When Rabbi Simon Stratford headed out of Hebrew Union College in 2017, ordination in hand, he hit a job market that he says at the time was “pretty good.” But not necessarily for solo pulpit positions.
“The realm, or the scope in which a rabbi can work now, and a lot of my colleagues are going to, is much broader than it used to be,” he said.
Stratford, 28, said the job market for rabbis, in terms of “entrepreneurial” rabbinates and non-pulpit, nonprofit work, including Hillel and chaplaincy jobs, seems to be growing.
During his college days, Stratford was mentored by a number of rabbis working outside the traditional brick-and-mortar synagogue setting, including “Adventure Rabbi” Jamie Korngold who founded Adventure Judaism in 2001 in Boulder, Colorado, where she holds Shabbat services on Flagstaff Mountain at the Sunrise Amphitheater and a midweek Hike with the Rabbi.
“I interned for Rabbi Korngold over the summer in Lake Tahoe,” Stratford said. “She does a wonderful Passover in Moab, Utah, where about 250 Jews get together in the Moab desert to celebrate Passover. My wife and I staffed it. It was a really wonderful experience.”
Korngold’s website calls Adventure Judaism a “cutting-edge model of synagogue-life appropriate for 21st-century Judaism. Gone are the days when Jews felt obligated to belong to a synagogue. Today, 70 percent of American Jews do not belong to a congregation.”
That’s about right. According to Pew Research Center’s 2013 study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” only 31 percent of Jewish adults say they personally belong to a synagogue, temple or other congregation. In addition, the study found that about 30 percent of American Jews say they do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination.
Stratford, who leads Congregation Kol Ami of Frederick and shares a sanctuary with a Unitarian church, is using what he learned from his nontraditional mentors, offering Shabbat hikes and a Movies and Midrash series to congregants.
At the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC, Rabbi Dena Shaffer, 34, is starting her third year as executive director of 4Front, a teen engagement initiative. Her background includes both pulpit and non-pulpit work and she said there is a trend around entrepreneurial work, although the majority of her Hebrew Union College ordination class eventually stepped into the traditional pulpit role.
“Most of them feel very fulfilled there and are definitely making a difference through their work,” she said. “Even though eventually people tended to find their way to the pulpit, we learned to be creative in that first year of our working rabbinate. And I think it inspired some of us to consider a plethora of opportunities and ways to impact the Jewish people that we may not have considered otherwise.
“It’s not our parents’ rabbinate, it’s not our grandparents’ rabbinate, that’s for sure. And they’re seeing things within that role that are entrepreneurial and innovative, even if they’re doing so within the walls of the synagogue. I think Jewish life just demands that of their professionals these days.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Ariel Fishman may be the poster child for the entrepreneurial rabbinate movement. The 31-year-old Mount Washington resident is director of JHeritage, a Jewish network of young professionals, grad students and other 20- and 30-somethings seeking a connection with traditional Judaism that blends with their lifestyle.
Partnered with the University of Maryland Baltimore and the Jewish Student Association, Fishman runs events year-round in non-synagogue settings.
“Everywhere from universities, to lounges, to cool venues, to Power Plant Live!” Fishman said. “We had a Purim party at Power Plant Live! where we read the Megillah at the harbor. We try to do things very different and fun and unique, but at the same time anchored in tradition … that blend of the ancient and the modern.”
He also runs the Kindness Initiative out of JHeritage, which promotes compassion and kindness, not only for the Jewish community, but for the general community as well. Fishman studied in a yeshiva in Israel, at Ner Israel Rabbinical College and was ordained in Israel. He is currently pursuing a master’s in business at Georgetown University in entrepreneurship, startups, venture capital and social impact, “because I want to make a difference on that side as well.”
It’s not our parents’ rabbinate, it’s not our grandparents’ rabbinate, that’s for sure — Rabbi Dena Shaffer
“The traditional synagogue model is always going to be there because you need to have a communal base, where people can come and know, ‘This is the place for me,’ not only on the High Holidays, but around the year,” Fishman said. “But you also need this other side of the coin. You also need this constant engagement where you’re going out in the streets, in the city, where people are in venues that are not necessarily as traditional and showing them that Judaism and Jewish tradition isn’t something that’s confined to the synagogue. It’s something that lives through you and you take wherever you are.
“And if you can explore your Judaism and your Jewish tradition in innovative and new ways, yet firmly rooted and anchored in tradition, then you’re living life as it was meant to be.”
At Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Cyd Weissman teaches social entrepreneurship to rabbinical school students and the community as assistant vice president of innovation and impact. She said the idea of the entrepreneurial rabbinate has been around for five to 10 years.
“But synagogues remain vital, so when we teach social entrepreneurship, we also teach intrapreneurship … how do you make change within an existing organization,” she added. “If people still yearn to connect to one another, to themselves, to Judaism, to God, what is the technology, or mechanism, what are the open doorways that allow that today? And that’s what’s really putting the question to existing organizations and is the fire starter for new organizations.”
If you can explore your Judaism and your Jewish tradition in innovative and new ways, yet firmly rooted and anchored in tradition, then you’re living life as it was meant to be — Rabbi Ariel Fishman
Weissman also heads a year-old consortium of 10 rabbinical schools called the Rabbinic Education and Innovation Roundtable that includes representatives from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Maharat, Academy for Jewish Religion, Aleph – Alliance for Jewish Renewal, The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, Hebrew College and RRC.
“We’ve met four times in the year. And each time we’ve had somebody come speak to us about what is the landscape that rabbis are now operating in, and what should we be doing so that today’s rabbis are equipped to both honor the tradition that each of us holds, whether it’s more traditional or more liberal,” Weissman said. “Rabbis become rabbis to help bring meaning and touch people’s lives … to bring Judaism alive. That’s constant, that hasn’t changed over the decades. The part that’s changed is how do you make that accessible and meaningful for people?”
The RRC gives grants to students to experiment with new ways of engaging people. Rabbi Ariana Katz, who is currently launching a new Jewish community in Baltimore, is a “serial entrepreneur,” Weissman said. Katz won the college’s first $20,000 innovation grant for her Kaddish podcast, which created an online community around Jewish mourning ritual and customs.
This year, the innovation award went to another Marylander, Bethesda native Rabbi Bec Richman, for engaging parents, seniors and unaffiliated people, through intimate groups of text study.
“What I love about creative, entrepreneurial work is that I get to think big and work on details at the same time,” Richman said. “I get to dream wild and put myself in check when my ideas are too broad.”
Another recipient, Rabbi Shelly Barnathan, started a community in Philadelphia for socially engaged empty nesters and baby boomers.
“It’s not about making money,” Weissman said of the term entrepreneurial rabbi. “It’s about understanding people’s deep needs and working for them and the community to find ways to meet that need.”
At the Johns Hopkins University Hillel, Rabbi Eric L. Abbott started last month as Hillel’s first Senior Jewish Educator, one of the positions created with a $1.4 million grant through Central Synagogue in partnership with Hillel International and Hebrew Union College.
Abbott, 30, spent much of his student rabbinical career working in nontraditional settings, including the Union of Reform Judaism’s Eisner Camp, the human rights organization T’ruah, an HUC soup kitchen and with Rabbis Without Borders. He also worked as a chaplain at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Following rabbinical school, as he was being matched with pulpits, he realized the jobs that interested him most were at congregations that did work with people in their 20s and 30s.
“I realized I was pulled to that because of the guidance and mentorship I could offer young adults who are trying to figure out there lives. Who are they as people? Who are they as Jews? What gives them meaning? And then I realized Hillel is very similar to the same idea of guiding young adults.”
Abbott said all of his former experience, which included student pulpit work, informs his new position at the Hopkins Hillel.
“The work that I’ve been doing and will be doing in the next couple of weeks is taking students out for coffee or lunch and listening to them and hearing them and picking their brains,” Abbott said. “And, over time, I’ll put all the pieces together and create, hopefully, meaningful experiences. Experiences based on what they want. Not just what I want.
“I really do think that Judaism can change the world and change people’s lives and I became a rabbi to do that, to help people grow and change and develop,” he added. “So, however I can do that I’ll be happy.”
Other Baltimore rabbis engaged in work outside the pulpit include Rabbi Jessy Dressin, senior director of Jewish learning and life at the Owings Mills JCC, and Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, well-known author, activist and environmentalist.
Jewish Theological Seminary graduates Rabbi Aderet Drucker of Bethesda and Rabbi Rami Schwartzer of Arlington, Virginia, are using their entrepreneurial skills and innovation in their rabbinic work.
A community rabbi, Drucker said she is “part of a new and exciting project working to create a Jewish community among 20s and 30s in the greater D.C. area.”
“With the support of numerous local and national organizational partners, this project builds a network of sacred Jewish relationships among a diverse population of singles, couples, graduate students and early-career professionals,” Drucker said.
The network boosts Jewish communal activity through ritual gatherings around Shabbat and holiday celebrations, pastoral care and life-cycle support, Jewish study and community service, interfaith and social justice opportunities.
Working with Drucker on the same project, Schwartzer is also director of Ramah Day Camp of Greater Washington, D.C. since its inaugural summer in 2015. He received
training through the Gladstein Fellowship in Entrepreneurial Leadership while at JTS.
“The synagogue remains one of the most fundamental ways our communities organize themselves, and there is holy work being done in those spaces. [But] the synagogue structure is not for everyone at every stage in their life cycle,” he said. “A thriving Jewish future demands an ecosystem mentality — a web of interconnected institutions that collaborate to serve our entire Jewish people, both in ways we typically recognize and in ways that appear to be outside the norm.”
Back at the Owings Mills JCC, Shaffer said that kind of innovation and entrepreneurial thinking has always been a part of Jewish life and history.
“We run a program for teens called the social innovation fellowship, where our teens are learning about the entrepreneurial mindset and how to do tikkun olam in an innovative way. And we try to show them that that innovative spirit has been the saving grace of our people since the beginning,” Shaffer said. “We took them to Israel this year, and when we brought them to the Kotel we talked to them about the history surrounding the Kotel, and what it meant when our people had to redefine themselves as a religion without its central institution — when the temple was no more, we had to innovate around that if we wanted to survive.
“It feels very on trend right now and we’re using words like ‘entrepreneurial,’ but in essence that’s what our people have always done. The synagogue itself was an innovation. And we are constantly reimagining how to inspire Jewish life.”