Continuing Education for Rabbis

January 1, 2003
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by Hayim Herring

Rabbinical schools today are failing to devel-op a broad communal vision of Jewish life. Students are sometimes exposed to fragments of a vision but are not typically provided with a coherent whole. And when students wrestle with the “role of rabbi,” they are often unable to translate their ideas in the field.

While rabbinical schools provide some training in organization and management, their primary focus must remain on Judaic subjects. Even if schools had adequate faculty and time to offer a serious program in professional development, talking theory (role-playing, case studies) is a pale substitute for the Jewish world that students will encounter as rabbis.

To their credit, rabbinical organizations have been steadily increasing the range, quantity, and reach of professional development opportunities for rabbis. However, these courses are offered sporadically, for brief periods of time, and without any follow up. Rabbis are, therefore, unable to adapt their acquired theoretical knowledge into concrete organizational change. While continuing education is firmly embedded in most professions, rabbis are not required to take continuing education credits in order to retain active credentials. Continuing education recognizes that professionals remain maximally effective over time by participating in peer-related, professional development programs. Why do we not bring the same expectations to the rabbinate?

The irony is that rabbis are continuous learners. Ask a rabbi about a Jewish text, secular book, or article that she has read recently, and you are likely to hear several titles. But, ask a rabbi about the last time he attended an intensive, sustained professional development program (which generally excludes rabbinical conventions) and you are more likely to hear silence. This is not only because rabbis lack a culture that fosters continuing education as do other professions, but also because their volunteer leadership is often unwilling to make time and money available for such participation.

There are many cogent reasons for promoting continuing education for rabbis. Rabbinical school does not train rabbis to respond to a growing diversity of Jewish families. Today, there are significant numbers of people for whom being single is not a temporary state but a voluntarily permanent status, or one that they will retain for long periods of time. In addition to large numbers of singles, we have single parents, empty-nesters, interfaith families, gay and lesbian families, bi-racial families, adoptive families . . . and other kinds of as-yet-unimagined families.

As well, continuing education would prepare rabbis to address the unprecedented challenges of responding to four generations of Jews at the same time. Members of the “Veteran/Silent Generation,” “Boomers,” “Gen X’ers” and “Millennials” are each influenced by different historical forces and bring different values and expectations to the Jewish community. Not surprisingly, the religious identity characteristics of each generation vary because of generational differences in attitudes toward organized religion and because of different developmental needs that emerge at various life stages. While many teachings in our tradition are timeless, if we want them to be timely, then we have to learn how to translate them into meaningful categories for people at different stages of life.

As rabbis, we emphasize the importance of building Jewish community, practicing ritual behaviors, respecting religious authority, and valuing the objective wisdom of the Jewish tradition. And yet our lack of training is not preparing us to think creatively about a large cohort of soon-to-be Jewish adults.

Recent studies on dynamic religious institutions point to the excellence of clergy as the key variable for their success. Excellent clergy:

*    Have a clear sense of purpose and know how to articulate it in a compelling manner. At the same time, they accept their congregants where they are;

*    Build community through work with small groups, committees and the board. Lay leaders are not viewed as obstacles to clergy; they are allies in helping to fulfill a community vision.

*    and Express their vision through local congregational and community action.

But, rabbis can lose their sense of calling over time and become engulfed in the routine tasks of congregational or organizational life without a spiritual vision that continuously replenishes the strength required of religious leadership. While necessary, merely having a clear sense of religious mission is insufficient for leading a synagogue or institution. Dynamic secular and religious nonprofit organizations have high-functioning boards, motivated volunteers, effective communications, good marketing, up-to-date use of technology, and comprehensive human and financial development programs. In short, they incorporate the theory and best practices of nonprofit management.

Jewish spiritual leadership is anchored in a broad understanding of 21st-century America, the adaptation of the Jewish tradition to a diverse, multigenerational community, and nonprofit management; these three areas call for a fully developed, required program of continuing education for today’s rabbis. Understanding in these areas is imperative if we wish our congregations and Jewish institutions to be robust and evolving places of Jewish living for all of the members of our community.

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Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is Executive Director of STAR (Synagogue: Transformation and Renewal).

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