For decades, the only way a rabbi could get a job with a synagogue was through his or her rabbinical association’s placement office, which would also determine the size of the congregation the rabbi could handle.
But as declining synagogue memberships have led congregations to drop their affiliations with their movements — thus putting them at the bottom of the list with the movement’s placement office — more and more congregations are finding it difficult to hire rabbis.
In addition, there are many rabbis ordained by unaffiliated rabbinical seminaries who are also having trouble finding jobs, not only with synagogues, but also with Hillel chapters and Jewish schools, federations and community centers.
Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director and founder in 2008 of Rabbis Without Borders, said that over the years she has been “fielding calls from nonprofits looking for a rabbi and from congregations that have not had a good [rabbinic] placement” and were looking for a new rabbi.
“I honor the denominational process, so I asked them to get a waiver from their denomination before I could help them,” she said.
Recognizing the scope of this need, Rabbi Sirbu has created a website to allow congregations and organizations looking for a rabbi to post their jobs, and for rabbis looking for work to post their resumes. The website, https://rabbicareers.com, was launched Sept. 8.
Within days, there were about 5,000 views and 30 job postings, including for a principal of a Jewish day school in Canada, a director of programs for a Jewish federation and a rabbi for a synagogue in Colorado. A number of rabbis — about 20 — also posted their resumes.
The website is free at this time and jobs can be posted for part-time, full-time or even one-time positions.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, applauded the new initiative, saying: “We welcome anything that could help rabbis find the people who need them.”
And Rabbi Elliot Salo Schoenberg, international director of placement for the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said: “Good for them. … We have begun talking with them about a partnership.”
But Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of Rabbinic Placement for the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, said he had serious reservations.
“Our fear with this un-moderated website is that un-vetted rabbis with a substandard education or ethical issues could be placed through this website,” he explained.
Rabbi Henkin added that such an “open market, caveat emptor website will cause a great deal of harm to rabbis and communities … [and] put congregants at risk.”
Rabbi Sirbu said she understands Rabbi Henkin’s concerns but that “in every industry it is up to the employer to vet the applicant.”
“If it is clear that someone [who posts a resume] is a fraud, we will obviously take it down and bar them from the site,” she said.
“It’s a very legitimate fear,” Rabbi Sirbu added. “It’s something we don’t want to happen, but there is no failsafe. And unfortunately through the movement system it sometimes happens — and none of us have figured out a way to make sure abuses don’t happen.”
Rabbi Henkin said that the Reform movement’s rabbinic placement office has “been around for more than 50 years” and serves all 850 congregations that are members of the Union for Reform Judaism. “They have access to the highest quality and most ethical rabbis out there. This is a benefit of [URJ] membership. The major benefit lies not just in the fact that we provide them with rabbis but also consultancy services, which is something a website cannot offer.”
Rabbi Henkin added that his office does “more than 100 placements a year – and that’s a lot. Virtually every congregation that lists with us finds the right rabbi. On the rare occasion that a congregation cannot, we have other means of helping them. For example, we have reciprocity with the Reconstructionist movement. With a waiver from me, congregations occasionally post with them when they can’t find someone here.”
Rabbi Sirbu’s Rabbis Without Borders has a membership of 200 rabbis and is a program of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. She said one of the reasons she realized the need for the job website was because of the calls she received after starting the Rabbinic Service Corps last year for small congregations unable to afford a rabbi.
Under the program, the RWB’s member rabbis volunteer to visit small congregations that can’t afford a full-time rabbi.
“The rabbis fly to the congregation a couple of times a year and we pay their airfare,” Rabbi Sirbu said.
“While we were doing this, we were also contacted by many small communities who were not affiliated [with a movement] and wanted to hire a rabbi but had no way of advertising for one,” she said. “They were not connected to the big population centers and didn’t have the knowledge base of how to get connected to the larger Jewish community.”
Rabbi Sirbu said the Rabbinic Service Corps is funded by an anonymous two-year grant for $60,000 a year and that last year volunteer rabbis were sent to 20 small congregations around the country. One was the Jewish Community of the Hill Country in Kerrville, Texas, a congregation of about 20 members — primarily retirees — that holds services every other Friday night in the local Unitarian church and uses a donated Torah that was rescued from the Holocaust.
“Quite a few members had no Sunday school education, so we go through the Reform siddur and discuss the prayers to get familiar with them,” said Laura Castillo, one of the members.
When they learned of the Rabbinic Service Corps last fall, she said the congregation applied online.
Rabbi Sirbu said once she received the request, she reached out to Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, about two hours away. She said she was able to arrange for Hill Country congregants to join Agudas Achim’s adult education program via Skype. Both of its rabbis are members of RWB.
Rabbi Neil Blumofe, Agudas Achim’s senior rabbi, said his congregation offers a variety of adult education classes in the evening. In addition to the Hill Country congregation sitting in on those classes via Skype, he said either he or his assistant rabbi, Gail Swedroe, plan to visit the Hill Country congregation within the next year.