The Professionalization of the Rabbinate

When I was a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in the 1970s, there was a great emphasis on making sure that as a rabbi, your contract should include a full day off each week. That was an early step in transforming the congregational rabbinate into a profession.

Paid congregational rabbis had been a known phenomenon for 150 years by then, but in earlier days, the rabbinic calling was understood more as a vocation than as a profession, more a call to a religious life than a paid occupation requiring prolonged formal training and certification.

The drive towards rabbinic professionalization occurred at the same time as a surge, beginning in the middle of the 20th century, in secular Jewish educational achievement. Jews were ever more heavily employed as professionals: lawyers, physicians, therapists and professors.

Professionalization for rabbis not only meant gradually improving compensation and working conditions. In the latter decades of the century, it also meant that congregations became increasingly concerned that their rabbis possessed qualifications suitable for teaching, pastoral care, organizational leadership, ritual and life-cycle officiation, and so on. No longer was it sufficient to be a pious talmid hakham, a “master of traditional texts.”

When the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was founded in 1968, its stated mission was to educate rabbis to serve in all of the contexts in which Jewish people required rabbinic service, and not only in synagogues. So from the outset, there was a nominal Practical Rabbinics class, and that program developed through the 1980s into a model that influenced other schools.

But during my student years in the 1970s, no one ever taught me how to conduct a funeral. I figured it out when I had to. That would be inconceivable for current graduates of most rabbinic seminaries.

As Jews increasingly moved into the middle- and upper-middle classes, their expectations for quality rose as well. The majority lived in nicer homes, drove newer cars, availed themselves of professional services as needed and came to expect ever higher quality in every aspect of their lives. (Of course, there remain significant numbers of working-class Jews, and there is considerable poverty among immigrants, the elderly and the ultra-Orthodox.) Jews’ expectations of their synagogues rose as well. The congregational bulletin went from a smeary mimeographed monthly to neat printing to better designed electronic weeklies. Buildings came to be better maintained. Parents increased their expectations of religious schools. Rabbis were expected to be available for more professionalized service. As expectations multiplied, the job of the rabbi became more challenging.

We inhabit a world characterized by elevated levels of anxiety and alienation. Rabbis are often a source of spiritual comfort. Of course, that depends upon their maintaining and deepening their spiritual depth and clarity. Spiritual direction, the practice of meditation and other spiritual practices are useful modalities for rabbis and their congregants that were not available in the Jewish community 50 years ago. Effective rabbis play a major role in opening the world of spirituality and holiness to others. This is yet another area that requires rabbinic attention and training.

Unlike other professionals, rabbis are overseen by congregational boards composed of the people they serve.

One particularly challenging area of change involves governance. As expectations of quality rose and rabbis moved more fully into the role of chief professional officers of their congregations, they have needed to have skills as supervisors, budgeters and policymakers. They need to consult with committees and to guide their boards. Their patience, persuasive skills and increasing amounts of their time are required for behind-the-scenes conversations that keep organizational politics and decision making running smoothly.

These days, people are less likely to unquestioningly follow the dictates of their doctors, lawyers and other professionals — professional pedestals are lower. That is true for rabbis as well, but that is more challenging for rabbis than for most professionals because rabbis are overseen by congregational boards composed of the people whom they serve in a way that other professionals are not. Critiques of rabbis have become more diverse as the elevated expectations of diverse skills and talents have continued to expand. The essential elements of a job description for contemporary rabbis have multiplied and grown more complex.

Today, younger generations of professionals have become more concerned with work-life balance. They want more time with family and friends. They also seek more time for exercise, hobbies and other personal pursuits.

That has affected the rabbinate as well. Rabbis now regularly expect two days off a week; several weeknights when they can be home with their families or out with their friends; longer vacations; and increasingly, some Shabbats when they can be away from their congregations.

Another major change is that several generations ago, tuition at rabbinic seminaries was either very low or entirely free. As tuition has risen, the debt loads of new graduates have risen steeply as well. It is common for rabbinical students to leave school with $100,000 or more in debt. That adds to the challenge of making ends meet, to say nothing of purchasing a home. Managing finances has become another major source of stress for rabbis, who would expect to have lifestyles parallel to those of their upper-middle-class congregants.

In the 1980s, the RRC program in Practical Rabbinics developed into a model that influenced other schools.

The world is changing faster and faster. The Jewish community is changing with it, and part of the task of rabbis is now to help their organizations and programs adapt to these changing conditions. That requires a steady flow of fresh ideas and insights. Ongoing professional development has become a key aspect of a successful rabbinate.

Another major change has been the development of much more comprehensive ethics codes for rabbis, again parallel to developments in such fields as social work and law. Enforcement of these codes has gradually improved over the years. Concern with ethics goes beyond the area of professional rabbinic conduct. Rabbis are often sought for advice on such issues as bioethics, interpersonal ethics and, most recently, ethics of the Internet and the rapidly developing field of artificial intelligence. This, too, is an area where ongoing professional development has a significant role to play.

The last few years have been particularly hard for rabbis. COVID-19 meant developing new protocols and doing most things via Zoom or Livestream, which means little energetic feedback for service leaders and teachers. After a brief period of normality, rabbis, like other North American Jews, were traumatized by the devastating Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, and they have been supporting their divided and deeply upset congregants ever since. Burnout is a problem for rabbis on a scale that has not occurred before in my lifetime.

While some of the pressures described above are unique to the congregational rabbinate, chaplains and Hillel rabbis face many of the same challenges, and their fields have undergone parallel professionalization. Demands for excellence have driven those fields as well.

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