Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminaries dwindle – The Forward

Enrollment in non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries has been on a downward trajectory for years, but the data shows a particularly alarming trend for schools affiliated with major Jewish movements.

While the total number of students studying to become non-Orthodox rabbis in the United States has only gradually declined over the past decade, analysis by Forward found that seminaries affiliated with major denominations have suffered severe drops. At the same time, small independent schools have seen their enrollments steadily increase.

“The culture, values ​​and worldview embodied by the movement’s institutions don’t resonate with many students,” said Rabbi Benay Lappe, who leads a independent yeshiva in Chicago. “Movementless rabbinical schools allow students to determine what kind of Jewish future will work out.

“People are less interested in binaries and boxes,” said Rabbi Rebecca Weintraub

Challenges facing seminaries, especially those affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements, follow the estrangement of American Jews from formal institutions and denominations. According to a Pew Research Center study published last year, 41% of Jews under 29 said they did not affiliate with any particular branch of Judaism, compared to just 22% of those over 65.

The major non-Orthodox denominations — Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist — still dominate American Jewish life. But the difficulty in attracting rabbinical students, especially in the Conservative and Reform movements, which together make up the vast majority of non-Orthodox synagogues, portends a future in which independent institutions will play an increasingly important role.

“People are less interested in binaries and boxes, even though they’re still looking for that kind of connection and spirituality,” said Rebecca Weintraub, assistant rabbi at Nondenominational B’nai Jeshurun At New York.

As movements recede in Jewish life, Reform and Conservative seminaries shrink

Yet the number of Jews who claim to belong to a synagogue has remained stable over the past 20 years, and there is reason to believe that the rabbinical pipeline is shrinking faster than synagogue membership.

The conservative movement warned his congregations in December that many of them would not be able to fill vacant rabbi positions, with about 80 synagogues seeking to hire one of the 50 or 60 available rabbis.

This announcement was followed by other signs of a settling of accounts among Jewish seminaries. The reform movement announced earlier this month that he was considering ending rabbinical training at his historic Cincinnati campus. And the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, a conservative seminary, said this week it would cut tuition fees by nearly 80% to attract more students after enrollment fell from 56 students 10 years ago to 34 this year.

As movements recede in Jewish life, Reform and Conservative seminaries shrink

Sound the alarm

But while total enrollment at the six largest non-Orthodox seminaries has fallen 15% since 2010, the first year for which most schools were able to provide data, those numbers are much more concerning for affiliated schools. to the Reform and Conservative movements.

Enrollment at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which operates three campuses to train Reform rabbis, has fallen nearly 30% since 2008, when it had 194 students. The Jewish Theological Seminary, the conservative movement’s primary college, has fallen 43% since 2010.

While these trends surfaced in a 2015 analysis of seminary ordinations by the Forward, the trends have only deepened over the past 7 years. Hebrew collegean independent seminary in Boston, eclipsed the JTS for the first time in 2020 and now has 76 rabbinical students compared to 63 at the JTS.

“JTS is taking a leadership role in a collaborative effort, involving all branches of the conservative movement, to increase pipeline in the rabbinate, Beth Mayerowitz, JTS communications director, said in an email. “JTS believes this is a pivotal time to respond to the increased demand we have seen to support professions and spiritual leadership amid COVID-19.”

The reform movement also took the need for change seriously. Last fall, Rabbi Andrew Weiss, provost of the Hebrew Union College, wrote a memoir guidance document which cited 26 articles all arguing that all Jewish seminaries faced a crisis.

“This research shows that HUC is not alone in needing to ask existential questions and make bold and difficult changes,” Weiss wrote. Even the Hebrew College, which has had high enrollment rates, sold its campus in 2018 to reduce operating costs and alleviate debt.

(Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, the main Modern Orthodox rabbinical college, did not respond to questions about his enrollment, nor did ALEPH, the umbrella organization of the Jewish Renewal Movement, which operates a ordination program.)

Where are the denominations?

Lappe, the Chicago rabbi, runs SVARA, a seminar that focuses on the study of the Talmud and is aimed at gay Jews. She said rabbinical education has not caught up with a generation of young Jews who are far more diverse in their identities and flexible in their practices and beliefs than the institutions established to ordain them.

As an example, she said that the JTS and the conservative movement continue to demand obedience to Halachaor Jewish law, with which few non-Orthodox Jews agree, while the Reform movement has avoided such practices altogether, although many young Jews are interested in them.

“We live in a time where you don’t know what the Jewish future will look like and I think students know that and therefore are reluctant to commit to ideology,” Lappe said.

Observers say declining interest in the rabbinate stems from a number of other factors

Observers say the decline in interest in the rabbinate stems from a number of other factors, including limited job opportunities for graduates. While the growth of independent seminaries may indicate an interest in rabbinical roles that are less rigid than the traditional congregational pulpit, synagogues remain the primary institutions providing lucrative jobs for new rabbis.

Rabbi Ellen Flax, who led a joint scholarship for Hebrew Union College and Jewish Theological Seminary students, said there were limited options for graduates who were inspired to create or join a non-traditional community that cannot muster the resources of a traditional congregation.

“Our whole funding model for congregations and communities is that you have to have a number of people,” Flax said. “You can have a community of 100 people, but that’s not enough – in most cases – to fund a $100,000 salary and facilities.”

Independent seminaries have seen graduates lead unique Jewish communities, including The kitchen in San Francisco, which is led by Jessica Kate Meyer, who was ordained at Hebrew College and has a rabbinical trainee, Chelsea Mandell, who attends the Academy of Jewish Religion. sixth & methe Jewish Center in Washington, D.C., was headed for many years by Shira Stutman, who was ordained to Reconstructionist Rabbinical Collegewhich, despite being a movement seminary, places many graduates in independent institutions.

However, these types of institutions mainly exist in major metropolitan areas and still far outnumber traditional synagogues. But their numbers are growing, just as synagogues that choose not to affiliate with movements see the barriers to their success diminish, American Jews place less importance on denomination — and it becomes easier to hire rabbis without the help of the Union for Reform Judaism or United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Clifford Kulwin, Rabbi Emeritus of B’nai Abraham in northern New Jersey, recalled being asked to speak to the Hebrew College in the early years about the challenge of overseeing one of the largest unaffiliated congregations in the country. Even then, Kulwin says, he could only think of two: finding a youth movement for temple children and navigating the process of hiring rabbis because B’nai Abraham was excluded from placement programs offered by movement seminars.

The second is no longer a problem: the year after his retirement, B’nai Abraham hired a Hebrew College graduate as assistant rabbi.

“People are much more interested in being part of a place where they feel comfortable and at home rather than paying attention to ideology,” Kulwin said. “Movements aren’t so important anymore.”

As movements recede in Jewish life, Reform and Conservative seminaries dwindle

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