Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac is looking for an assistant rabbi. After launching a search in December, Rabbi Adam Raskin has received nine resumes.
In ordinary times, that wouldn’t be very many resumes. But these are not ordinary times. A representative of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism told Raskin that Har Shalom has seen the most interest of any synagogue looking to hire a rabbi this year.
“I know that there were some much smaller communities in remote places that didn’t receive any,” Raskin said. “There’s a big imbalance this year. A lot of synagogues will go without rabbis.”
In early December, Judaism’s Conservative movement sent a disquieting message to dozens of synagogues looking for a new rabbi: Many of you won’t make a hire this year.
At least 80 Conservative synagogues anticipated rabbi vacancies — approximately one of every seven affiliated with the movement, the email said. At most, 50 to 60 rabbis would be looking for new jobs.
“We are not presenting this information to alarm, but rather to help you prepare for and navigate the challenges of this search season,” said the email, which was signed by the “career search team” of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbis association, and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the group that represents its nearly 600 congregations.
That email outlined a number of strategies that synagogues, rabbi applicants and movement organizations could adopt to mitigate the challenging job market. But last week, a new message indicated strongly that the mismatch remains acute.
Starting Feb. 1, the new letter said, the Conservative movement is suspending many of the rules that are meant to ensure that Conservative synagogues hire only rabbis trained at the movement’s seminaries or who have otherwise applied for and won admission to the Rabbinical Assembly.
Those rules are relaxed late in the hiring season in a typical year, but the accelerated timeline represents a concession that the movement, which has been shrinking for decades, is not fully situated to meet the needs of its congregations right now.
The pandemic only exacerbated this trend, said Rabbi Charles Arian, of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg. “Rabbis put off their retirement for a year. And now I see that there are more rabbis retired this year than there are in a normal year.”
There are other factors as well.
Raskin said that the rabbis who are graduating from seminaries are not choosing to go into congregational work in large numbers like they once did. Instead, they are opting to work at day schools, as hospital chaplains or in Jewish agencies.
“I think there’s a perception that there’s a better lifestyle in terms of not being on call as much, being able to have your own Shabbat, and having your weekends and evenings,” Raskin said. “Congregational rabbinate can be can be grueling. And if people don’t set healthy boundaries, that can be something that absorbs your whole life.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to what many call “the great resignation” across many industries. Rabbi Kim Blumenthal, of Bet Chaverim Congregation in Columbia, said that even before the pandemic, many of her fellow rabbis were feeling “run down.” Blumenthal knows a few rabbis who chose to retire early.
“COVID was another trauma on top of trauma that’s been physically and emotionally exhausting for our congregants and ourselves,” Blumenthal said.
The pandemic has exacerbated issues of work-life balance for many people. Rabbis, like others across many fields, have taught and counseled via Zoom from their own homes, eroding boundaries that can be tenuous in the best of circumstances. Many have done so with small children at times attending virtual school from adjacent rooms.
Meanwhile, their roles expanded to include becoming health care consultants, responsible for keeping their communities safe from COVID-19, while the in-person gatherings that are the heart of rabbinic leadership have been constrained.
More recently, the hostage crisis at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, offered a stark reminder that being a rabbi can entail physical risk as well.
“‘Can I continue doing this for 20 more years?’ If you knew how many good, fulfilled rabbis are asking this question in their souls, with their spouse or partner, and to one another, you would sense that seismic shockwave that potentially faces us,” Rabbi Lewis Kamrass wrote in eJewish Philanthropy in October. “It could even be going on within your own congregation or organization.”
Kamrass is president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents 2,200 rabbis in the Reform movement, American Jewry’s largest denomination. Reform synagogues are also seeing an increased number of openings because of a surge in retirements this year, according to Rabbi Janet Offel, the director of consulting and transition management at the Union for Reform Judaism.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, of Kol Shalom in Rockville, said this is a wake-up call of sorts. There’s a trend among young people away from affiliation in general and synagogue membership in particular. With fewer interested in organized religion, fewer people are coming down the pipeline from rabbinical schools.
“This has been going on for a number of years now, particularly in the Conservative movement,” Steinlauf said. “There is a need to be more nimble, more flexible, more responsive to the changing spiritual needs of Jewish people in our time.”
Still, what does a congregation do when it wants a rabbi this year? A Conservative congregation in Montreal took the unusual step of buying a quarter-page ad in the Jerusalem Post to alert its readers that it is seeking a full-time senior rabbi.
Synagogues in areas with dwindling Jewish populations, where few amenities of Jewish life are likely to be present for rabbis and their families, may be having even more trouble drumming up rabbinical candidates. One synagogue in Kalamazoo, Mich., told its congregants that not a single application had come through the Conservative movement hiring system.
In more isolated communities, going without a rabbi could be a blow to organized Jewish life. And hiring a rabbi from outside the Conservative movement could change a synagogue community’s character — a reality that the most recent letter from the movement groups suggested guarding against.
“Please remember that non-RA rabbis may have a wide range of attitudes towards halakhah,” or Jewish law, which the Conservative movement prioritizes more highly than other non-Orthodox denominations, the latest letter to synagogues said. “We urge you to ask questions about their policies to be sure that the rabbi’s views are consistent with Conservative Judaism and your community’s values and priorities.”
Within the movement, officials expect a substantial number of synagogues to end the hiring season without a new rabbi under contract. Their concern is so acute that a team of 25 leaders has convened to discuss a looming questions: If synagogues can’t be reasonably assured of rabbis from within the movement, why should they continue to pay dues to belong to it?
Arian sees another problem at the beginning of the rabbinic pipeline: the cost of becoming a rabbi. Arian said students will graduate with $100,000 to a quarter of a million dollars of student loan debt. To make matters worse, the average rabbinical salary has remained the same over the last few years, despite the rising cost of living, Arian said. In some cases, salaries have even gone down.
Arian said fixing the problem needs to be multifaceted. He feels that there are certain congregations that have a history of treating their rabbis poorly. When it was a buyers’ market for synagogues, rabbis had virtually no choice but to take what they were offered.
Now that the rabbis have the advantage in the market, those jobs are going unfilled.
“So certain congregations are going to have to do some soul searching and figure out ways to treat their rabbis better,” Arian said, “whether that’s raising salaries, more protections for the rabbi or a change of the culture.”
Alex Krutchik is a staff writer for WJW.
Asaf Shalev writes for Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which contributed to this story.