Evolving Roles of Rabbis in History and Today

 In 2024, most Americans who know the term would define the term “rabbi” as the religious leader of a synagogue community. Indeed, non-pulpit rabbis (academic scholars, Jewish educators, Hillel directors, chaplains, pastoral counselors, spiritual directors and JCC directors) are sometimes viewed as not “real rabbis.” The implication is that you are not doing rabbinic work if you do not serve a congregation.

This is entirely wrong. Since the second century C.E., the term “rabbi” has been used to designate many different roles and functions. As an intro to the 50th anniversary of the RRA, this essay will explore the evolving roles of rabbis through Jew history and will focus on its Recon permutations.

If Reconstructionists understand Judaism to be the “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people,” then the rabbinate is the evolving religious leadership model of the Jewish people. That is to say that the term “rabbi” has been used to denote Jewish communal leaders since the second century C.E.,[1] but it has rarely meant the same thing in all the eras and locations Jews have found themselves since that time.

Nowhere is this more so than in the rapidly changing milieu of Jewish life in the United States.

Rabbis in America

The first confirmed[2] Jewish immigrants to North America arrived from Recife, Brazil, in 1654.[3] Although the earliest Jewish communities in the new world had informal leaders and employed hazzanim (cantors) to lead prayer services, the first ordained rabbi in America did not arrive until 1840, almost 200 years later. Rabbi Avraham Joseph Reiss (Rice) came with his wife, Rosalie Leucht, from Germany to serve the congregation in Newport, R.I., and in Baltimore. Educated in Europe and “dispatched” to the United States, Reiss served as the halakhic (Jewish legal) authority for the burgeoning Jewish community of the United States, gave sermons in German, sometimes led worship services and tried (often frustratingly) to cajole his flock into more traditional practices.

Rabbi Reiss was followed by many other European-educated rabbis who were dispatched to serve inchoate communities throughout the new world, bringing an “old world” authenticity into the brashness of American expansionism (think Gene Wilder as Rabbi Avram Belinski bumbling his way across America to serve the new community in San Fransisco in The Frisco Kid, 1979).[4] These early rabbis served as halakhic decision-makers, educators of children (boys), worship leaders and community gatherers. Though some most certainly made themselves available as pastoral resources to those they served or oversaw the administrative functioning of their communities, this was not their primary role or expectation.

In 1846, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise immigrated to the United States to bolster existing efforts to develop Reform Judaism in the United States. He helped create Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati to train and ordain American-born Reform rabbis, among many other institutions. Soon after, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was founded (1886) to train rabbis in a more traditional (Conservative) approach.

HUC (and its sister school in New York, the Jewish Institute for Religion) and JTS became the primary institutions ordaining non-Orthodox rabbis in the United States for most of the next century. To differing degrees, the training of rabbis in both institutions sought to combine traditional Jewish textual learning with training for the ministerial role they saw among their mainline Christian counterparts.

These first generations of American rabbis were intellectuals, whose primary responsibility was speaking, writing and inspiring Jews towards greater participation in American life. Many of the earliest liberal rabbis championed learning English and assimilation to succeed in America while maintaining Jewish traditions and observances at home and synagogue. They represented the Jewish community in religious and secular spaces, and built pathways toward assimilation while trying to adapt Jewish observance and practice to their new realities. Supported by a wife at home to care for the household and any children, they were men who took on the role of “symbolic exemplar,”[5] providing a moral and ethical role model for their “flock.”

Though each movement or denomination approached these tasks differently, the role of the rabbis they educated and sent out to serve congregations was similar: They led congregations; oversaw the education of their members; represented the community to the larger religious and secular worlds; and worked to maintain their institutions. Sometimes, there were rabbis whose primary focus was educating children and adults, academia or other service paths. Still, for the most part, non-Orthodox rabbis in America fulfilled the same roles and functions as the Lutheran Pastor or Presbyterian Minister who led nearby churches; they led synagogues.

As the Jewish community of the United States grew, most significantly from increased immigration from Central and Eastern Europe, the number of rabbis needed to serve these communities also grew. As Jews adapted and assimilated to their new home, eventually moving away from the cities and into the suburbs, their rabbis went with them. By the 1960s, the American rabbi was typically a suburban professional with primary responsibility for a congregation (with its own building), the education of the community’s youth, the life-cycle rituals of his members, administrative duties that come with running an institution, and community representation. In all cases, he was a man.

The rabbis of the Sixties: younger, politically active, and, eventually, female

In the 1960s, America experienced the birth of feminism, the civil rights movement, opposition to the Vietnam War and the empowerment of a younger generation. These and other influences created seismic shifts in American society, including for America’s Jews. These shifts would, eventually, radically change the nature of rabbinic work.

Inspired by the powerful role models of Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joachim Prinz — leaders in the civil rights movement who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and put their bodies on the line for a Jewish-informed vision of justice — many young Jews began to see Jewish practice, in general, and the rabbinate, in particular, as a path towards social justice work and activism. Influenced by the feminist movement and the influx of women into many fields of work previously forbidden, Jewish women started advocating for a pathway towards women’s ordination. Spurred on by their opposition to the Vietnam War and the clerical exemption to the draft, many young Jewish men looked for a legally viable pathway out of compulsory military service.

Reconstructionist rabbis are statistically over-represented in organizations that serve marginalized Jews.

In this environment, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, leading disciple and son-in-law of Reconstructionism’s founder Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, finally convinced his mentor to create a new institution for the training of rabbis.

Uniqueness of the RRC Curriculum

RRC opened its doors in 1968 on North Broad Street in Philadelphia, admitting its first group of students. Much of the RRC curriculum envisioned a new kind of rabbi for new kinds of communities. With an emphasis on “peoplehood” as a core organizing principle for Jewish life, RRC began educating rabbis to serve Jews wherever they are.

Three innovations in RRC’s program illustrate how these future rabbis would be educated.

First, based on Kaplan’s teaching that American Jews lived in two civilizations, rabbinical students were required to be enrolled in a doctoral program at nearby Temple University. This would ensure that students were educated not only in Jewish history, literature, practices and observances but also have a deep understanding of religious studies generally, and have access to the academic disciplines of history, sociology, educational theory, etc. This would help make them well-rounded and competent interpreters of both worldviews to each other. While this requirement only lasted for the first few years of the program, and RRC eventually became accredited and could offer master’s degrees to its students, the emphasis on an academic approach to studying Jewish civilization remains a cornerstone of the curriculum.

Secondly, the curriculum included a robust “Practical Rabbinics” programs, like pastoral care and life-cycle officiation. This set the stage for increased professionalization of the rabbinate. While other rabbinical training programs quickly followed suit, the practical rabbinic program at RRC remains one of the most extensive. It has continued to evolve to include things like Rabbi as Leader, Social Justice Training, Group Work, Clinical Pastoral Education and Supervision.

Thirdly, RRC was established as an egalitarian institution, admitting its first female student, Sandy Eisenberg (now Sasso), in its second class in 1969. Although Rabbi Sasso’s graduation occurred two years after Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained by HUC-JIR in New York in 1972, Rabbi Sasso was the first woman admitted to an American rabbinic training program with the full understanding and endorsement of the faculty that she would become a rabbi. This commitment to equality and inclusion has been a hallmark of RRC and remains a defining characteristic of the Reconstructionist rabbinate. RRC was the first rabbinical program to admit openly LGBTQ students (1985); the first to allow students partnered with non-Jews (2015); has integrated an anti-racist approach to its curriculum and recruitment methods; and has placed diversity of the rabbinate (as reflective of the diversity of the Jewish people) as a core principle in its program.

Diversity of Service of Reconstructionist Rabbis

Whether out of necessity (only a handful of identified Reconstructionist synagogues existed in the early years) or a commitment to a broader vision, RRC’s graduates have always been prepared for and opted to serve in more varied settings than the synagogue. Of the seven students who graduated with RRC’s second class in 1974, four became pulpit rabbis, two became educational leaders at day schools and one served as a rabbi on a major university campus. Given the Reconstructionist emphasis on seeing Judaism as a civilization, it makes sense that Reconstructionist rabbis saw themselves serving a broader set of needs and populations than those who regularly joined and attended synagogues. Mordecai Kaplan initiated the idea of Jewish Community Centers and advocated for an integrated model of Jewish community (the kehillah). It is not surprising that in taking his ideas to heart, Reconstructionist rabbis would seek to serve Jews in a myriad of ways wherever Jewish people gather at different stages of their lives.

This ratio set by the class of 1974 of slightly more than half the graduating rabbis serving in pulpit positions remained steady for the next three decades. In the early 2000s, the ratio flipped, and approximately 60% of RRA members now serve in various capacities across multiple settings other than as pulpit rabbis. (As of this writing, 30% of RRA members serve in pulpits. While they are more likely to serve in Reconstructionist-affiliated pulpits, close to half serve in unaffiliated, Reform-affiliated or Conservative-affiliated congregations. This is another illustration of the diversity and malleability of the Reconstructionist rabbinate)[6].

While this diversity of rabbinic careers has always been present among Reconstructionist rabbis, the locations and settings have expanded and changed dramatically.

In more recent decades, Reconstructionist rabbis are just as likely to be serving in a hospital chaplaincy department, in continuing care facilities, on college campuses, in Jewish community centers, at Jewish camps, in social service agencies, at social justice organizations, in labor unions and at nonprofit community organizations as they are in day schools, supplementary schools and pulpits, the more traditional institutions that hire rabbis.

Some of this is related, in part, to the changing politics and demographics of the United States. The breakdown of the extended family, increased mobility and the slow decline of social services and safety nets mean that more and more people need spiritual support without the deep ties that organic communities previously offered. In this context, it makes sense that there has been a rise of rabbinic professions like the geriatric rabbinate (those serving the elderly, often in residential facilities) or rabbinates that serve young adults in the years after college and before family formation. It is also the case that many organizations that are not typically identified as religious have begun to value the presence of someone on their staff with rabbinic skills, access to the traditions and teachings of Jewish civilization and a commitment to community process and inclusion. Mental-health organizations, addiction treatment centers, advocacy organizations, foundations and fundraising organizations have hired rabbis to round out their approach to serving their respective missions.

The growing diversity of the Jewish community (and the acknowledgment and welcome of that diversity) also created “niche” rabbinates. Starting in the 1990s, several Reconstructionist rabbis set out to explicitly serve the Jewish LGBTQ community either in LGBTQ-identified synagogues or through other community organizations. At the same time, rabbis started explicitly serving Jews in interfaith relationships or multi-faith households seeking access to the Jewish community. As of this writing, we are seeing a similar trajectory of rabbis serving Jews of color, trans and queer Jews; differently abled Jews; Jews who see themselves as non- or anti-Zionist; and Jews who, for whatever reason, experience themselves on the margins of the community and are seeking spiritual (and therefore) rabbinic support. Although service to these marginalized Jews is not unique to the Reconstructionist rabbinate, Reconstructionist rabbis are overrepresented in these organizations.

One of the major changes in recent years is the fluidity of these placements and the diversity of career trajectories. There was a time when rabbinical students were encouraged to think about their career plans early on and pursue internships and training opportunities in a particular direction. For example, in the 1990s, when Clinical Pastoral Education was becoming accessible to Jewish seminary students, only those intending to work in chaplaincy pursued those programs. Hillel internships were primarily filled by those who sought to spend their careers working on college campuses. At one point, RRC devised a track certificate program where students could emphasize the area of work for which they were preparing and receive a certificate.

However, as the nature of work changed in the general American community, with people changing jobs and careers more frequently, Reconstructionist rabbis followed suit. Today, a Reconstructionist rabbi might spend a third of their career on campus, another third in a pulpit and yet the final third in a nonprofit social justice organization. As concerns about geography, work-life balance, delayed child-rearing and changing economics became a driving force for Americans in general, those also became factors in decision-making for Reconstructionist rabbis. It is a minority of Reconstructionist rabbis who work in the same field, let alone hold the same position, as they did when they were first graduated.

As noted, Reconstructionist rabbis expanded the definition of rabbinic work, and it is still more true for RRA members than for our colleagues in other movements. However, that is changing as well. The CCAR (The Central Conference of American Rabbis, a Reform organization) and the RA (The Rabbinical Assembly, a Conservative organization)[7] report growing percentages of their members working in positions other than the pulpit rabbinate. This reality has increased opportunities for interactions between and among rabbis trained in different movements over long periods and cross-fertilization in different fields. It also means that many rabbis ordained at other institutions seek advice and support from their Reconstructionist colleagues (and the RRA).

In the past decade, the rabbinate has changed again in two primary directions. With the rise of the “gig” economy, coupled with a drop in synagogue and institutional affiliation among Jews, increasing numbers of rabbis engage in freelance, independent or “entrepreneurial” work. This work is so varied and distinctive that it is hard to quantify. Rabbis now use technology, including websites such as 18DoorsUnorthodox Celebrations and secular wedding sites, to publicize their availability for life-cycle officiation. Some teach classes online on different platforms and for different institutions; some offer pastoral care and spiritual direction to clients; some teach, facilitate and officiate at private b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. Several rabbis have created blogs or “sub stacks” to spread their thinking and writing, gaining followings without regard to geography or membership models. Some do all the above and more.

For many of these entrepreneurial rabbis, this work gives them the freedom and independence they found lacking in institutional work. For others, it is about a flexible schedule and the ability to say no. For some, especially in urban areas with a high density of rabbis, it’s what’s available. Although several Reconstructionist rabbis have built healthy and rewarding careers in the entrepreneurial world, selling one’s services constantly in an increasingly crowded market is also time-consuming. The lack of job security and benefits can be challenging.

The second direction for recent rabbinic growth is that of the social justice rabbi. With increasing social divisions and rising anxiety about the American future, many Americans have sought to influence policy and progress by creating social justice and advocacy organizations. This is reflected in the Jewish community by the advent of such organizations as Bend the Arc, T’ruah, American Jewish World Service, Jews United for Justice and many more. Most of these organizations seek to ground themselves in Jewish values and language, and look to rabbis to help them with that work. For example, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish community’s leading voice on reproductive freedom, and the American Jewish World Service have added rabbinic positions to their senior leadership in recent years.

The Rabbinate Today

The demand for rabbis, particularly those in the pulpit, has expanded exponentially in recent years. Rabbis are often expected to not only be the spiritual and worship leaders of their communities, but they are also likely to provide adult (and sometimes youth) education, attend to the growing pastoral needs of their congregants, run their organizations as administrators, fundraise, represent the community externally, worry about safety and security measures, and balance the diverse and often contentious politics of their communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic and societal upheaval we are now experiencing is taking its toll. Like other professionals who serve the public (teachers, medical professionals, etc.), rabbis have had to repeatedly “pivot” in response to changing realities. In March 2020, rabbis had to shift overnight into the untested world of online services and “rabbi’ing.” At the beginning of the shutdown, rabbis, particularly those who served congregations and on campuses, reported a sense of being appreciated at greater levels. Service attendance (now online) increased dramatically, and there was a massive outpouring of creativity and experimentation in how rabbis “delivered” their services. As one colleague quipped, “COVID made rabbis into a growth industry.”[8]

Rabbis who served as chaplains or worked in the health-care industry were devastated; they were often the only ones who could visit the sick in hospitals (which was a frightening endeavor in those first few months), and they experienced many of the losses of the pandemic firsthand. Like nurses and doctors, chaplains reported higher levels of mental health concerns, burnout and fear.

In 2023, the RRA received more reports of rabbinic burnout and requests for mental-health support than ever before.

As the initial panic of the shutdown waned and the world entered a “new normal,” the early graciousness and appreciation for rabbis adapting to new technology evaporated. People became tired of online services and faded away. Arguments within communities over COVID policies became more frequent. There were growing demands and expectations on rabbis to serve the significantly more diverse needs of a wounded and traumatized population. Many pulpit rabbis have since left those positions (or the rabbinate altogether). In 2022, rumors of a coming rabbi shortage began surfacing, particularly in other movements. Although the Reconstructionist rabbinate (and the movement writ large) has not experienced this shortage directly, the anxiety is fully present.

The ongoing constriction of Jewish institutional budgets, which started before but became accelerated by the pandemic, has meant that many rabbinic jobs have gotten smaller — moving from full-time to part-time or disappearing altogether. The United States’ inability to provide health insurance for its population has created an enormous expense for the organizations that hire rabbis, leading to financial anxiety for rabbis themselves.

All of this is creating an inflection moment in Jewish leadership. While the Reconstructionist movement is not experiencing the “rabbi shortage”[9] of other movements, significant shifts are happening. Denominational loyalty no longer exists as it used to, and the proliferation of non-denominational rabbinical training programs means that there is greater competition for many rabbis. In 2023, the RRA received more reports of rabbinic burnout and overwhelm and requests for mental-health support than ever before.

However, it is not all hopeless. The creative and out-of-the-box thinking of the Reconstructionist approach and rabbinical training are giving rise to new models of shared leadership, creative use of technology and the online world, and new ways for people anywhere to connect to Jewish resources and rabbis.

The ongoing constriction of Jewish institutional budgets, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has meant that many rabbinic jobs have gotten smaller — moving from full-time to part-time or disappearing all together.

Several RRA members have experimented with partnership rabbinates where two rabbis hold one pulpit equally.[10] This differs from the traditional model of a senior rabbi who may oversee an assistant or associate rabbi. In this model, the rabbis are equal partners, working towards their strengths. These partnerships may also include cantors, pastoral care providers, social workers and other professionals whose training gives them skills to engage in pieces of rabbinic work. More synagogues recognize the need to provide additional professional support to their members, relieving some of the burden on the lone individual rabbi.

Reconstructionist rabbis are present in the online world of social media in new and exciting ways.[11] And as new forms of communal gathering emerge, Reconstructionist rabbis will surely be present and contributing to those endeavors.

As the American community comes out of the pandemic years, we are beginning to recognize that the need for spiritual resources among Jews (and the fellow travelers who join them) is as great, if not greater than ever. Anxiety about an uncertain future, political divisions, the pandemic of loneliness and the unchecked influence of technology in our lives suggest that people seek to connect to spiritual resources to provide meaning and comfort. Although traditional delivery methods of those resources such as synagogues, campus Hillels, Hebrew schools, etc., may diminish, other delivery methods — through the Internet, outside of organizations and affiliations, and in other novel ways — are emerging. We may see the rise of spiritual care providers (including rabbis) in corporate and business settings alongside yoga and mindfulness instructors. Rabbis and other spiritual caregivers may become more integrated into health-care settings. And, as Americans continue towards a fluidity of religious identity and spiritual practices, we may see more rabbis serving in interfaith or multifaith settings. Whatever the changes on the horizon, the Reconstructionist rabbinate is evolving again, just as the American Jewish world needs it to.


[1] Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (135–217 C.E.) is the first teacher in the Mishnah to be identified by the term “rabbi” (Pirkei Avot 2:1).

[2] There may have been conversos or hidden Jews among the sailors who left Spain with Columbus in 1492, but that theory remains unproven.

[3] The first Jews to arrive in North America came from Recife, Brazil in 1654 after the Dutch colony was reconquered by Portugal. Under the influence of the Portuguese Inquisition, the Jews were forced to leave their original settlement in the new world.

[4] The Frisco Kid, 1970 starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford

[5] See Jack H. Bloom, The Rabbi As Symbolic Exemplar (2002).

[6] Source: RRA Salesforce database report “Members by employment type.”

[7] Information gathered from conversations with my peers in each organization. Rabbi Hara Person at the CCAR reports that 30% of Reform rabbis serve outside of pulpits, a far greater figure than in previous decades. Rabbi Sheryl Katzman at the RA confirms this anecdotally for the Conservative movement as well.

[8] Rabbi Toba Spitzer

[9] There were many articles reporting this shortage in the spring of 2023. One example can be found here.

[10] See for example, the model pioneered by Rabbis Linda Potemken and Nathan Martin at Congregation Beth Israel, in Media, Pa.

[11] Rabbi Sandra Lawson is an example whose rabbinate is primarily online.

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