Member Poaching Item 1: Rabbinical Roles

So, here’s the first post in the promised series. (I’ve always wanted to say “First Post!” So here it is. 🙂 )

Some months back, I read an article in The Forward titled Online-Ordained Rabbis Grab Pulpits, that discussed non-traditional alternatives for obtaining rabbinical ordination. I had previously considered rabbinical school shortly after graduating college, but didn’t follow through on it for a variety of reasons.

Traditional rabbinical education, as the article in The Forward lays out, is very expensive: four years of college, plus between four and six years of full-time academic + pastoral care education, frequently amounting to at least a master’s degree-level graduate education and then some. As one of the rabbis in the article describes it, he has a $100,000 wall of diplomas.

And wow, is that a problem. Why?

The article that gave rise to this series (see Series alert: member poaching and pay-as-you-go synagogues) details the response of a Long Island Jewish community structure to start-up synagogues, at least one of which has a part-time rabbinical model. That allows for lower dues and pay-as-you-go “services.” That’s a threat to many established Jewish organizations.

It seems to me that it shouldn’t be, if the organizations have the best interests of their constituents–individual Jews–at heart. Not everyone wants or will be well-served by the traditional, $2000-or-so-per-year membership model, and many are driven away by that model. But the model sustains and justifies the long, expensive version of rabbinical education, because the education isn’t affordable for many students unless the salaries at the end are great enough to pay the student loan bills.

It seems to me, and probably many others, that one of the ways to pull apart the dependency of the institutions is to reduce the cost of creating Jewish clergy who, for better or worse in the modern world, are rabbis.

And we can probably do a lot to reduce the cost of the education if we recognize what “rabbi” means for those outside the world of “Orthodox” Judaism.

Certainly, a rabbi is a teacher in most Jewish contexts, traditional or otherwise. And in congregational and other settings (chaplaincy, educational, and likely even administrative), a rabbi is an advisor. But for those who are not “Orthodox,” a rabbi is rarely a halakhic advisor, and is certainly not a halakhic advisor on the level that “Orthodox” Jews require.

So why require the same training? Yet that level of training is often what traditional denominational programs (even Reform seminaries) create, or come very close to. Certainly we need rabbis trained in traditional texts to some degree and in the breadth of Jewish history and thought; but do we need poskim? I’m not sure.

And thinking about the history of rabbis, I’m not sure the part-time model with a less expensive education is actually completely outside the mainstream. Full-time Jewish clergy are a modern, Western invention, and the educational institutions for rabbis match that model. Perhaps it shouldn’t anymore–or perhaps we should at least recognize distinctions.

It’s in this context that the occurrences on Long Island most concern me. The response of the broader Jewish community to the start-up synagogues fails to recognize that we may need more models, and more ways of getting there, to sustain the Jewish community and create environments that don’t only make available, but make attractive, retaining Jewish identity in the ways each Jew is most comfortable doing so.

The Jewish Week’s story about a specific community’s reaction to new models may show that we’ve got a long way to go if communal organizations attempt to stand against those new models; and that’s the tail wagging the dog.

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