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Provide for Yourself a Rabbi

“Provide for Yourself a Rabbi” (Pirkei Avot 1:6)

As Reconstructionists, we talk all the time about creating Jewish community — whether we are building and sustaining our home congregations; seeking connection with other Jews and the people who love us beyond our own walls; or trying to nurture emerging expressions of Jewish communal life on college campuses, in other non-synagogue settings and even on the internet.

If we are serious about building Jewish community, what could be more important than educating, nurturing and supporting Jewish leaders — rabbis — who will partner with us, teach us, learn with us, and both ground us in our tradition and inspire us to reach for new meaning? It seems to me axiomatic that if we have committed ourselves to the work of creating the Jewish communities in which we want to live, we assume an obligation to ensure that there will be truly excellent communal and spiritual leadership for those communities, now and in the future. 

Our movement is premised on the idea that a rich partnership between a committed lay community and a dedicated, multi-skilled rabbinate is central to the creation of community. In their groundbreaking 2001 report, the members of the Reconstructionist Commission on the Role of the Rabbi wrote: “Reconstructionism has correctly identified the importance of engaging Jews with Judaism, and encouraging, even requiring, that they take responsibility for their Jewishness. Reconstructionist rabbis are not in the role of surrogate Jew, the one expected to fulfill Jewish ritual on behalf of congregants. Reconstructionist rabbis are teachers and guides, leading congregations into deepening cycles of personal involvement with Judaism and the Jewish people.”

Even our affiliated communities that are proudly and intentionally lay-led benefit from the existence of a thriving rabbinate: people whose education is grounded in a Reconstructionist approach, and who are dedicated to articulating and advancing a Reconstructionist vision of contemporary Jewish life; rabbis who serve on college campuses, in chaplaincies and in rabbinates devoted to social justice; and rabbis whose thinking and writing help us to imagine progressive Judaism for today and tomorrow. 

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College emerged from this lay/rabbinic partnership. Over a period of years, culminating in the 1963 convening of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, lay members of Reconstructionist communities, under the leadership of Ira Eisenstein, overcame Mordecai Kaplan’s decades-long reluctance to establish a denominational seminary. Those lay leaders of 1963 were the founders and builders of our home congregations, including (among others) SAJ, Bet Am Shalom, Dorshei Emet, RSNS and JRC. Their commitment and passion led directly to the founding of RRC in 1968 as the center for rabbinic education based on a Reconstructionist approach, and ultimately, to the emergence of a Reconstructionist rabbinate.

Lay leaders of the early Reconstructionist movement recognized, as we should now, that strong communal leaders who are trained from a Reconstructionist perspective and who embody a Reconstructionist approach are essential partners in our efforts to build our home communities and to reconstruct communal Jewish life for a changing world. 

I worked for my entire professional career in a partnership. The hallmark of a partnership is a shared commitment to work together in the furtherance of a common goal. As a partner, I have rights and expectations about how my partners will behave. But I also have obligations to my partners and to the enterprise — and it is essential to the success and long-term stability of the partnership that those obligations are clearly articulated and understood.

Our rabbis bring to this partnership a commitment to dedicate their hearts and minds, and their professional lives — and in many ways their personal lives as well — to the service of the Jewish community. The barriers to entering the Reconstructionist rabbinate are not small: aspiring rabbis usually face five, and sometimes six, years of post-graduate education — longer than it takes to become a doctor and up to twice as long as it takes to become a lawyer. The financial barriers include not only the cost of tuition, but also the cost of living through up to six years of graduate school, supplemented mostly by internships and teaching opportunities that provide rich experience and limited financial rewards.

So, if our rabbis are our partners in reconstructing Jewish community and Jewish life, what is our obligation, as lay people, to them and to this partnership?

Clearly, we have an obligation to partner with our rabbis with open hearts and minds, and in a way that embodies our Jewish values, particularly kavod harav, the honor that is due to the rabbi. These obligations of openness and mutual respect are, of course, reciprocal. 

I also believe that we, as the lay Reconstructionist community, have an obligation to share the burdens, particularly the financial burdens, of training and sustaining a rabbinate that will embody and further the ideals and ideas that motivated us to become Reconstructionists. We have the further obligation to ensure that while they are working in the service of the Jewish people — us — our rabbis can live comfortable and dignified lives. 

Yet it is sadly true that the financial burden of educating our rabbis falls far too heavily on the rabbis themselves, particularly within the Reconstructionist movement. Moreover, data recently gathered by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association also suggests that our rabbis may be paid less than rabbis in other movements, even when compared to rabbis with comparable years of experience in communities of comparable size. 

This is not a sustainable model, and it is not reflective of our highest values or our commitment to be responsible partners in building Jewish community. While aspiring rabbis come to RRC with a deep commitment to Reconstructionist principles and values, as well as to the Reconstructionist approach, it is unreasonable for us to expect that we will continue to attract the best and brightest young rabbinical candidates, and that those rabbis will remain our partners through long rabbinic careers, if what we have to offer is higher student-loan debt and smaller salaries with which to repay those loans. 

What are the numbers?

At RRC, full-time tuition for an incoming student in the 2019-20 academic year is $26,000. Our tuition is competitive with other accredited, non-Orthodox rabbinical schools, whose reported tuition rates range from $25,000 to $32,500 per year. As I mentioned above, in addition to the cost of tuition, students need to pay rent and feed themselves, and cover all of the other living expenses that must be paid during a five- to six-year graduate program.

In the aggregate across the student body, merit and need-based scholarships cover slightly less than 50% of the cost of tuition. About two-thirds of those scholarships — representing a little more than $200,000 — are funded out of our endowment. The rest are funded out of Reconstructing Judaism’s operating budget, which relies substantially on philanthropic support. 

Individually, scholarships range from $2,500 to $20,000, and the average annual award is $12,300. 

Where does that leave our students?

Based on data from the last academic year:

  • 67% of our current students are carrying educational debt (including undergraduate debt) of more than $50,000; the median is $60,545;
  • 11% have more than $100,000 in educational debt;
  • 73% of our scholarship awards are need-based;
  • 75% of our students do not receive financial assistance from family or outside sources.

Our largest graduating class in recent years, the class of 2017, included 13 students who were eligible for Federal Direct Student Loans. Of those, eight borrowed to fund their rabbinic education. The average loan burden at graduation among those who borrowed was $104,000; the median loan balance at graduation was $108,000; and the range was $45,000 to $138,500.

What else do we know? We know that other rabbinical seminaries are devoting more and more resources — money raised through philanthropy and by other means — to increasing scholarship aid and making rabbinic education more accessible to students whom they believe will become excellent rabbis. We also know that at RRC we are making every effort to (1) increase the size of our student body to a level that will enable us to maintain a pipeline of newly educated rabbis that will meet the needs of the movement and will allow our movement to grow; and (2) make rabbinic education a real option for everyone who aspires and has the capacity to be a wonderful rabbi, including candidates from non-traditional backgrounds, who may have relatively less support from family and others to finance their education. 

For example, this year RRC has 11 incoming students, as compared to the class of five students who graduated last June. As we grow the student body, and as we strive to broaden our reach, it is obvious that our need for scholarship dollars will increase substantially, even if our goal is only to maintain the current level of scholarships covering a little less than half of tuition. The roughly $200,000 a year in scholarship aid generated by our current endowment will stay about the same — meaning that our existing resources will cover a smaller percentage of the total need.

As I have tried to argue above, for practical and moral reasons, I do not believe that maintaining the current level of support — at about 50% of tuition — is enough. I believe that we, as lay partners of our rabbis, have a moral obligation to do more and to share more robustly in the cost of training rabbis that is now borne by the rabbis themselves. 

So, what do we do about it?

Actually, a number of things.

At Reconstructing Judaism, a task force made up of board members, other lay leaders, faculty members and alumni has worked with Vice President for Academic Affairs Elsie Stern and the faculty to think broadly about how we train rabbis, and how we might enable and encourage a greater number of highly qualified candidates to join the Reconstructionist rabbinate. The model that emerged from that work, which we are continuing to develop, would increase substantially the opportunities for rabbinical students to train in the field, particularly in the last two years of the program, through robust internship opportunities in communities (and other settings) across the movement. As always, we are working to be careful stewards and keep the cost of educating our students as low as we can.

Lots more about this new model will be forthcoming. Most importantly, it will enable our affiliated communities across North America (and beyond) to partner more directly in the training of new rabbis. It will give our rabbis in the field more opportunities to be mentors. It will give our affiliated communities (and other venues in which our rabbis are employed, like college campuses and chaplaincies) more opportunities to be invigorated by the work of rabbinical students who can play increasingly significant roles in building and sustaining community.

We very much hope that affiliated communities across the movement will be open and welcoming to our rabbinical students, and will stretch to make internship opportunities, with reasonable levels of compensation, available. This will benefit our communities directly through the work that will be done and will also provide a vehicle for us to help alleviate some of the financial burdens on our students with fair pay.

We will need more money for scholarships, and I am hopeful that individuals and communities across the movement will consider seriously sponsoring new scholarships for students. More about this will follow, too. We need to create opportunities for committed Reconstructionists to support our students and hope that collectively we will recognize how important it is for all of us to honor our responsibilities as partners.

Lastly, in our home communities, we need to make sure that we are fair, generous of spirit and responsible in how we compensate our rabbis. Our salaries and benefits should be as generous we can make them, our negotiations with our rabbis should be forthright and our rabbis’ compensation should be comparable to those paid by similarly situated congregations in other movements.

I know this all costs money. And I know that money is hard to come by. But I also know that we need to figure out how to do better — to be fair, to be good partners to our rabbis and, through that partnership, to build and sustain a vibrant, progressive, Jewish communal life for ourselves and for those who will follow us. 

The Reconstructionist Network