Shortage of conservative rabbis prompts Jews to re-examine role of pulpit

(RNS) – Rabbi Avi Olitzky was 26 when he started working at the Beth El Synagogue in Minneapolis straight after seminary.

Over the past 14 years, he has helped build the synagogue with its distinctive curved roof into one of the largest conservative congregations in North America, with 1,250 member families.

But last week was his last.

Now 40, he has decided to pursue a second career – counseling – where he will bring his Jewish wisdom and experience as an organizational leader to help other congregations, nonprofits and businesses solve some of their toughest problems.

“I reviewed my life and realized that I wanted to do more than just this congregation,” Olitzky said.

He wasn’t exhausted, Olitzky said. COVID-19 hasn’t made his life incredibly difficult either. “It was more about wanting my reach to match my ability,” he said.

Rabbi Avi Olitzky left Beth El Synagogue in Minneapolis to start a consulting business. Photo courtesy of Avi Olitzky

Many other rabbis joined Olitzky on the exit ramp. This year, there are a record 80 rabbis from the conservative movement who have decided to move on — to retire or take on other non-synagogical roles. Some of the chairs they leave behind will likely remain vacant. There aren’t 80 other rabbis to fill their shoes.

“It used to be that the ultimate goal was to be the chief rabbi of a major synagogue,” said Emily Hendel, director of career services for the Rabbinical Assembly, an association of 1,500 Conservative rabbis. “Now the ultimate goal is professional growth. Sometimes that means changing careers.

In December, Hendel sent an email to Conservative synagogues looking for a rabbi to let them know they could go ahead and seek a leader outside the ranks of the Rabbinical Assembly, as there is no there probably won’t be enough applicants to fill all the vacancies.

The Conservative movement, which occupies a middle ground between the strict adherence to tradition of Orthodox Judaism and the openness to change of the Reform movement, is in decline. Once the largest of American Jewish denominations, the movement now represents just 15% of American Jews, according to a 2021 Pew study to study with approximately 560 American congregations.

But the currents that now whip the conservative movement are perhaps not unique to it. While there may be more vacancies this year (likely due to the delayed retirement of rabbis due to the pandemic), underlying longer-term issues are at play. Many of these issues may also be familiar to church leaders.

Congregational rabbis are older. A faith community today survey of 15,278 religious congregations across the United States showed that the median age of American rabbis is 56.

“We have an aging population of pulpit rabbis and we’re not creating enough people to take their place,” said Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, president of the Synagogue Studies Institute, which collected the synagogue data for the FACT study. .


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The conservative movement, which has two seminaries in the United States — one in New York and one in Los Angeles — will graduate and ordain a total of 23 men and women this spring. Last week, his Los Angeles-based Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies announced that it sale its Bel Air campus but the seminary will continue to offer rabbinical degrees.

The Reform movement, the largest in the Jewish denominational system, will ordain 29 American rabbis on its three Hebrew Union College campuses this year.

Yet their ordination will not necessarily lead to vacancies being filled. A growing number of graduates are not looking for a career in the chair. The role of a synagogue rabbi is demanding. The average synagogue is larger than the average-sized church and typically has only one rabbi on staff, Spiegel said.

“We’re asking too much of one person,” Spiegel said. “It’s a default position that synagogues have had for a long time.”

More and more men and women seeking ordination are choosing other careers such as chaplaincy, teaching, consulting, or advocacy in nonprofit organizations.

“The idea of ​​what it means to be a rabbi in the world is changing, in the best way possible,” said Rabbi Elan Babchuck, director of innovation at CLAL, the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership. “But when a market changes, the pipelines in that market take 10 or 15 years to adapt.”

David Singer, a conservative rabbi, is a good example of career change. He began his rabbinical career at a synagogue in Dallas, then took a job with Hillel, the Jewish student organization, on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. He now runs Limmud North America, an organization that provides Jewish learning through conferences and festivals.

This chart shows the age range of synagogue rabbis based on the 2020 Faith Communities Today survey of 15,278 religious congregations across the United States.  The Institute for Synagogue Studies collected and analyzed data from the synagogue

This chart shows the age range of synagogue rabbis based on the 2020 Faith Communities Today survey of 15,278 religious congregations across the United States. The Institute for Synagogue Studies collected and analyzed data from synagogues.

“The passions that guide my work take place outside of the synagogue itself,” said Singer, 39.

Young rabbis are also guided by the choices of their partner. A graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Rabbi Jeremy Markiz decided that he would follow his wife’s career trajectory. When she did her medical residency in Pittsburgh, he got a job overseeing adult programs at Congregation Beth Shalom. When she took a permanent position in Maryland, he followed her there and now works from home as a digital communications and strategy consultant for synagogues and other organizations.

“I wanted to make sure I supported my wife wherever she landed,” Markiz said. Having the flexibility to work remotely was an added value.

The majority of rabbinical students will always seek pulpit positions. In fact, said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a retired professor at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary, the pandemic has forced synagogues to innovate in exciting ways for young, tech-savvy rabbis.

“Young rabbis love change,” Hoffman said. “They think they can create a new world for the Jews. They see hope.

But in the meantime, some Conservative and Reform synagogues will have to wait for a rabbi or offer the position to graduates from a growing group of independent, nondenominational seminaries.

And American Jews may also need to reconsider the assumption that rabbis merely lead congregations.

“We have a very diverse and diffused Jewish community that needs to be supported, engaged and to work with in a variety of ways,” Singer said. “If there’s a movement of rabbis less interested in working in synagogues, that’s a problem for synagogues, but it’s not an immediate problem for Jews, if rabbis are interested in supporting the Jewish community. and building us up in the plethora of ways we come together.”


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