The New Rabbi

The changing role of the pulpit rabbi in America.

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In this "consumerist" model, rabbis must be able to lead their congregants along a highly individualized spiritual path, guiding them without being too heavy-handed, leading congregants to their own conclusions about belief and practice while keeping them in the fold.

At the same time, many Jews' reduced sense of obligation, especially among the non-Orthodox, means that rabbis are often competing with kids' extracurricular activities, stressed-out parents' relaxation time, and any number of other pursuits that eat away at Americans' shrinking amount of down time. And rabbis must do this while also handling the day-to-day demands of congregations, which continue to function as spiritual homes, community centers, schools, and safety nets.

Transforming Seminary

To prepare rabbis for this changed world, rabbinical seminaries across the denominational spectrum are stressing as never before the role of rabbi as professional. Today's rabbinical students are taking classes in nonprofit management and professional development. They are focusing on the personal spiritual journey through meetings with mentors and internships in hospitals and other pastoral care settings, and engaging in interfaith dialogue with their counterparts at Christian and other seminaries. And in a major departure from past rabbinic training, these students are learning how to lead a new, more member-centered congregational community.

In the past, rabbinical schools were places for serious Jewish learning, where students focused on mastering texts rather than how to fill the rabbi's role. And while traditional learning may retain its central place in seminaries, rabbinical schools today stress like never before the practical aspects of being a rabbi, including delivering sermons or divrei Torah, often aided at least in part by acting or public-speaking coaches; pastoral counseling, for which trained clinicians are tapped; and financial and organizational management, drawing on teachers from the business world.

This change is more obvious in the non-Orthodox seminaries, but it is evident even at some Orthodox schools, where text learning retains its centrality even as these new roles are emphasized.

As a result, today's rabbis are accomplishing more and more in their communities through lay people's involvement and empowerment--shared learning and spiritual experiences rather than top-down rabbinic authority. More shuls are looking to lay leaders for decision making, offering small-group services that cater to different needs in the community, or even restructuring their sanctuaries to reduce the divide between rabbi and congregation.

The Upside

The loss of rabbinic authority and emphasis on personal spirituality may make the job harder, but it also means that congregants care--deeply--and are highly engaged in religious learning and serious about their practice. This reduces the divide that may have existed between rabbi and congregant in the past, when rabbis often felt they were leading a passive congregation not looking for personal transformation.

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Michael Kress

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