Getting The Rabbis We Need

The Challenge

We have all seen the miracle: a moribund Jewish institution – perhaps a school, synagogue, agency or Hillel – trapped by habit and floundering without vision.  Desperate for leadership, the institution hires a new rabbi, and within a few years that same agency begins to blossom.  The key to Jewish transformation is the right rabbi.

Jewish life is no longer fueled by nostalgia, ethnicity or even the continuing need to demonstrate solidarity with Israel. As North American Jews have reached an enviable state of material prosperity and social acceptance, many of us find the general culture alluring and ours for the asking. In our situation, what remains compelling about Judaism is the meaning that it can add to life, its structure of belonging that enhances moments of joy and consoles in times of sorrow, the inherited wisdom of a tradition that has always valued the life of the mind in the service of the good, the abiding link to transcendent holiness. These Jewish riches have propelled a continued growth for synagogues of all denominations, the expansion of Jewish studies at universities across the continent, a growing demand for Jewish day schools and summer camps, and an openness to an interior spiritual discipline that is new for many Jews.

All of these tasks require rabbis.  Why rabbis?  Only rabbis balance extensive immersion in the sacred texts of Judaism with equally extensive training in caring for today's Jews.  Only rabbis receive instruction on integrating mesorah (tradition), mitzvot (commandments) and middot (virtues of character). Other Jewish professionals receive training in parts of that background, and academic scholarship is vitally important for analyzing and sharpening our understanding of the past and its writings.  However, enlightening the present with the insights of the past, finding God and meaning in Torah and Judaism -- that is the exclusive purview of the rabbis, and the need of all Jewish institutions, secular and religious, denominational and communal.  Rabbis are on the front lines of Jewish significance.

Yet even as the Jewish world has begun to recognize the necessity of rabbinic leadership, it faces a looming challenge: Across denominational lines, transcending geographical regions, contemporary Jewish life is constrained by a lack of rabbis. This shortage is not just a problem for synagogue life. Jewish agencies, federations, JCCs, hospitals, schools and camps have realized that the old “cold war” between the secular agencies and the synagogue/rabbinical school institutions is over. If the Jewish people are to survive and thrive, then we must all work together. As a result, institutions that used to tolerate rabbis at best, have recognized that they need the dynamism, depth and authenticity accessed by rabbinic wisdom and training.

The shortage of rabbis, then, is partly due to the success of rabbinic Judaism (in all of its contemporary groupings). Rabbis are now being hired in more niches than in the past. But there are other reasons for the shortage.  As contemporary Jews turn to spirituality, learning, and observance, they require more individual time from their rabbis. Synagogues that previously managed with one rabbi are now hiring two, three, even four to service congregants more intimately. Finally, the Jewish community continues its migration – this time out of the Northeast and into new communities throughout the Sunbelt and West. As new communities emerge, their need for rabbinic leadership also strains the supply.

The consequence of this pervasive shortage is that schools often cannot implement programs of Jewish learning, synagogues cannot help their members rise to new levels of Jewish living, and agencies cannot implement compelling programs because no rabbi is available to serve.

What’s a Jew to Do?

The midrash speaks of two paths – the “short/long road” and the “long/short road.” The short/long road is one that appears easy when first surveyed, yet choosing that path actually delays arrival at the destination. The long/short road, on the other hand, seems fraught with challenges, requiring much greater effort, but results in a quicker path to one’s goal.  In considering how to face the shortage of rabbis, the American Jewish community has thus far taken the short/long path: we leave it to our rabbinical schools to produce more exciting brochures and to hire staff to work exclusively on recruitment. Those rabbinical schools rely on active rabbis to identify potential students. As tempting as this path may seem, it does nothing to address underlying issues that limit the number of candidates for rabbinical school.

How can we transcend this quick fix to create an expanded pool of rabbinic candidates and hold on to the rabbis we have? I would plead for a comprehensive threefold plan:

1. RABBIS DON’T COME OUT OF NOWHERE, THEY ARE RAISED. To be able to successfully pursue a rabbinic education requires significant background, years of participating in Jewish communal life, exposure to Hebrew and Jewish study, and habituating oneself to mitzvot and observance. The catalysts for this preparation are the synagogues and their affiliated youth groups, day schools, and religious summer camps. These agencies desperately need funding, not for glitzy new programs but to pay their staffs dignified living wages so they can even more effectively reach a new generation of potential rabbis (and knowledgeable Jews).

2. RABBIS DON’T COME OUT OF NOWHERE, THEY ARE TAUGHT.  We must provide far greater financial support for our rabbinical schools – not for new programming, but to do what they do even better.  These rabbinical schools provide generous scholarships and need to retain additional faculty to continue to provide future rabbis with solid grounding in Jewish studies, as well as in pastoral counseling, chaplaincy, homiletics, education, administration and other areas a rabbi must master.

3. RABBIS DON’T COME OUT OF NOWHERE, BUT THEY DO DISAPPEAR. The final area that requires our collective attention is the high burnout rate among practicing rabbis. As the head of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, I travel broadly as teacher and speaker. In community after community, I hear good rabbis bemoan their burden – endless hours (often with no day off), work that far outstrips any possibility of completion, lay people who are angry or offended, little time for their own continuing learning and growth, angry family members who feel that their spouse/parent is always there for the community but never there for them – the list goes on and on. Rabbis cannot solve this problem alone. Can we muster a convocation of rabbis and lay leaders for honest conversations about the way rabbis can occasionally infantilize (and the way lay people can occasionally demand infantilization); about the sometimes-excessive rabbinic need to be adored and needed (and the sometimes-excessive lay need to be adored and attended to); and about creating room for balance – both in rabbinic life and in lay expectations? Can this convocation explore a more modest partnership between rabbis and laypeople that allows the laity and the rabbis to derive satisfaction from their partnership while also allowing them to cultivate an inner life and a private life?

The time to meet and talk is now.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).