Local rabbis wrestle with proposed changes for new clergy
Pulpits and PewsRabbis and the future of American Judaism

Local rabbis wrestle with proposed changes for new clergy

Questions about educational requirements and Jewish partners leave spiritual leaders seeking greater dialogue about Jewish future

(Photo by coldsnowstorm/ E+/ Getty Images Plus)
(Photo by coldsnowstorm/ E+/ Getty Images Plus)

On Jan. 31, Hebrew College in Boston (non-denominational) determined it would “no longer consider marriage to a non-Jewish spouse an impediment to admission or ordination in its rabbinical program.”

Weeks earlier, the (Conservative) Ziegler Rabbinical Program announced it was shifting from a curriculum typically lasting five or six years to one requiring three years of in-house study followed by a year of residency and online learning. Additionally, the year-long mandated study in Israel is being replaced by a 10-12-week summer visit.

Rabbi Arthur Green, former rector of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, in a column first appearing in The Times of Israel, then the Chronicle, lamented that the seminaries were “giving in to assimilation….reducing of the standards of Jewish difference from the general American population.”

Green’s comments generated conversation online as to the rabbinate’s role within non-Orthodox Jewish life. Likewise, Pittsburgh’s spiritual leaders responded to the article and its concerns about professional responsibilities and the future of the American Jewish landscape.

“I'm not surprised by the piece, but I'm saddened by it,” said Rabbi Daniel Fellman, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. “Rabbis act as symbolic exemplars, dugmah in Hebrew.

“I think that for us as rabbis, we have a responsibility to model the Jewish family as best we can,” he continued. “And I think we do that best when we're married to Jews and we're raising Jewish children. While I'll happily officiate an intermarriage, I think there's a line there. And I think that rabbis being married to Jews is an important symbolic piece.”

Fellman said he’s worried about rabbinic schools lessening their requirements.

“I didn't love being in school for all those years — don't get me wrong — but I think there was something really important about being in school all those years,” he said.

“I think it taught me to think like a rabbi. It taught me to wrestle with text. It taught me the centrality of texts to the Jewish enterprise. To focus only on the professional skills and not on the text, I think loses something. It loses a piece of our tradition.”

Rabbi Aaron Meyer, senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, said he “absolutely” agrees with Green that the trends identified “are notable and should be of interest to the Jewish world.

Though I'm less certain that they are reflective of assimilation and more represent efforts towards representation.”

Among non-Orthodox Jews who have married since 2010, 72% have intermarried. The Pew Research Center found that Jews who have a Jewish spouse are far more likely than those who are intermarried to say they are raising their children as Jewish by religion. Still, Pew reported that “it appears that the offspring of intermarriages have become increasingly likely to identify as Jewish in adulthood.”

Interfaith marriage “hasn’t been the catastrophe that we first feared,” Meyer said. “The answer to the concern of ‘But will their children be Jewish?’ has so far been overwhelmingly ‘Yes.’ And while we can debate whether that is a good thing or a bad thing for the Jewish future, it makes sense to me that rabbis, cantors, educators, Jewish communal professionals, should be a part of and represent the communities that they are engaged to lead.”

Meyer cautioned against equating changes to educational policies with the larger community’s waning desire for knowledgeable leaders.

“I think that congregations are lowering their standards for rabbinic education, not because they don't believe it to be important, but in an effort to save money,” he said. “I wish that pressure being placed on seminaries forced collaboration and shared efforts, rather than diminish the years of education.”

Meyer said the moment calls for Diaspora Jews to consider the days ahead: “I think the Pittsburgh Jewish community and synagogues within the community should continue to think about the future and the type of leaders they need going forward to bring about their vision of the Jewish future. For some, these changes may reflect what they're hoping to see either ideologically or financially. For others, this will be a cause of concern.”

Jewish wedding. Photo by Parekh Cards via Flickr at www.flickr.com/photos/125349110@N05/40605424362/

Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David said a conversation about the future of American Jewry must be refocused.

Though the title of Green’s piece questions whether “rabbis are giving in to assimilation,” it isn’t rabbis or cantors who should be placed under a microscope, but rather “the institutions,” she said.

“My response is a deeper concern of what I'll call the pipeline of bringing up young, involved, educated, proud Jews,” she said.

The problem, Symons said, is middle school, high school and college-aged students are not being adequately immersed in Jewish texts and languages. By the time these young people reach the seminaries, their lack of education is evident. If younger people aren’t given the time and resources to amass significant textual knowledge and experience years of captivating Jewish experiences, she said, how can they be expected to lead congregations and communities as adults, with families, professional responsibilities and other interests?

“Clergy are models, ideally, for living a Jewish life,” Symons said. “And while all of us are always learning and hopefully bettering ourselves in every way, the more immersive Jewishly our lives are, the better the modeling is for others.”

Spousal choice is integral to achieving that modeling, she continued: “I believe that rabbis and cantors should be married to Jews, and I think that's because it's a matter of having a wholly Jewish life; and I think it's extremely difficult to do that otherwise.”

Better education is key to a robust Jewish future, she said.

“I think the reason the seminaries are getting to this point is because we don't have a strong enough pipeline,” Symons said.

Photo of Hebrew books by chany crystal via Flickr at https://tinyurl.com/yck5r4yx

Throughout North America, “enrollment in typical Hebrew schools is decreasing,” according to a 2018 article from Jewish Federations of North America. Non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in the U.S. are experiencing similar trends.

Student enrollment in non-Orthodox schools declined by 16.6% in 20 years, “and fell 9% in the past five years alone,” according to a 2020 census from The AVI CHAI Foundation.

While the numbers are disheartening, “this is a much bigger conversation,” Symons said. “No one is giving up. Everyone is struggling with an existential question.”

Spiritual leaders are deeply concerned about the future of American Judaism, and to alter the outcome, behavioral choices must be made, Rabbi Seth Adelson, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom, said.

“If rabbis are to continue to be the inspirational leaders that we strive to be,” he said, “then we must be thoroughly grounded in all aspects of Judaism and Jewish life, and we must reflect Jewish choices across our lives.

“Rabbis are exemplars,” he continued. “They are role models for their communities. “Even if the majority of congregants do not live the way the rabbi does, the rabbi still has to hold out that model of this is what it means to live a Jewish life — and that includes raising a Jewish family, sending kids for Jewish education in whatever form that takes.”

The pulpit bears responsibility, so it’s “essential for rabbinic education to reflect the seriousness and professionalism of that position,” Adelson said. “If professional training programs for doctors and lawyers and engineers reduced their requirements for those positions, I don't think you'd want those people to be your doctors and lawyers and engineers.”

It’s important for rabbis to undergo rigorous education and have Jewish partners, he said, as “Judaism is an all-encompassing lifestyle.”

“Living in a Jewish household is an essential part of the Jewish experience, of what it really means to be Jewish,” Adelson continued. “And if the rabbi is to be that inspirational exemplar in Jewish life, then she or he must be demonstrating a commitment to Jewish living throughout his or her life. I strive to be an inspirational leader, reflecting Judaism in all of my choices, public and private. And, of course, that means that my marriage is a Jewish marriage. My children are raised as Jews in a Jewish household.”

But how much do rabbis need to resemble their congregants?

“It’s a classic debate in the liberal movements of Judaism,” said Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman, rabbi of Brith Sholom in Erie and associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom.

“I have always been uneasy with the idea that the rabbi was some magical symbolic exemplar, which was very different, and better, and holier than the congregation,” he said. “In the study that I do, in the texts that I study, in the way that I approach Judaism, I think the rabbi should look a lot more like the congregation.”

Goodman knows his ideas counter “the overwhelming majority” of his Conservative colleagues and official statements of the Conservative movement. However, he said, “I think what's best and healthiest for Judaism going forward is to create a robust Judaism that acknowledges individuals and their spiritual paths, and doesn't necessarily say it's all about our bloodlines, it's all about our families, it's all about being gatekeepers to the beginnings of how someone becomes either a Jew or a rabbi.”

Goodman’s family background influenced his perspective, he said. His parents are Jewish. They divorced when he was 8, and his mother married a non-Jewish man. Goodman has one Jewish sibling and two non-Jewish stepsisters.

“I love my blended, mixed, intermarried family,” he said. “I think it's great. It's produced some really wonderful results in terms of how we understand the future of a mixed and intermarried Jewish world.”

When individuals or institutions say, “intermarriage is destroying the Jewish people, and allowing rabbis to intermarry is going to destroy the Jewish people, I speak from a place of personal experience when I say, ‘I don't think so.’ I think intermarriage is just a thing and it doesn't necessarily do long-term, or any, damage to the Jewish people,” Goodman said. “In fact, it has some upside and some benefit. I'm not saying everyone should do it. I'm just saying calling it the boogeyman that it is, is kind of misguided. I just think there are other things the Jewish community can focus on to strengthen the Jewish people for the future.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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