The New Rabbi

The changing role of the pulpit rabbi in America.

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And while the Internet may open up every sermon and rabbinic decision to dissection and dissent, it also means that any rabbi can find followers and influence people around the globe to an unprecedented degree, by posting sermons, divrei Torah, holding classes, or otherwise engaging in rabbinic activities online. Interestingly, Orthodox rabbis, such as those affiliated with outreach-centered groups like Chabad and Aish HaTorah, have been most adept at capitalizing on the opportunities opened up by the Internet.

The Jewish community has also seen a newfound emphasis on education in recent years, opening up new professional opportunities for rabbis to reach people in ways other than from the synagogue pulpit. Day schools are proliferating, congregations are hiring informal educators and family educators, and even communal or social-action organizations--like the disaster-relief group American Jewish World Service--are running educational programs often staffed by rabbis.

The challenges, however, remain great. The potential for burn-out is massive, as rabbis work harder to retain congregants' interest and lead them in highly individualized paths, while also, in many cases, running day-to-day operations for the synagogue, playing a role in budgeting and fund-raising, leading and/or teaching in the Hebrew School, and, of course, maintaining traditional roles of counselor and lifecycle-ceremony officiant.

But perhaps the greatest challenge to today's rabbi is the emphasis on individual choice at the heart of the spiritual marketplace model. Empowering each individual congregant, the rabbi runs the risk of becoming a mere cheerleader and empowerment coach--the polar opposite of the previous, hierarchical model of the rabbinate.

The balance, of course, is to be found in the middle, where the best of rabbis lead congregants on their individual spiritual paths while skillfully setting the tone and guiding them in a specific direction. It's a tight-rope act, but one that few rabbis today can escape.

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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