Role of the 21st Century Rabbi

A recent editorial in The Forward demonstrates how much the American rabbinate has changed in the 21st century. The economy has made it difficult for many rabbis to find good jobs; and for them to keep good jobs when the synagogue or organization falls on tough financial times. A reduction in the number of congregations due to closures and mergers has also caused a dearth of desirable positions for rabbis in the U.S. and Canada. But there are other factors involved as well. New rabbinical schools (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Ziegler at the American Jewish University, Hebrew College, and the Academy for Jewish Religion) have cropped up in the past fifteen years increasing the number of new rabbis looking for work. The Internet has also made it much easier for the laity to learn synagogue skills — life-cycle officiation, prayer leading, and teaching — that may ultimately reduce the need for a rabbi, although I don’t believe that to be the case.

As the Forward editorial makes clear, “the role of rabbi is being challenged as never before.” Some sociologists like Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University predicted precisely such a change in the American rabbinate based on shifting demographics and the needs of the community. However, I don’t see this as a crisis in American Jewry. Rather, I find this to be an interesting opportunity for rabbis to become more entrepreneurial — both as a way to be necessary and to make a significant contribution to our people. Rabbis who see this as a chance to reinvent their rabbinate will ultimately be the most successful in the new era of Jewish life. And that holds true not only for American rabbis, but for rabbis throughout the Jewish world who have the entrepreneurial spirit.

I’m currently taking part in a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to Ukraine and Israel, and writing this blog post on a plane headed from Kiev to Tel Aviv along with a few dozen of my colleagues from the multitude of denominations. One thing I’ve noticed on this mission is that when rabbis meet each other for the first time, in general, they no longer ask each other “Which congregation do you lead?” Rather, the question is something along the lines of, “Where are you from and what do you do?” Rabbis today are exploring much different rabbinic paths of leadership than in previous generations. Growing up I always thought the role of the rabbi was solely in a synagogue. All of the rabbinic role models I had as a child were pulpit rabbis. Today, much has changed and the majority of rabbis do not work in congregations.

Talented rabbis are working in day schools, Jewish Community Centers, camping agencies, communal organizations, college campus institutions, and philanthropic foundations. They are also cobbling together two and three part-time jobs in ways never imagined in previous generations. Several entrepreneurial rabbis are taking a page out of the Chabad emissary playbook and founding new congregations and small prayer communities where there is a need. While not an easy task, these rabbis are finding the “start-up” experience to be exhilarating, significant and spiritually fulfilling. Rabbis are also freelancing their skills more often. As the number of Jewish families and singles unaffiliated with a congregation rises, there is an increased need for rabbis to perform life-cycle leadership roles. With the growth of the internet it has become easy for people to identify rabbis to officiate at a baby naming ceremony, wedding, funeral or unveiling.

A recent article in The Jewish Week showed a new trend for private bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, independent of synagogues, that is prevalent on the East Coast. And that trend is spreading to the rest of the country. As a rabbi who is not affiliated with a congregation, I am called upon often to lead life-cycle ceremonies and I know that is the case with my colleagues around the country who likewise aren’t working in a congregation. Our culture of desiring the best products has reached into the religious leadership marketplace as well. A Jewish couple no longer feels compelled to have the rabbi of their childhood congregations preside at their wedding ceremony. Instead they will select the rabbi who they believe will create the most meaningful, memorable experience. So too with other life-cycle events like funerals. I’m often asked to perform the weddings of young people with whom I developed a relationship working as a rabbi on a campus Hillel or at a Jewish summer camp. Many of these young people have moved away from their childhood communities and don’t have a meaningful relationship with the rabbi of their parents’ congregation, but like everything else in life they are seeking the personable, meaningful, and memorable.

I believe that while laypeople may be able to perform many of the functions traditionally reserved for rabbis, there is no replacement for the vast array of skills a rabbi brings after years of training. A one-year online rabbinic program may be a worthwhile endeavor for many spiritually seeking Jewish people who are not able to attend a five- or six-year rabbinic training program, but they will not be a legitimate substitute for a rabbi. As the Forward editorial articulated, “For many American Jews, there is no substitute for the penetrating power of a brilliant sermon, or the comfort offered by a rabbi who knew the dying person before she became ill. There is no one else to mold and lead a religious community, to carry on and interpret our great tradition of scholarship, or to stand as a moral lighthouse in this foggy time. No one else to represent ourselves to ourselves, and ourselves to other people. Which is why defining and sustaining the role of the modern rabbi is one of the most vital challenges before the American Jewish community today.”

I don’t believe the rabbinate is in crisis, but I do believe that the most resourceful and entrepreneurial rabbis will be the ones to emerge successful in the Jewish world. Professional programs like Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship have realized this and are helping guide rabbis in the new rabbinate. The rabbis who embrace rather than dismiss the new realities of Jewish life will be the ones to make positive contributions to their community in particular and to global Jewry in general. And those rabbis who don’t dwell on the past (“the good ole days of the rabbinate”), but seek out modern innovations to guide their leadership and influence will be the most dynamic Jewish leaders of the future.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Beren Academy Will Play After All

Beren Academy is not the first Jewish day school to find itself in a Shabbat-related predicament at the end of the season. Many Jewish day schools are part of sports leagues with other private schools that are willing to accommodate the Jewish school’s commitment to observing the Jewish Sabbath during the regular season and not scheduling competition during those 25 hours of rest. The problem often occurs during post-season tournament play when a lot of games need to be scheduled in a short period of time.

On Thursday, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) backed down and agreed to allow Beren Academy’s semifinal basketball game to be rescheduled rather than face a legal battle. Several of the Orthodox players and their parents filed suit Thursday morning against the Mansfield Independent School District, the host of the state championship, and TAPPS in U.S. District Court alleging a violation of religious freedoms. Instead of contesting the matter in court, TAPPS gave in and amended the schedule to accommodate the yeshiva.

Coach Chris Cole and his Beren Academy players. (Photo: Samantha Steinberg/JTA)

Earlier this week at the Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat, several of us discussed the Beren Academy case. There are certainly two sides to the case. While I believe in religious tolerance and am always grateful when institutions seek to accommodate individuals observing their religion, I also believe that there are consequences that must be accepted when upholding ones religious beliefs.

In the case of Beren Academy, the school was made aware that the yeshiva’s games would not be rescheduled in tournament play if they fell during Shabbat. This was articulated by the tournament organizers to the school before Beren Academy agreed to register. Furthermore, the Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) boys should understand that when you keep the laws of Shabbat there will be opportunities that will be missed. One would imagine this would be something that their parents and teachers would explain to them. Those of us who observe Shabbat can list the many sporting events, concerts, parties, graduations and other events we have missed as a result of adhering to the sanctity of Shabbat.

I think that it is wonderful that TAPPS and the tournament host agreed to reschedule Beren Academy’s game, but had they held their ground this should have been something the players accepted. There is a common phrase in Yiddish — S’iz shver tzu zein a yid — that means it’s tough to be a Jew. We can’t expect the secular world to always accommodate us when our religious values come into conflict with regularly scheduled events. It is true that this wasn’t such a clear cut case in that there had been other accommodations for Seventh Day Adventists that amounted to precedent, but ultimately what makes being Shomer Shabbat so special is the knowledge that certain things are sacrificed to uphold the sacredness and sanctity of the Sabbath.

One of the truly amazing aspects of being part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship (which is run by Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) is the dialogue with colleagues from different denominations. I offered to include the viewpoints of my colleagues in this blog post and below are three opinions from members of my Rabbis Without Borders cohort.

Rabbi Jason Herman, an Orthodox rabbi in New York explains:

There is a Hasidic legend of a man who was offered a large sum of money by a king in exchange for a favor that would involve violating the Sabbath. The man declines but then presents the king with a gift thanking him for helping him realize that there was something in his life more valuable than the king’s treasure. The students of the Beren Academy in Houston faced the unfortunate circumstance where their request to have a high school basketball tournament postponed to avoid playing on the sabbath was denied. While these boys may be extremely disappointed and might even think the decision was unfair, they have the privilege of joining many generations of earlier American Jews who made tremendous sacrifices to observe the Sabbath. In doing so, we can hope that like the man in the story, they recognize that they have something in their lives that they value more than winning basketball tournaments. Yet, at the same time, while the league was in the right having told the school before they joined that they would face this issue, the league should reconsider its schedule for future years. The religious observance of student players is one that should be honored and for the sake of competition — the league and all schools involved should want to see the best team win.

Rabbi Hillel Norry, a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta, argues:

Would you change the date if it conflicted with Christmas? I think the obvious answer is, yes. The proof is that the tournament is not scheduled during church hours. The only arguments for not accommodating many different schedules and priorities is that the majority should dictate the results, and that if we accommodate shomer Shabbat Jews, then we will have to accommodate all scheduling needs. Unless you want a monolithic tournament that only includes the majority group and does not reflect the actual diversity of the community then the first argument fails on its face. And, yes I think we should accommodate many different needs – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many more. The basketball game is not more important than the creation of a large enough court to include all the players.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, a Reform rabbi in San Francisco, believes:

I am less concerned with what decision was made but with how the children will understand and interpret what they are seeing happen around them. It seems to me that the children who are going to play are learning that exclusion is more important than accommodation and full competition. To me this goes counter to the religious and athletic values being promoted by playing in this league in the first place. The children who are staying home are learning that the religious values that they are learning in school are worth sacrificing for.

The controversy seems to have been averted and Beren Academy will now be able to compete in the tournament. I wish them luck in their game and hope they emerge champions of the tournament. They won their case and managed to keep the Sabbath and keep their spot in the tournament. But I hope the lesson isn’t lost on them. In life, we often have to give something up to really appreciate the value that we hold dear. Shabbat it is a special gift that we Jewish people have, but sometimes it comes with a cost.

UPDATE: Beren Academy won their game today 58-46.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller