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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Where Have All the Rabbis Gone?
Remarks to the UAHC Board of Trustees
Toronto, ONT Canada -- June 6, 1999

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President

Where have all the rabbis gone? And the cantors? And the Jewish educators?

Over the past year, our movement has gradually become aware of the serious shortage of Jewish professionals, whose spiritual leadership is the very foundation of Reform congregational life.

A number of large congregations did not fill their assistant rabbi positions this year, and our smaller congregations are increasingly unable to find any rabbis at all. In addition, cantors and Jewish educators are desperately needed in every part of North America.

A variety of explanations has been put forth to explain these shortages. Some say there is a natural ebb and flow to College-Institute applications and that we may simply be at a low point in the cycle. Perhaps. But there is also evidence that other forces are at work.

In the first place, we are victims of our own success. Ours is a growing movement. We admit new congregations at every board meeting, and many of them are ready for their first rabbi a year later. Also, large congregations with two rabbis are adding a third, and those with three are adding a fourth. A recent Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) survey indicated that congregations now belonging to the Union expect to create 150 new rabbinical positions in the next decade.

The same is true for the other Jewish professions. Synagogues once content to have retired public school teachers run their religious schools now demand professionally-trained Jewish educators. And many congregations now looking for cantors would never have considered such a possibility ten years ago.

The presence of women students is a factor as well. Admitting women has been a blessing in every way and has doubled the pool from which we draw candidates for the College-Institute. But it is inevitable that women students and men students will decide to marry each other, with the result often being that only one spouse can choose a congregational position.

How serious a problem are the shortages that we face? Exceedingly serious, it seems to me. Some of you have heard from congregations which have been affected, and you know the depth of their discontent. We are aware that if we do not provide the professionals our synagogues require, others will. The result will be that unqualified rabbis, educators, and cantors will be assuming congregational positions in our movement, and even if their educational background is adequate, they will come with no commitment to the values and the institutions of Reform Judaism.

We all know of rabbis educated at other seminaries who have taken pulpits in Reform synagogues, only to lead those congregations out of the movement in a year's time.

Reform synagogues want Jewish professionals who are trained in the philosophy and practice of Reform Judaism, and we must do everything in our power to respond to their wishes.

What, then, must we do?

Let me begin with what we must not do: We must not point the finger of blame at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. From his first day in office, it has been Rabbi Zimmerman, the president of HUC-JIR, who has sounded the alarm about this issue. More than any other person, he is the one who has consistently urged us to put this matter at the top of our agenda. And while there are actions the College-Institute must take, it is surely the case that our congregations and rabbis are no less important with regard to this issue than is our seminary. Our synagogues are the fertile ground in which interest in the rabbinate takes root, and our rabbis, cantors, and educators provide the inspiration which draws our young people into the Jewish professions. It is absurd to assume that the College-Institute can do this work alone. In any case, finger-pointing will not help us. If our congregations do not have the professionals they need, they will hold us all responsible -- and appropriately so.

Some actions, it should be noted, have already been taken.

The most significant source of Jewish professionals for our movement is the UAHC camping system. Therefore, the decision of this board to double the capacity of our camps in the next decade should produce many more rabbis, cantors, and educators. Our decision made in Memphis to improve and expand our youth movement should lead to a similar result.

Also important is the decision of the HUC-JIR Board of Governors to begin a full rabbinic program at its Los Angeles campus, to permit ordination there. As some of you know, two new rabbinical seminaries have recently been established in Los Angeles. Had we not expanded our program, many of our students would have been lost to those other institutions.

Still, we all agree that much more needs to be done. And I emphasize that the College-Institute and the CCAR share our deep concern about this matter. Therefore, the Reform Leadership Council has scheduled a meeting in July to begin the process of drawing up a movement-wide strategy. The UAHC will be represented by its top lay and professional leadership, and the results of the meeting will be shared with this board in the fall.

What will be discussed? I cannot speak for others, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I have had on this subject.

It is, of course, obvious that the College-Institute will need to engage in far more vigorous recruiting than it has before. We can no longer be confident that students will come knocking on our door; we must actively seek them out. This is true for all of our professional schools and is particularly true for the cantorial school, which has done little recruiting in the past.

In addition, special attention must be paid to those who decide later in life to consider the rabbinate. There is an increasing number of such individuals, but if we are to attract them to HUC-JIR, we will need to provide flexibility in our program. Perhaps we will have to offer summer sessions to shorten the course of study. Also, as devoted as I am to the year in Israel program, perhaps it is simply unrealistic to expect a mother or father with school-age children who decides to enter the rabbinate at age forty to pick up and go abroad for a year. Perhaps two summers of Hebrew study in Jerusalem could be an alternative.

I would also argue that the same logic which mandates a rabbinical program in Los Angeles mandates an education program in New York. With educators in such short supply, I don't believe that we can afford not to have an education school in the largest center of Jewish life in North America. And I would suggest that we consider two years and three summers as a possible alternative to what is now a three-year master's program in education.

It goes without saying that we must maintain our standards at all costs. If we provide more rabbis, cantors, and educators but they are unqualified, we are simply trading one problem for another. Still, I am proposing that we think in new ways; that in an era of new technology and long-distance learning, we cannot be constrained by models of the past; and that if we do not approach these issues creatively, we can be certain that others will fill the vacuum that now exists.

And what must our congregations do?

As I've indicated, Union camps are our most important training ground, and camp attendance is not a matter of happenstance. Synagogues that vigorously recruit for camp and provide appropriate scholarship help produce many more campers than those that do not. Wonderful benefits accrue to such synagogues and their children, but surely an added benefit will be an increase in the number of young people who will choose to be rabbis, cantors, and educators.

Another factor -- less discussed but no less critical -- is the expectations that our congregations have created for their rabbis. These expectations are high, and they should be. Our synagogues expect their rabbis to work diligently, to study and teach Torah, to be religious role models, and to possess managerial skills necessary for today's workplace. Most of our rabbis do exceedingly well in meeting these expectations. We live in a difficult, competitive, fast-paced world. We all work hard, and there is no reason why our rabbis should be an exception. But we need to be totally honest: Far too often, particularly in our larger congregations, we don't just expect hard work. We also expect our rabbis to be twenty-four-hours-a-day people, available every night and every weekend until the day they retire. We expect them to preach the virtues of Jewish family life but never to spend time with their own families. We expect them to make personal sacrifices that even the most hardworking among us would never contemplate making. We may deny it, but it's true: Many young people immersed in Jewish life consider the rabbinate, because of all its satisfactions, but then turn away because it exacts too high a psychic and spiritual price.

There are ways to provide the rabbi with the protection that he or she requires to have a personal life and at the same time insure that congregational needs are met. Synagogues and rabbis must start working on these issues together.

And what of the rabbis, and the cantors, and the educators? Are they doing enough to raise up disciples? Do they search out young people who might have an interest in their profession and then meet with them regularly? Do they ask the question: "Have you thought about being a rabbi, a cantor, or an educator?"

I believe that young people with an interest in Jewish life must be identified in their senior year of high school; that their rabbi and cantor must keep in touch with them during their college years and that HUC-JIR and the Union's College Department must also be in regular contact with them, sending them e-mail and inviting them to attend conventions and retreats.

And there are other ways as well. Retired rabbis should be encouraged by the CCAR and the entire movement to provide part-time service to congregations unable to fill full-time positions. And the Union must do all that it can, in this way and others, to assist congregations which temporarily lack the personnel they need.

These ideas are not fully formed and are far from exhaustive. We all know that there are no quick fixes to the dilemma we face. We know, too, that each of our institutions is independent and responsible for its own destiny.

But again, we are in this together. The July meeting is a place to start, and start we must. My greatest fear is that we will dither and fall victim to bureaucratic inertia -- that we will set up endless committees to study the situation and then decide to study it some more.

That would be a terrible lapse of judgment. Our ability to provide congregations with the professional leadership they need has been the glue that holds this movement together. Our Union was created a century and a quarter ago precisely for the purpose of providing our synagogues with the spiritual leadership they required. Our lay leaders knew then and know now that their role is essential and that there is a true partnership in the movement between rabbis and lay leaders. But they know, too, that the rabbinic voice, and the cantorial voice and the educator's voice provide the synagogue with its inner pulse and power and light our Jewish lives with the flame of faith.

There are no disagreements here. We face a potential crisis. The College-Institute agrees, the CCAR agrees, and so do our other affiliates and professional bodies. Therefore I am fully confident that we will unite our energies, embrace the concerns of our congregations, and provide them with the leaders they require to preserve and transmit the message of Reform Judaism.


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