Enrollment in non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries has been shrinking for years, particularly in schools associated with the Reform and Conservative movements. As Arno Rosenfeld notes, “the challenges facing seminaries . . . track with American Jews’ shift away from formal institutions and denominations.” Meanwhile, smaller, independent schools have seen their numbers increase in recent years. Rosenfeld suggests that this trend may signify an enduring shift in American Jewish leadership and religious engagement.
The major non-Orthodox denominations—Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist—still dominate American Jewish life. But the difficulty in attracting rabbinical students, especially in the Conservative and Reform movements, which together account for the vast majority of non-Orthodox synagogues, portends a future in which independent institutions play an increasingly important role.
Still, the number of Jews who report belonging to a synagogue has remained steady over the last twenty years, and there is reason to believe that the rabbinic pipeline is shrinking faster than synagogue membership.
The Conservative movement warned its congregations in December that many of them would not be able to fill vacant rabbi positions, with roughly 80 synagogues looking to hire one of the 50 or 60 rabbis available.
That announcement was followed by other signs of a reckoning among Jewish seminaries. The Reform movement announced earlier this month that it was considering ending rabbinic training at its historic campus in Cincinnati. And the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, a Conservative seminary, said this week that it would slash tuition by nearly 80 percent to attract more students after enrollment plunged from 56 students ten years ago to 34 this year. . . . While the growth of independent seminaries may point to an interest in rabbinic roles that are less rigid than the traditional congregational pulpit, synagogues remain the primary institutions offering lucrative jobs to new rabbis.