Become a Rabbi? Not with that attitude.

Crossposted to Jewschool.

New Voices, which bills itself as the “National Jewish Student Magazine,” is pretty hit-or-miss for me. Mostly, it’s miss. To be clear, for those unfamiliar with me, I’m a college student, so it’s not unfair for me to be critical of their writers, who are also college students. (Why, by the way, would a magazine targeted at college students even bother having a print presence at all in this day and age?)

This recent post, Become a Rabbi?, left me feeling a little off-put, but also a little sad for the author. As someone who is a whopping one year older than the author, but has given significant thought to the issues she raises in the post, I’ve decided to annotate the post.

Have you ever considered what it would be like to be a rabbi?


Depending on your religiosity, there are different rules for who can be a rabbi and what that process entails. The first female rabbi ordained in America was not until 1972. Since then, nearly 400 women have been ordained in the United States. It is possible for women to be ordained as a Rabbi in the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements. Becoming a rabbi is one of the many professions I have considered.

Depending on your religiosity? Or depending on your denominational preference? I would go with the latter. It’s insulting and sad for me, a Reform Jew, to hear this author, also a Reform Jew, buying into the notion that she has less religiosity than her Orthodox counterparts. As a mere point of interest, Sally Priesand was not ordained until 1972, but the Reform rabbinate have a responsa dating back to 1922, which states “that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” Further, women can also be ordained in the Jewish Renewal ALEPH Ordination Program and at non-denomination schools like the Academy for Jewish Religion and Hebrew College. Not to mention the emerging field of Orthodox ordination for women, which stops just short of calling their female rabbis “Rabbi.”

Later today I am going to a presentation and dinner given by the Director of Admissions of the Jewish Theological Seminary at my Hillel. This school is where students go to become a Conservative rabbi; while I am Reform, I still think this will be an informative session.

Some Conservative Jews also go to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in LA, which is unaffiliated, but definitely Conservative, if that makes sense. Unfortunately, the author is operating under a notion of a highly segmented Jewish community. Conservative Jews go here. Reform Jews go there. But if I’m any kind of example, Reform Jews don’t have to be Reform Jews under the auspices of the official Reform Jews. For more on that, see this post, in which I declare my continued existence as a Reform Jew, while declaring independence from the URJ. There is a valid precedent for ascribing to a denomination or an ideology, but going elsewhere to study.

As I still am rather young, I know I do not have to decide what I want to do with my life right away. However, the profession of a rabbi seems to really have its benefits. Besides being able to embrace Judaism and to practice and to teach its principles for a living, there seems to be much more to being a rabbi.

Because it would be impossible “to embrace Judaism” in any other professional context?

Just on the outset, one of the most notable benefits seems to be the flexibility. As a rabbi, it seems you always get to interact with different people in different settings. Whether you are officiating a wedding or a funeral, it seems like you are always helping someone. Being able to teach and to give sermons also makes the profession look intriguing.

Ah, yes. The flexibility. The enormous debt in student loans. The wonderful job market. The well over 40-hour work weeks under a four-year contract at some suburban synagogue. Not that that’s the only thing to do as a Rabbi, but, let’s face it, the majority of rabbis have pulpits.


Clearly, all rabbis are respected and admired by their congregants. Therefore, it only makes sense that the application and selection process is so selective.

Yes, all rabbis are indeed respected and admired by their congregants. I had a relative (z”l) who used to assert loudly and frequently that all rabbis are ganifs. (Thieves, in Yiddish.) And, yes, HUC is so selective these days. They can’t get men to apply to their rabbinic or cantorial programs to save their lives! They’ll take anyone with a circumcision between their legs that they can get their hands on!


Additionally, it is unfortunate to mention, but with the poor economy and lack of jobs, I am even more concerned about my future after college. So, a bit of advice—don’t hesitate to be open to attending similar meetings that your campus offers, you may just stumble upon an unknown appealing career!

Again, I’ll refer you to this article at Tablet, which points out that the security if the rabbinic job market is just as screwed up right now as everything else.

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10 Responses to Become a Rabbi? Not with that attitude.

  1. Jason Rosenberg October 15, 2009 at 10:59 am #

    I agree with nearly everything you write (“Clearly, all rabbis are respected and admired by their congregants.”? Wow – that’s painfully naive!). But, to pick a nit, the one time it might make sense to have “a notion of a highly segmented Jewish community” might be when applying to a Rabbinical School. I was very happy to refer to myself as non-Denominational, or some such, until I decided that I wanted to become a Rabbi. At that point, I pretty much had to affiliate, at least in some sense of the word!

  2. Ben Sternman October 15, 2009 at 11:07 am #

    Ordination of women: I thought that the Reconstructionist movement was there before the Reform movement, though I might not be clear on my history. Or they admitted women a little before, but Rabbi Priesand was the the first to be ordained. You need to check on my memory.

    Job flexibility: David you are correct. I don’t work as long hours as many of my colleagues and I clock in at between 50 and 60 hours a week. I also have my calendar planned between now and the end of June, though I’m starting on the school year after that already.

    Selectivity: You’re being a little unfair there. People are accepted based on ability, not to fill class size. Even though the student loans are enormous, they still don’t charge what the education costs and they don’t want to invest in someone who just won’t make it through the program or someone who just won’t get a job after ordination/investiture.

    Lastly, you are correct. One doesn’t need to be a Jewish Professional (rabbi, cantor, educator, youth worker, etc.) to be a committed and educated Jew. Quite the contrary. I want all the members of my congregation to be committed and educated.

  3. Simcha Daniel Burstyn October 15, 2009 at 1:12 pm #

    David, your attitude is as bad as that of the author of said post/article. Yes, the tone of the piece in New Voices is pretty young, and your criticisms are not misplaced at all. No, that’s not a reason to belittle the author. If your goal is to be a rabbi, belittling is something to practice only once you have smicha. And then only on other Rabbis. That’s why they’re called “Rav”.

    And, BTW, HUC does NOT admit just any man who happens to apply. See my post from February, 2006. Never mind that Hebrew College, RRC, and Aleph all accepted me. But that water is way past the bridge now.

  4. BZ October 15, 2009 at 8:04 pm #

    According to Wikipedia, RRC’s first woman rabbi was ordained in 1974 (and the first RRC class overall was 1973). Rabbi Priesand was ordained in 1972.

  5. BZ October 15, 2009 at 8:05 pm #

    But there’s also Regina Jonas.

  6. Jesse October 16, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    Regina Jonas… interesting! Did not recall learning about her when I studied the wissenschaft . Thanks, BZ!

    David, I happen to agree with Simcha on this one… I believe your attitude is a little too flippant and overcritical. Good that you annotate Kelly’s article – it makes it clear for us to follow your thought process – but the logic seems a little off to me…

    Just because you start off with the answer “yes” to the question “Have you ever considered what it would be like to be a rabbi?” does not immediately mean you become an expert in the field of ‘young Jews who have considered pursuing a job in the rabbinate.’

    As one of said young Jews, I have this message for Kelly, if you’re reading this: I too have considered the rabbinate extensively, and if you have not already (which I don’t know…) I would advise you to strongly consider the more spiritual side of matters involved with becoming a rabbi. I envy that you seem to have the business and tachles side of things down – that’s something I’m struggling with to a great degree. But there’s a great deal of spiritual energy needed to support a career as a rabbi. I’d love to hear your thoughts on readying yourself for that aspect…

  7. David A.M. Wilensky October 16, 2009 at 11:31 am #

    All, the tone of this post, though certainly at least as flippant as most of the stuff that I write, isn’t meant to be especially so.

    Obviously, Jesse, I’m no expert, but I get the sense that I’ve examined more dimensions of this and have been more tortured by it than Kelly has.

    That, by the way, is not to say “Ooh look at me, I’m so cool and tortured and thoughtful.” I just got that sense from reading her post and thinking about myself.

  8. homeshuling October 20, 2009 at 6:20 pm #

    You were kind not to mention how poorly written the article was. So, I’ll do that for you.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 20, 2009 at 10:21 pm #

      Fair enough.

      So mention it.

      It’s not enough even in these less-than-intellectually-rigorous parts of the jblogosphere to call something poorly written at point blank with no elaboration.


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