There is an old – cringeworthy old – joke told of our friend Goldstein. This time he pays a visit to his rabbi, sits down in his office and says, “Rabbi, I would like you to make me a kohen.”
The rabbi responds, “Goldstein, you know I love you, but I cannot make you a kohen.”
Goldstein smiles at the rabbi; he knows how the game is played. “Rabbi, I know the synagogue Gala is around the corner. I am sure you would like a few more names on the Diamond Committee. I’ll make my pledge here and now. Just make me a kohen.”
The rabbi smiles right back. “Goldstein . . . Abe. Gala or no gala. There is simply nothing I can do for you.”
Never one to back down from a challenge, Goldstein makes his final plea. “One million dollars, rabbi. Take it or leave it. Please, just make me a kohen.”
“Abe, I am sorry. I would if I could, but I just can’t help you. . . . But before you go, just tell me: Why is it so important to you to become a kohen?”
To which Goldstein replies, “Well rabbi, my father was a kohen, his father was a kohen, and his father before that was a kohen . . . ”
Whatever the challenges, pressures, and anxieties that came with being a kohen, a priest, in ancient Israel, at the very least there was no pipeline problem. To be a kohen, to be charged with leading Israel’s religious life, was no picnic. At the most basic level, the kohanim were entrusted with Israel’s sacramental life, – the rites, rituals, and rhythms of a people as they sought to stand before God. Daily sacrifices, Shabbat sacrifices, new moon and holiday sacrifices. Differentiating between the pure and impure, the kosher and unkosher. Making themselves available both to the community at large and to every individual Israelite. To be a kohen was a public, forward-facing position, his every move watched not just by God above but by the very people he led. A kohen was a person just like anyone else, but as clergy, he lived in the public eye and was thus held to a higher standard than everyone else. The job was 24/7 and it wasn’t always pretty. Jarring as it may be for us to read about the various afflictions described in this week’s Torah reading, think about the kohen who had to draw close to the raw and rough edges of every person’s life experience. The kohen had to deal with everyone in all their blemished humanity and carry the heavy burden of deciding who was “in” and who was “out” of the community. I imagine it was nonstop. It was a lot, and it was not easy to have one’s livelihood depend on the very people with whom you might agree or – just as often – disagree. And let’s face it: It is not a job that anyone went into for the paycheck.
But at least there was no pipeline problem. Your grandfather was a kohen, your father was a kohen, you were a kohen and your children and children’s children were going to be kohanim – a staff structure built into ancient Israel guaranteeing that every generation would be assured ample religious leadership. A system of mentorship and apprenticeship, the kohen’s trade passed down from generation to generation, the supply of clergy in a perpetual state of regeneration and replenishment.
That was ancient Israel. Our generation is not so lucky. We have a pipeline problem, and it is a serious one. As I read the press, as I speak to colleagues, as I hear the stories, I don’t just believe, I know that we are living through a clergy crisis, a crisis in the recruitment, training, placement, and retention of clergy to serve the present and future religious needs of the Jewish people. I am not going to sugarcoat it: The news is not good; it is in fact very bad. In the past few weeks there have been announcements of two major institutional contractions. In the Reform Movement, Hebrew Union College is deliberating whether to cease rabbinical training at its historic Cincinnati campus. In the Conservative Movement, the West Coast rabbinical seminary – American Jewish University – where I proudly attended for a year, just announced the proposed sale of their campus. Presumably in a bid to attract more students, they also announced slashing tuition by some seventy percent. Enrollment numbers are down; graduating classes and entering classes are tracking well below where they used to be. My alma mater, JTS, presently has about sixty rabbinical students enrolled – about half as many as when I was a student. Chovevei Torah, the Modern Orthodox seminary, is struggling for students. Even where the numbers are stable, as at Boston’s non-denominational Hebrew College, its campus was sold just a few years ago.
Training seminaries are just one data point in a bigger story, part of a cycle of contraction across American Jewish life. In December, the Conservative Movement sent a letter to its congregations that many of them would not be able to fill vacant rabbinic positions. Reform congregations are similarly reporting a five-to-ten percent rise in unfilled pulpits. It is a leadership pinch felt by all Jewish institutions, but most acutely by synagogues, because the role of pulpit rabbi holds diminishing appeal. I didn’t apply to a pulpit fresh out of JTS, but I remember the fierce competition for pulpits by my talented classmates. Today, many of the best and the brightest are gunning for entrepreneurial ventures outside of congregations. The crisis is not just with young rabbis, but all rabbis. The great resignation has hit the clergy community hard, with many rabbis taking early retirement and even once-coveted large congregational position going unfilled. Covid has not done anybody any favors. Synagogue attendance and membership is down as are other markers of Jewish life and living. The other day I spoke to a New York-based mohel, who shared that his business is down thirty-five to forty percent from his pre-Covid numbers. The data is not all bad: There are still waiting lists for spots at the Conservative Movement’s Ramah camps; independent learning ventures are sprouting up; online content is booming. The crisis is felt most acutely by progressive denominations, but evidence of erosion abounds, and the relevance of denominational labels is a question faced by everyone. The clergy supply-chain issue is not, to be sure, just a Jewish problem. Seminaries and congregations of many faiths and denominations are contracting. And while my focus is on the training of rabbis, the story for cantors and Jewish educators of all kinds is as bad if not worse. There is a pipeline crisis in the recruitment, training, placement, and retention of those very people we count on to build the Jewish future. Fewer choosing to enter Jewish education, fewer choosing to enter the rabbinate, fewer choosing to serve congregations, resulting in fewer congregations creating vibrant Jewish communities capable of inspiring the best and brightest to choose a career in service to the Jewish people. There are those who would say I am exaggerating, that there are bright spots to be found and that these trends are cyclical and thus not cause for alarm. I think those people are wrong. I think these people are in denial. I think I am being kind. I think this is a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle – an existential crisis facing American Jewry.
If the first step is to speak openly and name the pipeline crisis, then our next step must be to unpack why it is happening. Why aren’t the best and the brightest entering the rabbinate? To be sure, the problem long predated Covid. None of us went into the rabbinate for board meetings and synagogue politics. We did so because we love Jews and we love Judaism. We love Torah and we love teaching Torah. We want to communicate the riches of Judaism to the Jews we serve. But then rabbis discover a life of membership models, of divisive politics on Israel, intermarriage and intersectionality, of being stretched thin managing the budget and bureaucracy of a small-to-midsize cash-strapped not-for-profit. Rabbis are called on to make budgets meet and deal with congregants who project their personal frustrations with their lives, their faith, or their family onto the rabbi’s last sermon or the new melody the cantor introduced. Covid was just an accelerant to clergy burnout. The profession of congregational rabbi is premised on public assembly, on greeting people warmly, on watching a classroom come alive, on being present at a wedding, a shiva house, a baby naming, or bat mitzvah. Not only have we been deprived of the very things that once gave meaning to our vocation, but we fill our days doing things we are not qualified to do and have no interest in doing, like interpreting masking policies, CDC guidelines, and vaccine mandates. Oh, and let’s not forget antisemitism. Little did I know that “chair throwing” would be part of the skill set required of the next generation of Jewish clergy. Speaking for myself, my career exists in a bubble. I am blessed with extraordinary colleagues, a supportive community, and a demographic and philanthropic base that is stable and growing. But our congregation is not the story of American Jewry, and my rabbinate is not the story of the American rabbinate. I am sure there is someone out there commissioning some survey as to why there is a pipeline problem in the American rabbinate, but you don’t need a survey. You just need sekhel, common sense, to know why the best and the brightest are not entering the rabbinate in the numbers that are needed.
The pipeline problem is a serious one and we will discuss it on Tuesday night in dialogue with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of KJ as well as at Seminary Shabbat with Chancellor Schwartz on April 29. Like all serious problems, it will take bold and sustained thought and investment to address it. We need to consider questions of recruitment, training, compensation, and professional development to build a rabbinate capable of attracting the next generation. It is neither structurally nor morally defensible to have an industry, the industry of Jewish education, rely on a person’s marrying well. Seminaries need to be sufficiently funded to make tuition accessible to all, and Jewish educators need to be paid sufficient incomes that they can, at the very least, send their own kids to the very day schools, synagogues and summer camps in which we work and to which we tell you to send your kids. We need lay leaders from communities such as our own, who believe in the power of synagogues to shape individual and communal Jewish identity, so much so that they devote their time, talent and treasure towards those seminaries and agencies capable of moving the needle on matters larger than any one community. We need lay leaders to adopt the same creative, can-do approach in their synagogues that they demand in their day jobs, so that the coming generation of whippersnappers see congregational life as the playground to realize the dreams of a shared Jewish future.
There is much to be done. We all have a role to play in this story, even and especially me. For all sorts of reasons, I decided this past year to start teaching rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and I look forward to doing so again next year. In retrospect, I think the most impactful moment of the semester was not any class I taught or reading I assigned, but one night of Hanukkah when I invited my students over for candles and latkes. They spoke mostly to Debbie and my kids, and they saw that a person can live like a mensch, be happily married, raise fantastic kids, and find enormous professional satisfaction as a congregational rabbi – as a thinker, as a pastoral presence, and as a community organizer. They saw that while I was not born into it like the kohen of yesteryear, I wouldn’t change careers for all the riches of the world. Because no different than those kohanim, I arrive at work every day blessed to serve my community, blessed to make you think, blessed to ask you to stretch beyond what you think you are capable of doing Jewishly, blessed to be invited into your lives at your best and worst moments, and blessed to work with the greatest team of professional and lay leaders ever fielded to make Judaism come alive for our generation. I can think of no better career for an ambitious, mission-driven young person to enter than being a congregational rabbi and, if by my efforts and the model of my career, I can help inspire a few young people to study for the rabbinate, and to become congregational rabbis, I can think of no better legacy to leave.
And if you are wondering – aside from getting involved with Jewish education, and yes, leading an engaged synagogue -based Jewish life yourself – what your role is in this story, then I leave you with one final thought, one final memory. I can tell the story of why I became a rabbi in a variety of ways, but I know that one of the reasons is that in my household growing up, my parents were friends with the rabbi. The rabbi was the guy my father called for advice, who called my father for advice. He was the guy to whom my mother responded as a volunteer. More times than I can count, I recall my folks going out to dinner with the rabbi and seeing the rabbi in our living room drinking a late-night scotch with my father. And even when the rabbi wasn’t a family friend, which sometimes he wasn’t, the rabbi was always spoken of with respect, not because he was holy but because he chose a profession in service to something holy. Why did I become a congregational rabbi? Because I knew, without anyone ever saying it out loud, that it was a career choice that would be respected by the people I respect most in this world.
I lack nothing in my life. When it comes to my chosen profession, the love and respect I feel from the community I serve is beyond measure. Every rabbi should be so lucky, but not every rabbi is. So, if you are watching our livestream from afar, or if you are visiting, and your community is struggling, then do your rabbi and the Jewish people a solid by making your rabbi your friend. As is taught in Pirkei Avot: Aseh l’kha rav . . . u-k’neh l’kha haver, make yourself a rabbi, and acquire yourself a friend. Reach out to your clergy. Support them in their efforts. Judge them generously. Buy them a scotch. Fight for them in the boardroom. Make sure the servants of the Jewish people know they are respected for who they are and for the cause they serve. They are, after all, the pipeline – the lifeline – to our future. As your rabbi, I can think of no greater cause for you to defend.