This post is personal because it concerns my family – not my genetic family, but my spiritual family. I’m referring to congregational rabbis (although I also feel that anyone who serves the Jewish community in a professional capacity is a part of my family). While some colleagues remain secure in their jobs, many are feeling anxiety about their future. They watch others who have had their positions eliminated or reduced. And a good number of rabbis, from what I’m hearing, are unsure about what to do to create a more secure congregation, or to prepare for a future in which there might not be one available for them. People who study for congregational life feel called by God. If they can’t serve a congregation, how can they fulfill a calling which possesses them?
I empathize with my colleagues because I have been through a number of professional transitions. In some of them I have felt a greater sense of calling, in others less so. I understand the feeling and perception that only a congregational setting allows for that kind of ongoing intensity of Divine purpose. In addition, schools and other Jewish institutions where rabbis have traditionally found employment are experiencing similar downsizing, leaving congregational rabbis with even fewer options.
I’ll be participating soon in a program where this issue will be explored. Clearly, congregations are not going to disappear. But the congregational rabbinate is experiencing the same kind of structural change that most industries and professions are feeling. So I am turning to you for ideas about how rabbinic colleagues can prepare for a future which may hold part-time congregational work, rabbinic work outside of the congregation, or a job in the for-profit or general non-profit sector.
Rabbinical training is a precious experience, taking between five and six years. While rabbis don’t seek congregations for financial reasons, they still have financial obligations which they must meet: repayment of academic loans, the cost of day schools and Jewish camps, giving tzedakah… and the list goes on. Rabbinical education is a tremendous resource for the Jewish community as no other kind of education offers similar depth and breath. In this time of tectonic shifts in the Jewish world, we have to make sure we have enough rabbis to provide guidance and leadership based on the legacy of our tradition, but they also have to know that they have a reasonable chance to find employment.
So what advice can you offer rabbis who dreamed of serving in the congregational world for their entire lives, but now find themselves in a profession which is undergoing a profound transition? Do you have personal experience to share? This is definitely a question that requires our collective wisdom!
Thank you for your help.
Rabbi Hayim Herring