American Judaism’s Great Rabbi Shortage

March 14, 2023 | Paula Jacobs
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More than ever, Conservative and Reform Jews in the U.S. want to be part of small congregations with ample opportunities for intimate interactions with their rabbis. But at the same time, enrollment at the major non-Orthodox seminaries is down. Paula Jacobs explains:

When Rabbi Irwin Kula attended the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) rabbinical school 40-plus years ago, his studies emphasized a text-based, academic approach. And when he was ordained in 1982, most of his class of approximately 40 rabbinical graduates—all white and male—took pulpit jobs. In spring 2023, JTS plans to ordain twelve rabbis and three cantors—a diverse group of graduates in terms of gender, age, and sexual orientation, as well as Jewish and professional [backgrounds], but far smaller than Kula’s class. The current first-year class at the Conservative seminary is even smaller, consisting of seven rabbinical and five cantorial students.

Nor is JTS alone. Non-Orthodox rabbinical schools across America are experiencing a significant decline in enrollment, affecting both these institutions and the American Jewish community at large as the demand for rabbis exceeds supply, particularly as baby boomers retire and others leave because of burnout. . . . But rabbis are still in demand—a demand that outstrips supply, even as congregations shrink. This year, like last year, the Conservative movement—50 percent of whose rabbis in North America serve congregations—anticipates a shortage of rabbis to fill available positions.

Yet, as Jacobs goes on to detail, the seminaries are seeking new ways to keep up with these changes—and there is even some reason for optimism.

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