With the High Holy Days soon upon us, rabbis across the country are working on their sermons, hoping they will have the chance on Rosh HaShanah and/or Yom Kippur to inform, entertain and inspire their congregants, many of whom they see only rarely in synagogue.
According to Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), a Minnesota-based group that helps synagogues around the country initiate programs and services for today’s Jewish community, non-Orthodox Jews who are affiliated with a synagogue spend only about 22 to 32 hours a year at services, with almost half of that time coming during the High Holy Days.
So the pressure is on the rabbis at this time of year to perform at their best,
even as they deal with a myriad of other chores, from teaching children and adults, counseling people with problems, visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, and making sure the financial and administrative needs of the congregation are in order.
The rabbinate, most would agree, is a stressful calling, and with spiritual leaders pushed and pulled among obligations to congregants, community and family, it’s not surprising that many rabbis say they have little time to think about long-term goals for themselves and their congregations, or to spend time in reflection and Jewish learning.
In an effort to address that ongoing concern, about 100 rabbis and leaders in Jewish education from all the denominations and around the country met at UJA-Federation in New York last Wednesday, convening a National Conference on Continuing Rabbinic Education.
It was sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Lasko Family Foundation and the Marcus Foundation.
Rabbi Herring noted at the outset that many professionals, like lawyers and doctors, are required to participate in continuing education programs in their field, in some cases mandated by law.
“Since rabbis are entrusted with so many souls” and have a profound impact on the spiritual lives of their congregants, “shouldn’t we take it upon ourselves to raise the bar” and establish a path toward ensuring a rabbi’s continued growth, he asked.
The consensus among the participants seemed to affirm the need and benefits of providing time and resources for rabbis to reflect and study.
But there were practical concerns voiced, like whether congregations would back the idea of rabbis having additional time away from his or her direct synagogue duties, and whether rabbis themselves would welcome an additional responsibility.
Another issue, though not voiced publicy, was about turf, specifically whether any new project might adversely effect existing continuing education programs offered by the various rabbinical seminaries. As one rabbinic movement leader told me privately, with some frustration, “denominationalism is out nowadays and it’s all about joint efforts, but we’re already struggling to raise funds for the fine programs we offer now.”
Rabbi Herring insisted that the goal of the conference was not to create a new program provider but to establish a forum to exchange information among rabbis of different denominations, support advocacy for continuing rabbinic education, fund studies and evaluations to help make 21st century rabbis more effective, particularly in reaching young people, and create a website where information about existing programs could be shared.
The full-day conference included joint text study related to whether performing mitzvot or studying Torah was a higher value, and research information on how other religious denominations offer continuing education for their clergy.
Lawrence Goleman of the Alban Institute, an independent organization in Virginia that offers learning and leadership development to American churches, explained that continuing education programs have evolved from stressing professional skills to dealing with “health and self-care and spiritual renewal.”
He advised the conference participants to focus on four areas: encountering sacred texts; dealing with the spiritual dimension of self-care and emotional intelligence; advancing congregational development and views on cultural issues in society; and concentrating on performance of clergy roles, including communication, administration, conflict mediation and innovative liturgy.
Clergy, whatever their faith or denomination, struggle with “role diffusion,” Goleman told me, determining how to prioritize their many professional obligations, and figuring out how to get their lay leaders more involved in congregational work.
Others mentioned the need for studies of how rabbis manage their time, why they leave the rabbinate, and what are the implications of the increasing number of rabbis (probably more than half) serving in non-pulpit settings; the increasing number of rabbis working part-time by design; and the fact that the rabbinate is becoming increasingly female.
Although no specific steps were taken at day’s end, the sense was that the work that led to the creation of the conference would continue and that the participants would spread the word to colleagues of the need to address continuing rabbinic education as a plus for congregants, the rabbis themselves and, ultimately, the American Jewish community.
The challenges of reaching and addressing young people in a meaningful way Jewishly is well known. If rabbis felt more valued and received more expertise in framing Jewish responses to today’s issues, they could play an increasingly vital role in sustaining and advancing Jewish life in the 21st century. That’s why we should all embrace and support the effort to help rabbis do their job better.