At night on the darkest of indigo seas, a sea captain looks up at vast constellations in the sky above and contemplates the deep below. Like the biblical mariners Zevulon and Jonah, sailor Daniel Jacksonís awe of oceans and the outdoors led him to the more intimate exploration of the soul within. He went from steering 100-ton vessels to take a journey into academia and then to yeshiva study halls to bring himself up to speed on an Orthodoxy he never quite knew.Capt. Jackson is now Rabbi Jackson, one of 185 men recently celebrated at Yeshiva Universityís Chag HaSmikhah, a quadrennial event marking the newly ordained rabbis of the last four years. It was the largest such gathering in the more than 100 years of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), YUís cornerstone institution.Among the new rabbis were businessmen, accountants, doctors, lawyers, a dentist, but just 32, an average of eight per year, who plan on doing what we most think of rabbis doing ó standing on a pulpit and leading a congregation. There were almost as many new rabbis, 30, seeking a secular career as a synagogue one.But if only 17 percent may have wanted a pulpit, 43 percent, 79 new rabbis, were heading to day schools and Jewish communal service. Of the others, three went into Jewish academia, and 30 were continuing in kollel for further rabbinic study.
These numbers pleased Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, the RIETS director of Jewish Career Placement and Development, who said 32 pulpit rabbis ìis a very good number. Thatís an improvement on the past. RIETS was always a classical yeshiva that did not see itself as a professional school. It was a place to produce lamdonim, scholars. But as the community has enjoyed greater success, rabbis are seeing better professional opportunities.î
There was so little emphasis on the pulpit at RIETS that the art of giving a sermon was not a requirement but an elective. Thatís changing. This week, RIETS announced a ìsignificantly revampedî training program that Rabbi Zevulon Charlop, a RIETS dean who also leads the Young Israel of Mosholu Parkway, said ìwill hone the skills rabbis need to more effectively interact with their congregants and other constituencies.îA new core curriculum will combine rabbinic study with what RIETS is calling the ìreal worldî skills of public speaking, writing, conflict resolution, pastoral counseling, education, outreach, and getting an overview of the Jewish community.Graduates will have to undertake a full-year mentored internship in a synagogue, school, chaplaincy, outreach or administrative setting.
Indicative of increased interest in the pulpit, ìMentoring is already on the rise,î said Rabbi Schwarzberg. ìRabbinic interns are going all over the countryóone flew out to California every Thursday night for a Shabbat at a shul in Oakland. Locally, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center ìloves rabbinic interns,î said Rabbi Schwarzberg. Rabbi Rosenblatt will mentor four interns this year, five interns next year, and as many as eight more in a summer program. An additional intern, Rabbi David Silverstein, was hired as an assistant rabbi upon ordination.Congregational work is not always feasible. Rabbi Jackson, who has since made aliyah, said he couldnít envision leading an Israeli congregation but would be working as a chaplain in Israeli hospitals, particularly for English-speaking patients.ìIn the old days, people wanted a rabbi who could speak Yiddish,î said Rabbi Jackson. ìToday, in Israel, they want someone who can speak English.îHe said he also hopes to develop another Israeli project that will examine the intersection of Judaism and science: ìIt induces awe to look through a telescope, and see the stars and its wonders, and Iíd like to create a place where people can see science as part of Torah, another other side of Torah, not something independent.îBaruch Englard, another of the newly ordained rabbis, was an associate professor of accounting when he began at RIETS and to accounting heíll return. ìI only went to RIETS for the purpose of scholarship,î said Rabbi Englard. ìStudying at RIETS was fantastic, one of the greatest experiences of my life, just listening to the shiurim (lectures) from some of the finest Jewish minds in the world.î He said he plans for no rabbinical career other than studying, on a voluntary basis, with various people ìwho otherwise wouldnít be learning.îHowever, in a world where graduate school tuitions are soaring but RIETS is tuition-free as an inducement to bolster the rabbinate, pressure has been building to push the recipients of such largesse into the rabbinate in more formal ways. At Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, the only other Modern Orthodox seminary, in exchange for free tuition a student has to commit himself to at least three years of Jewish communal work; 18 of its 26 ordained rabbis are working in synagogues and the rest are all working in some official rabbinic context.
But Rabbi Schwarzberg argued that even if RIETS rabbis work in a secular field, ìthey are being inculcated that you donít take a free education at RIETS and then put it in a drawer. You go wherever life takes you and give a shiur, serve on your shul board or on your school board, be part of the community. Youíll have the knowledge base for having been here.îRabbi Jonathan Gross, 28, is a recent graduate who actually wanted to work in Omaha, Nebraska, where heís now leading the Beth Israel Synagogue, a 200-family congregation with a beautiful new building.ì
If I wanted to live in Los Angeles or New York I would have become a lawyer,î said Rabbi Gross, ìbut I wanted to be a rabbi to be on the front lines, where I was really needed, in a place like Nebraska. Iím not looking at this as a stepping-stone to New York. This is where I want to be. I want to stay here, watching kids go from pre-school through high school, I wanted to be their rabbi. Omahaís a great city with a down-to-earth lifestyle. I love that.îHe says he was inspired not only by memories of his grandfather, who was a pulpit rabbi in New Jersey, but by an elective he took at RIETS that brought into class ìall kinds of pulpit rabbis. We received a very positive representation of a kind of rabbinical career that would be challenging but rewarding.î
The young rabbi added that RIETS also prepared him for the less romantic aspects of the rabbinate, such as the rabbiís status as an employee. ìThey had a lawyer come in and tell us how to negotiate a contract,î said Rabbi Gross, ìwhat we should accept from a congregation and what we shouldnít. The class was like Smicha [ordination] 101: Never live in a house owned by the shul. Lets say the relationship goes bad, youíre stuck with no equity and if they own the house you canít just quit your job. I came out to Omaha, they offered me a house, I said no, Iím buying my own.î n