Is a rabbi shortage sweeping the country? Local rabbis weigh in

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Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg
Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg (David Stuck)

As if shortages of COVID-19 tests, cream cheese and toilet paper were not enough, is America now being hit with a shortage of rabbis?

In early December, Judaism’s Conservative movement sent a disquieting message to dozens of synagogues looking for a new rabbi: Many of you won’t make a hire this year. At least 80 Conservative synagogues anticipated rabbi vacancies — approximately one of every seven affiliated with the movement, the email said. At most, 50 to 60 rabbis would be looking for new jobs.

Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, a Conservative synagogue, has not personally experienced the shortage, as Chizuk Amuno is not currently hiring a new rabbi. However, he has heard about it from others.

“In serving on a committee, I serve on a rabbinical assembly, it’s certainly familiar to me,” Gruenberg said. “I know that this is going on right now.”

Rabbi John Franken of Temple Adas Shalom, a Reform synagogue, said he believes there is also a shortage of rabbis within Reform Judaism.

“I happen to believe the same phenomenon is happening in the Reform movement as well,” Franken said. “Simply because when one looks at placement positions … and this is without any kind of hard computations of raw data, but it does seem to me that there are considerably more positions becoming available this year than in a typical year.”

However, the shortage does not seem to be affecting the Orthodox community so far, according to Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation.

“It’s very fascinating,” Shapiro said in an email, “because the rabbis on my rabbinic list serve were just talking about that news and it seems like it is a phenomenon mostly in the Reform and Conservative communities.”

On why this is happening, Gruenberg pointed to the pandemic and how it disrupted the retirement plans of many rabbis.

“There’s just a ton of rabbis who are retiring, and primarily because [of the] pandemic, economy and all of those things, it just led to a glut of rabbis retiring this year,” Gruenberg said.

Another factor is how rabbis today have a more diverse array of opportunities available to them outside of the pulpit, including in education and other areas, Gruenberg added.

“As Americans, in general, we’re living longer, so more rabbis are going into chaplaincy, I know more rabbis are going into elder care,” Gruenberg said. “I think they are positions that probably, if we’re going to be honest … they’re positions that offer you more control over your schedule than a pulpit does, right?”

The work of a pulpit rabbi, Gruenberg said, can be “wildly unpredictable.” As an example, he explained that if a rabbi has a set schedule for a day, and then suddenly someone needs a rabbi for a funeral, that can quickly complicate that rabbi’s plans.

Gruenberg added that some rabbinical students who don’t have the right skill set for the pulpit are receiving better counsel these days from their rabbinical schools, who inform those students about the alternatives that are open to them.

Another factor could be geography, Gruenberg said. He noted that some new rabbis may have a strong connection to a major Jewish community, like New York, but could have trouble getting a pulpit position at a New York synagogue. Whereas in the past, a rabbi in such a situation might have settled for a pulpit position in Des Moines, Iowa, a rabbi today might pursue a non-pulpit role in the New York area.

In addition, Gruenberg also noted that burnout experienced during the pandemic was a factor affecting both Jewish and non-Jewish clergy.

“I think burnout for clergy during the pandemic is a really significant threat,” Gruenberg said. “In a moment of real anxiety and real uncertainty, you’re not only holding your own, and you’re family’s, anxiety and uncertainty, but you’re holding an entire community’s.

“Everything in the pandemic that we do, it seems like it takes twice as much effort, or twice as much work,” Gruenberg continued. “And it’s really challenging.”

As a solution for the long term, the community should do a better job of helping rabbinical students and early-career rabbis carve out space in their lives for things other than their jobs, Gruenberg said.

Gruenberg said he also believes that in certain parts of the country some synagogues should consider consolidation. He added that he doesn’t believe Baltimore is one of those areas.

“I do think, long term, there are some areas in the country where there are too many synagogues,” he said. “Too many synagogues in too close of a geographic proximity. … But I do think we have to take a look at places where it’s possible for synagogue mergers.

“A lot of times, it’s the kind of thing that can really sustain a community,” Gruenberg continued, “and give birth to a new community, all at the same time.”

Asaf Shalev contributed to this article.

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