David Rosenn did not intend to become a rabbi. After graduating college with a philosophy degree, he spent three years — in Israel and the United States — finding an answer to one question: “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
He took a variety of jobs, for anti-poverty and civil rights organizations. Later Rosenn heard about a Christian group that recruited young volunteers to work in poor neighborhoods. Where was the Jewish version, he wondered. “There was no Jewish version,” he says.
That would be his life’s path; he would create that organization. Still, Rosenn says, he was not thinking of the rabbinate.
He pondered more schooling for a degree in public administration. Then, finally: “Or I could train myself as a rabbi.”
Today, Rabbi Rosenn, 32-year-old native of Miami, 1997 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, is executive director of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps. Based in a few Midtown rooms, Avodah places young Jews — recent college graduates — in a variety of social service and social justice organizations for a year of low-paying work.
“I wanted an intensive education. I wanted to be able to speak as powerfully as possible from a religious, tradition-based perspective,” Rabbi Rosenn says of his decision to seek ordination. “I wanted to be able to open up a Gemara Shabbat [a tractate of the Talmud] and learn what my obligations are to live in the world. I don’t know if I would learn that tradition if I went to a school of communal service.”
At Avodah, he leads regular Torah study sessions, counsels the volunteers and answers their philosophical and halachic questions. “Every day I apply my rabbinical training.”
At Avodah, as a rabbi without pulpit, he is part of a trend. “It seems to be that more people are choosing non-congregation jobs these days,” he says.
There was no epiphany.
But by the mid-1990s it became clear that a declining percentage of those ordained by New York City’s major rabbinical seminaries — the major suppliers of rabbis in the United States — were choosing pulpit work.
“I have noticed it the last few years,” says Rabbi Michael Paley, executive director of UJA-Federation’s synagogue and community affairs department. He talks to the students each year at JTS, Hebrew Union College and Yeshiva University. “At seminaries … they tell me that the quality of life is better” outside of congregational positions.
Rabbi Paley left full-time pulpit work in the late 1980s. “There were a lot of demands on my wife. I spent Shabbat with large numbers of people … Rarely did I spend it with my own kids,” he says.
At UJA-Federation, Rabbi Paley serves as a bridge with local congregations. “I get to do what most rabbis want to do most of the time. I teach a lot. I get to travel all around New York. I get to meet all kinds of Jews.”
A pulpit, says Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York Board of Rabbis and the North American Board of Rabbis, can limit rabbis “who feel they have a mission and a vision on a much larger scale.” A congregational rabbi is on call for congregants 24 hours a day, expected to serve as preacher and teacher, confessor and counselor, scholar and administrator.
A growing number of rabbis “don’t want the tremendous pressure, the daily pressure, of synagogue life,” Rabbi Schneier says.
One recent example: Rabbi J.J. Schacter, spiritual leader of The Jewish Center on the Upper West Side and an intellectual leader of the Modern Orthodox movement, announced this summer that he was leaving his congregation to become dean of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute in Boston.
“My congregation grew so large it was difficult for me to find time to pursue scholarship at the level to which I was accustomed,” says Rabbi Schacter, who has in a pulpit full-time 23 years.
In recent years, the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements have publicly expressed concern about the reduced interest in their movements’ pulpit rabbinate.
While about 90 percent of the men ordained by the Conservative and Reform movement until the 1970s went into the pulpit rabbinate (and it was all men until then), the estimated figure now is 70 percent and steadily dropping. At Yeshiva University, which traditionally awards smicha to men who often take secular careers, there is a similar phenomenon. Of those choosing a career in Jewish communal service, the majority now enter the educational field instead of congregations.
“There are new opportunities outside the pulpit,” says Rabbi Schneier.
The opportunities are in day schools and universities, Jewish federations and philanthropies, Hillels and chaplaincies. Jewish education, the largest employer of rabbis outside of the pulpit, “has become a much more attractive career,” says Steven Bayme, director of Jewish communal affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
He credits the Reconstructionist movement, long regarded as “the fourth” denomination of American Jewry, with opening the door to non-pulpit career possibilities to all rabbis. “They always had more rabbis than synagogues,” Bayme says.
Most graduates of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College go into allied areas. “It created a mind-set that rabbis were not simply in pulpits,” he says.
Ironically, with fewer rabbinic graduates of the major seminaries entering pulpits, more positions have become available for those ordained by the Reconstructionist school, the nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion, and the Conservative-offshoot Union for Traditional Judaism.
Other reasons for the phenomenon include:
n The women’s movement. Women, ordained by the Reform movement for 27 years, followed by Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, traditionally sought non-pulpit positions in larger percentages than men. Some congregations were reluctant initially to hire women as rabbis; there were few female rabbis to serve as role models for younger women; in two-career families, many women follow their husband to communities where no rabbinic jobs are available; other women choose positions that allow more time for raising a family.
n CLAL. The 25-year-old National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, founded by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg to bring a Jewish dimension to once-secular Jewish federation activities, has influenced an array of Jewish organizations where rabbis now work.
“At one point in life there was a sharp dichotomy between the skills that were relevant in the synagogue and the skills that were relevant in other Jewish organizations,” says Larry Moses, president of the Wexner Foundation, a leadership training center in Columbus, Ohio. “Those settings are more receptive.”
Recognizing the demographic change, rabbinical schools have added training — required courses and internships, and optional seminars — in non-pulpit areas.
“We don’t know where [rabbinic graduates] will end up,” says Rabbi Norman Cohen, HUC provost. “We’re more encouraging [of non-pulpit careers] than we were in the past.”
At JTS, the climate has changed, says Cheryl Jacobs, a final-year rabbinical student who hopes to enter Jewish communal service. A few years ago, she says, teachers would commonly say “in your congregation you will do such and such …’ Now it’s not assumed that you are going into a pulpit.”
“The first question people ask when they hear you’re a rabbi is ‘Where’s your synagogue?’ ” says Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, associate Jewish chaplain at Columbia University and the wife of Rabbi David Rosenn. “Then I explain.”
As a campus chaplain, she counsels students, teaches classes, does some programming.
“I do have a congregation,” says the 31-year-old Boston native, who was ordained by HUC in 1997. “I just don’t have a synagogue. In some ways, the work I do day to day is not so different from what synagogue rabbis do day to day.”
When she interviewed for jobs two years ago, “I was very open to the pulpit. I interviewed at pulpits.” She accepted the Columbia offer, she says, “because the job just fit in a visceral way.”
Rabbi Rosenn works out of a small office in the basement of Earl Hall, the university’s religious center. Students wander by during the day to ask questions.
“I love my work here,” she says. “I feel blessed to this kind of work. I feel that I might be making a difference.”
What will the next generation of rabbis look like?
The rabbi, experts say, will be older than the person ordained in the past. Growing numbers are becoming rabbis in mid-career, in their 30s or 40s.
The rabbi will as likely be female as male. Of 46 rabbis ordained by HUC this year, 21 are women.
The rabbi will be part of a two-career couple. And the rabbi, as likely as not, will be somewhere other than a pulpit.
“It may be as high as 50 percent,” says Rabbi Norman Cohen, HUC provost. As the number of rabbis in education and other non-pulpit areas increase, so do the non-pulpit role models, Rabbi Cohen says.
At the same time, says the AJCommittee’s Bayme, the growing fear of assimilation will push a greater number of Jewish organizations to increase their Jewish content; i.e., hire people with advanced Jewish learning.
“Every Jewish organization,” Bayme says, “will be confronted with the choice of ‘How Jewish do you want to be?’ ”
Three final-year rabbinical students discussed their career decisions:
Chaim Zakheim, at YU, is leaning toward Hillel or public policy work. He is studying for ordination, he says, because “in the Jewish communal world, being a rabbi gives you a stronger voice, a little more stature.”
Jeff Pivo, at JTS, wants to become an academic, teaching Jewish studies. “I want to teach at the seminary,” he says. “I want to stay in this building the rest of my life.”
Their non-pulpit preferences are fully accepted by their classmates and instructors, they say.
And Lev Herrnson, at HUC, will be director of a Reform day school in Miami after he graduates in May. “I’ve always had education in mind,” he says.
“I think we’re still unusual,” Herrnson says of rabbinical students who don’t plan on a career in the pulpit. “The majority are still looking at the pulpit rabbinate.”
People who hear of his interest in a career in education often tell him, “So you’re not going to be a rabbi.”