The Changing Face of the Rabbinate

Exclusively the territory of young men for so long, rabbinical schools today in the non-Orthodox movements are welcoming women and gay students.

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At least one Orthodox rabbi, Steven Greenberg--ordained by the flagship modern Orthodox seminary, Yeshiva University--came out as gay and has been increasingly public about his own struggle with his sexuality, his coming to accept who he is, and his efforts to have gay people accepted in the Orthodox world. Greenberg authored the book Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, and appeared prominently in a film about Orthodox gays and lesbians, Trembling Before G-d.

Second-Career Rabbis

Another new trend that has impacted the demographics of today's rabbinical seminaries is the proliferation of second-career rabbis--men and women who have decided to pursue rabbinic ordination after years of working in entirely different professions, including law, engineering, and journalism. They have decided to switch professions and become rabbis for any number of reasons: pursuing the idealistic career they always wanted to, feeling that they've made enough money and can make the financial sacrifice required to pursue ordination, or deciding that their previous career decision was unfulfilling.

The number of these so-called second-career rabbinical students changes year to year, but by all accounts, it has grown dramatically in the recent past. At the Reform HUC, for instance, second-career rabbinical students account for about 15 percent of rabbinical students. Second-career rabbis are bringing new perspectives to the rabbinate because of their previous professional experiences and the fact that they are older than the average rabbinical student or new rabbi.

New Seminaries

It's not just the pool of eligible rabbinical students and rabbis that has expanded. The options for rabbinical education have also broadened from the days when would be-rabbis essentially had one option per denomination: Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), both in New York and Cincinnati, for Reform; Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) for Conservative; Yeshiva University (YU) for Modern Orthodox; and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) for members of that denomination. (There were always numerous options for haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jews.)

The University of Judaism (now called American Jewish University) in Los Angeles, a Conservative institution that had started as a preparatory program for students hoping to attend JTS, began its own ordination program in 1996. A new modern Orthodox seminary was founded in New York in 1999, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which is in some ways more liberal than Yeshiva University. And more recently, a Reform rabbinic preparatory program at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in L.A. in 2002 also began ordaining rabbis.

At the same time, options outside of the "Big Four" denominations have cropped up: the Academy for the Jewish Religion, a transdenominational seminary in New York; the aforementioned Union for Traditional Judaism in New Jersey; the Jewish Renewal movement's ALEPH Rabbinical Program in Philadelphia; and the trans-denominational Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Boston. The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a trans-denominational research and educational institution founded by the Orthodox Rabbi David Hartman, also recently announced it would start a program to ordain students, male and female, as "rabbi-educators"--as opposed to pulpit rabbis--in any denomination they wish, including Orthodoxy.

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Michael Kress

Michael Kress is the executive editor of Parents.com. He was also the the VP of Editorial and Managing Editor at Beliefnet and the founding editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning.com.