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Rabbis, Too, Affected by the Turn of Tide in Jobs

September 24, 2009 By:
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Rabbi Jarah Greenfield

As the financial system teetered on the brink of collapse last fall, Rabbi Jarah Greenfield -- then in her final year of study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote -- considered the very real possibility that she wouldn't land a job for the following year.

Said the 32-year-old: "There was certainly a higher level of anxiety at the outset of this past year."

Greenfield was far from alone. She said that many of her classmates expressed some of the same fears. In the past, rabbinic students felt that, after five or six grueling years of coursework, their reward would be a solid position.

But now, as 5770 gets under way, it should come as no surprise that both newly minted rabbis and a number of veterans are facing the same issues as their congregants -- chief among them an uncertain and shifting job market, and real concerns over fiscal security.

The 2009 rabbinic graduating class had a far more difficult time being placed than recent classes, according to officials from various movements. That's partly because far fewer senior rabbis have either retired or changed jobs, creating fewer openings at the top.

At the same time, rabbis working in the Jewish organizational world have lost their positions during an unprecedented contraction, further crowding the pool of applicants for available spots.

This difficult year came as decades-long trends and some more recent developments have begun reshaping the perception and the reality of the rabbinate.

Some experts predict that the economy may have ushered in a transformative phase for congregations and the organizational world, thus further affecting the rabbinate, which has been undergoing near nonstop change since the first woman was ordained in the early 1970s.

'More of an Impact This Year'

Greenfield, for one, felt she needed to take a safer, albeit unusual step, to try to guarantee employment. Rather than go through the normal search process, she approached the congregation in Maywood, N.J., where she had held a student pulpit, and asked if they would keep her on for two more years.

Temple Beth Israel, a small Reconstructionist synagogue comprised of roughly 60 families situated in the northern part of the Garden State, agreed to do so, but could only afford to pay her on a part-time basis.

Greenfield agreed, partly because she and the congregation had proven to be a great fit. She recently moved from Mount Airy to Weehawken, N.J., to be closer to both the synagogue and New York City, where she hoped to find other part-time rabbinic work. So far, nothing's come up.

Still, she expressed hope that something would materialize -- besides anxiety about how she'll make ends meet. But she said that she was grateful she's got a pulpit, and through it, the chance to help people make meaningful connections in their lives.

"Part of my development in the course of becoming a rabbi has been about letting Judaism infuse me with more ability to cope with forces that are out of my control," said Greenfield. "I've got a real sense of commitment and faith that things aren't just going to completely unravel. I can't imagine things becoming so desperate that I'd be unable to support myself doing the work I'm so passionate about."

In the end, it appears that Greenfield's classmates at RRC fared better than expected, even if the employment searches were somewhat angst-ridden. According to Rabbi Joel Alpert, director of placement for the Reconstructionist movement, nine out of 10 graduates have landed positions, though two are part-time posts.

The job span for these RRC graduates is indicative of the diversifying paths open to rabbis: Four members are now at congregations, two serving campus Hillels, two are doing chaplaincy work, and one is employed at a Jewish community center.

"The thing that was harder this year -- there weren't as many jobs open," said Alpert, adding that within the past 12 months, few Reconstructionist rabbis retired, no doubt influenced in their decisions by the effects of the recession.

Consequently, that meant that members of the 2009 class may have had only two or three viable options, whereas, in past years, said Alpert, they might have had closer to a half-dozen choices.

Alpert said that a long-running issue facing the Reconstructionist movement in particular is that so many graduates hope to remain in this region, but the number of individuals usually exceeds the available jobs. Half the members of this year's class are staying in the area. One is commuting from Philadelphia to a synagogue in Allentown.

"We didn't see as much of an impact from the economy as we thought we would," said Alpert. "Potentially, there might be more of an impact this coming year."

In 2008, many synagogue members had sent in their dues before the crash. This year, more congregants have held back, and the effect is just starting to be felt, explained Alpert.

Of the major denominations, the Reform movement may have been hit hardest by the recession. That reality has translated into a difficult transition for many of the graduates of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's three campuses in New York, Los Angeles and Cincinnati.

According to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an unprecedented 16 of HUC's 30 graduates remain unemployed. About half of those that did find work are on synagogue pulpits.

"We're still in a situation where there are, unfortunately, a number of highly qualified rabbis who are unemployed or underemployed," said Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, president of CCAR and religious leader of Congregation Ben Yehuda Beth Shalom in Chicago.

As a result of the restructuring of the Union for Reform Judaism and the closure of its regional offices, about 10 rabbis were laid off, thus flooding the job market, said Dreyfus.

"It's a very difficult situation," she said. "Some of them expressed concern that not having a position right out of seminary would mark their record negatively for the future. But if you tell anyone you were ordained in 2009, they will understand."

'The Market Is Somewhat Frozen'

Rabbi Ronald Schwartzberg, director of Jewish career-placement at Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future, said that the current situation isn't much better for Orthodox rabbis.

On the whole, congregations are offering about 20 percent less in salaries than in the past. Also, he said that new congregations have stopped forming. These developments have meant that rabbis who once might have scoffed at taking a pulpit outside of a large city are now accepting whatever opening comes their way.

"In the economic crunch that we're in, the rabbinic market is somewhat frozen," said the rabbi.

Over the past year, Yeshiva University has made a total of 123 rabbinic placements -- a figure that includes both internships for students and seasoned rabbis making a switch. Of these, 25 were part-time. Thirty of the rabbis were placed at pulpits; 26 found a home in Jewish education; and the rest were in outreach, campuses, chaplaincy and other positions.

Rabbi Jeremy Gerber, 29, a 2009 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary who recently took over at Ohev Shalom in Wallingford, said that most, if not all, of the rabbis in his graduating class have found jobs.

But he noted that many who might not have considered pulpit work reconsidered when other opportunities didn't pan out.

Gerber recalled that he was told throughout rabbinical school that there would always be more demand for rabbis than supply.

"As graduation approached, that seemed to be less and less the case," he noted.

Ultimately, he said that things turned out not to be as bad as he thought, and more positions popped up in the spring. The number of available jobs ultimately hewed pretty close to the number of graduates, said Gerber, who added that he had three job offers and wound up at his first choice.

Kevin Kleinman, 29, the new assistant rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, said that he and his classmates were keenly aware that the number of graduates would exceed the number of synagogues that were hiring.

Like the Conservative movement, the Reform placement process works like medical residency programs, where doctors all apply for the same openings. Rabbis who have spent four or five years together are suddenly interviewing with the same congregations.

Still, he said, the atmosphere remained both supportive and cordial. Kleinman noted that to give himself the best chance, he diligently prepared for each interview and used his contacts within the Reform movement to learn as much as he could about the various synagogues. He also mentioned that a few of his classmates who didn't find jobs have instead enrolled in doctoral programs.

Kleinman, who recently moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Mount Airy with his wife, said that he's in touch with several seniors at Hebrew Union College, and they're less than optimistic about the upcoming search.

"I don't know if it is going to be much different this year," he said. "The real test will be: Will the fate of the synagogue be linked to the fate of the economy?"

While many of the current difficulties are tied to the recession, a number of more seasoned rabbis expressed the opinion that the profession is changing in significant ways. One clear, long-term trend is the preponderance of rabbis working outside the pulpit; institutions in the region are awash in rabbis performing other roles, such as that of education director.

Both RRC and Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary now offer multiple career tracks, including campus work and chaplaincy. There's also a growing sense in the profession that the current generation of young pulpit rabbis is far more attuned to the work-life balance, and is erecting some barriers unfamiliar to previous generations of rabbis who were expected to be available 24/7 to the congregation.

And, at least anecdotally, it appears that a growing number of religious leaders are working three or four part-time jobs, rather than serving just one institution. Sometimes, that's out of necessity, and sometimes it's out of choice, admit professionals.

CCAR's Dreyfus said that when she hears of these kinds of situations, she has concern about the future, and yet remains fairly optimistic.

"Over the last several years, we've been kind of redefining what success in the rabbinate means," said Dreyfus. "The question is how the Jewish community is going to look in the next decade. I think we need to be open to lots of possibilities, and not see change as frightening. We have skilled and agile rabbis who will be able to lead the Jewish community in whatever direction it goes."

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