Metro Views: Get ready for fewer Reform and Conservative rabbis

The Reform mov't undergoes a stunning retrenchment, while the Conservative mov't suffers deep cuts

A man wears a kippah with the Obama campaign symbol (photo credit: AP)
A man wears a kippah with the Obama campaign symbol
(photo credit: AP)
It is a precipitous moment for Jewish religious leadership in the US.While the problems are primarily financial, their impact appears to threaten the future of American Judaism. Reform and Conservative seminaries - the institutions charged with providing the overwhelming majority of affiliated American Jews with their religious and educational leadership - face budget cuts so severe that their missions may be imperiled. The congregational arms of their movements also are in grave financial straits, and American rabbis generally face a shortage of jobs. No doubt there are very smart people thinking about what this portends. Those people, however, do not seem to be riding the Jewish information superhighway. Many of the stories about the rabbinate that interest American Jewish newspapers are not about the future of American Judaism. Instead, they concern whether "transgender" and intermarried Jews can be admitted to rabbinical schools, and see it as a sign of acceptance, or perhaps maturity, among the streams that a lesbian this month becomes president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. The idea seems to be that there are various groups pounding on the seminaries' gates: First the question was ordaining women, then gays and lesbians. Now that those groups can enter the non-Orthodox ordination programs, other groups have formed at the gate: the intermarried and transgender (women living as men, men as women, with or without surgical gender changes). However interesting or irksome these issues are to most American Jews, these "who can be a rabbi" stories are irrelevant to the future of Jewish life. THEN THERE is another rabbis story: The third annual list of "hot rabbis," published in Newsweek magazine. The list was compiled by three Jewish media tycoons: the chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Michael Lynton; the executive vice president of News Corporation, Gary Ginsberg; and the CEO of the Jewish Television Network, Jay Sanderson. Their list of the 50 "most influential rabbis" in the US is based on a variety of criteria, much it about power outside the community: how well known the rabbis are and their "media presence"; whether they have political or social influence; if they are leaders in their communities and the size of their constituencies; and whether they have made an impact on Judaism in their careers. Among the top 10 are the two Reform leaders, David Ellenson (#5) and Eric Yoffie (#8), both of whom are now presiding over a stunning retrenchment in the Reform movement. Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the graduate school and seminary of the Reform movement. Because of severe financial problems, it is due to cut one of its three campuses in the US. (Its Jerusalem campus appears to be safe.) The betting is that its original college in Cincinnati, Ohio, will close, while the New York and Los Angeles campuses will remain open. This means that the Reform movement, the largest Jewish denomination in the US, will sever itself from its historical roots. Yoffie is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, representing some 900 congregations in North America. He has suggested synagogue mergers and consolidations as his organization is restructuring, with staff and spending cuts. It is much the same at the Conservative movement's flagship rabbinical school, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where Michael Greenbaum, the vice chancellor and chief operating officer, is #24 on the hot rabbis list. The chancellor himself, Arnold Eisen, doesn't qualify because he is a scholar without smiha. Eisen announced last week that to close a budget gap the seminary must cut faculty positions as well as the wages of those who survive the knife. Meanwhile, there are fewer pulpit jobs for new rabbis. And communal and educational services, which used to hire rabbis, are also in the midst of draconian budget cuts. In addition, day schools reportedly are cutting staff and increasing class size. No rabbis need apply. In his message about the staff and financial cuts, Eisen said: "I am proud that JTS remains a vibrant institution on which many Jews in North America depend for leadership, ideas and inspiration. We will not let them down." I believe it is true that American Jews depend on JTS, as well as HUC and Yeshiva University for leadership, ideas and inspiration. Who else would train the rabbis and teachers for American Jews if the seminaries founder? But it is not clear that Reform and Conservative Jews recognize that dependence. IN FAIRNESS to the masses, the Reform and Conservative movements have yet to make a compelling case for their role in American Jewish life. They seem reluctant to insist on the importance of their training rabbis, despite evidence that most American Jews have no real notion of the seminaries' existence. Rabbis are like babies; they apparently are delivered by storks. To listen to some of the seminaries' pronouncements often sounds like listening to American automakers, with pledges to cut back, retool and emerge leaner, stronger and dynamic. And at the end, the automakers will offer a product that the public may not want or need. We will continue to see Jewish newspapers reporting on "who can be a rabbi" and in some parts of the US, some will waste a lot of energy debating "who can be" - without looking at "will there be" rabbis. There need to be communal provisions that treat seminaries as essential to American Jewish life. They need to be safeguarded in stormy financial times. Instead, we have left the seminaries to sink or swim like any other Jewish organization, competing for donations in the Jewish "marketplace." What a mistake. Ever since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, we have heard that the American Jewish future is in jeopardy. Every survey since has confirmed the fears. There is something both sad and unnerving that the few institutions charged with reinvigorating and protecting American Jewish life by producing the next generations of rabbis, Jewish educators and philosophers are so vulnerable, when they are uniquely deserving of Jewish communal support. The seminaries' mission is sacred. Not only must their future be assured, but so must their ability to deliver stellar education to their students. If we fail to educate the future religious leaders and teachers from all streams of Judaism, we have no future as an American Jewish community.