Religion & Jewish Life

So you’ve decided to become a rabbi…

Newly ordained rabbis from Hebrew Union College's class of 2013 in Cincinnati celebrate with their ordination certificates outside the historic Plum Street Temple. (Janine Spang)
Newly ordained rabbis from Hebrew Union College’s class of 2013 in Cincinnati celebrate with their ordination certificates outside the historic Plum Street Temple. (Janine Spang)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Dear Friend,

I understand you’re thinking of becoming a rabbi. Mazel tov!

Getting into a seminary shouldn’t be too hard. During the decade between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, four consequential new rabbinical schools opened in America: the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y.; the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles; and two nondenominational seminaries, at Hebrew College near Boston and at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.

Ironically, these schools are now competing for fewer students.

Between Hebrew College and the six schools affiliated with the non-Orthodox denominations, the number of incoming students has fallen by 28 percent over the last decade, according to Rabbi Amber Powers, who tracks the data as assistant vice president for enrollment at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. In 2004, those schools enrolled 118 new rabbinical students. In 2013, there were just 84.

Even if you don’t make the cut this year, don’t fret: Admissions staff at most schools will work with you to find programs to enhance your Hebrew or Jewish literacy so you can get in next time.

“I would like to oversupply the Reform movement with rabbis — to meet the needs of congregations but also to have other folks who have graduated and can do other things,” says Rabbi Aaron Panken, the new president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which has three campuses and accepts about 60 percent of rabbinical program applicants.

Worried you won’t find a school near you? It’s true the only U.S. cities with accredited rabbinical schools are New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and Cincinnati. But now you can become a rabbi online! Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, offers a five-year distance-learning program.

If what you really seek is the title, you can become a “rabbi” in just two semesters at the online Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute. Or there’s Rabbinical Seminary International, run out of a Manhattan apartment and with graduation requirements consisting of the ability to conduct services that “include Hebrew” and “familiarity with the Bible, including the main themes of the Torah.”

But let’s get serious. If you’re looking for an accredited, brick-and-mortar institution, you will need to make a four- or five-year commitment, often including a year in Israel, depending on the school.

Do you have cash? The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which is ordaining 14 rabbis this year, costs about $28,000 per year; the movement’s Ziegler school in L.A. (17 rabbis this year) costs $26,500. Hebrew College (14 rabbis) is $25,000. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside of Philadelphia (six rabbis) is $21,000. HUC (35 rabbis) is about $20,000. Financial aid and student loans are common.

If you’re Orthodox, you can breathe a little easier. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (graduating two rabbis this spring) has no tuition and offers students a “generous stipend” for living expenses. Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, which ordains about 50 rabbis per year, also is free.

“We’ve had a 100-year tradition of not charging for rabbinical school,” said Rabbi Menachem Penner, the acting dean of RIETS. “It’s Y.U.’s gift to the community.”

Of course, attending an Orthodox school comes with its own burdens — like commitment to upholding ideological principles. (RIETS, for example, recently made clear that it would not countenance its students participating in partnership minyans.) Other schools have their own ideological commitments. JTS stresses egalitarian Jewish observance,with both men and women required to lay tefillin every day.(If you’re an Orthodox woman, your only ordination option is Yeshivat Maharat, the New York school founded in 2009 that ordains Orthodox clergywomen.)

The Reconstructionist movement’s seminary is less specific in its demands.

“Our requirements include deep immersion in Jewish modalities,” says Rabbi Deborah Waxman, RRC’s president. “We don’t mandate what Jewish immersion looks like.”

Before you go any further, you may want to give a thought to the rabbinic job marketplace. The best-paying jobs are pulpit positions, but those jobs, while still the single-biggest destination for graduates, are hard to get. Outside Orthodoxy, the number of synagogues is shrinking, thanks to the lingering effects of the recession, disinterest in organized religion among younger Jews and dwindling Jewish populations in small cities and towns. Some synagogues are merging; others are shutting down.

“There’s no jobs for these kids,” says Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who teaches rabbinics at Ziegler and serves as senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif. “When I was growing up they told us this was a great field, a burgeoning market. Now it’s shutting down.”

Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, international placement director at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, says about 100 Conservative rabbis in North America are seeking employment right now — including the 31 graduating JTS and Ziegler this year — but only 50-60 synagogue jobs are available.

In the Orthodox world, most of the pulpit openings are “out of town” — that is, outside metropolitan New York. Y.U. says only 25 percent of its newly minted rabbis these days find work in congregations, though 80 percent are involved in some kind of religious or Jewish communal work. The remaining 20 percent go to secular trades — like accounting, law and medicine.

If you do score a pulpit gig, don’t expect an easy ride. Many shuls can afford only part-time rabbis, so you may have to take a second or third job working as a schoolteacher or hospital chaplain. In small Reform congregations, you might serve as cantor, too. (I hope you can play guitar!)

It’s helpful to be young, and not just because you’ll be working weekends. With synagogues desperate to attract the under-40 set, many congregations eschew hiring older rabbis.

“Age discrimination starts earlier than it ever has before,” Schoenberg says. “The assumption is, if I hire someone who’s 30, all those who are 30 and live in the neighborhood will come to the synagogue. But it might very well be that what a synagogue needs is a rabbi who is a good educator, and a good educator might be 45 years old.”

You’re open to a job outside the pulpit? Terrific, because by choice or compulsion, more rabbis than ever are working in day schools, on college campuses, as hospital and military chaplains, in Jewish organizations, even at Jewish community centers. The bad news is job growth in those areas has stalled. Blame the Great Recession.

Now, let’s talk about why you want to be a rabbi. Is it the pursuit of scholarship? If so, you might not get what being a rabbi is all about: Most American rabbinical schools are placing more emphasis on leadership and professional training, not just Talmud and Torah study.

“A rabbi is not just a religious leader, but CEO of the synagogue,” says Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, Y.U.’s director of rabbinic placement.

“So much of their job is working with people, being available to people, responding to people,” says Rabbi Dan Judson, director of professional development and placement at Hebrew College. “It’s not necessarily about the best piece of Torah learning they can come up with.”

At JTS, half of the program’s final three years is devoted to professional and pastoral skills, including communications and nonprofit management. You’ll also have to get a master’s degree.

Wherever you go, expect to intern — and not just at synagogues.

“Over the last 20 years, the movement has been toward field education,” says Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at JTS. “That’s more time out in the community, whether doing critical pastoral education in hospitals or internships in synagogues and schools and camps and agencies.”

I don’t want to sound like your dad, but have you thought about your long-term future? Rabbinic tenure has fallen by the wayside, making rabbi jobs far less secure than in the past, according to Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Judaism at Brandeis University.

Still want to be a rabbi? Fantastic! It’s really a calling, isn’t it?

That’s how Sam Taylor feels.

“Early on in college I discovered I have a love of teaching, of people, of Judaism and Torah. I don’t think I’d be satisfied with accounting,” says Taylor, who will be graduating Y.U.’s rabbinical program this June.

Was Taylor nervous about finding a job? You bet. That’s why he did rabbinic internships, summer programs and fellowships. It paid off: He’s accepted a position in his native London, as an assistant rabbi at Western Marble Arch Synagogue.

“A lot of it is you just got to have faith in the hand of God,” Taylor says. “Faith counts for a lot.”