like a business, they will sink despite their best efforts.
There is such a need for personal connections in the rabbinate and technology has made it easier for rabbis to extend their reach and influence to spiritual seekers and people in need no matter where they live. Today’s rabbi is more “project oriented” than “job based.” This means that rather than relying on the traditional synagogue job as her only source of income and responsibility, the 21st century rabbi has several projects.
Today’s rabbi, like any successful business leader, must be organizing, operating and assuming of the risk of his venture. It is not only young rabbis leading a startup initiative who must take a playbook out of the MBA training manual. All rabbis should feel a sense of the entrepreneurial spirit and have the tutelage to build their enterprise successfully. From the financial responsibilities to the marketing and communication, today’s rabbi must be trained in the critical skills of the successful entrepreneur.
Rav Kook famously wrote that we must “make the old new and the new holy.” In order for rabbis to put those wise words into action we must fuel the entrepreneurial fires of our holy projects. The curriculum of our rabbinical training institutions must evolve to include workshops, seminars and retreats focused on entrepreneurship. Business leaders must be retained to teach future rabbis about the essentials of building institutions — from startup synagogues and schools to community centers and camps — and running them successfully. Technology and digital communication must become a focus of rabbinic training. If rabbis only begin to explore the power of 21st century technology after ordination, it is far too late.
I am grateful for the education I received in rabbinical school, but that does not mean I can’t look back reflectively and point to certain aspects missing from that training. Today I’m proud to call myself an entrepreneurial rabbi. I also acknowledge that my entrepreneurial skills were developed and honed “post-production.” I know that the rabbinical schools today are in capable hands and being headed by forward thinking leaders who will ensure that entrepreneurship is part of the training.
Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneur, educator and writer. He first met Rabbi Hayim Herring through the STAR Foundation’s Synaplex program and was then mentored by Rabbi Herring as a participant in the STAR PEER fellowship. A social media expert, Rabbi Miller is a popular speaker and writer on technology and its effect on the Jewish world. He writes for Time Magazine, the Huffington Post and the monthly “Jews in the Digital Age” column for the Detroit Jewish News. He is the founder of TorahDaily.com, PopJewish.com, JewishTechs.com and CelebrateJewish.com. Rabbi Miller is the president of Access Computer Technology, a computer tech support, web design and social media marketing company in Michigan. He won the 2012 Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the West Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce and is a winner of the Jewish Influencer Award from the National Jewish Outreach Program.