The Changing Character of the American Rabbinate: Some Reflections

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

During the first two hundred years of the American Jewish venture, this nation was without an indigenous rabbinic presence. With the arrival of such figures as Rabbis Isaac Leeser and Isaac Mayer Wise, American Jewry would ultimately move to create its own distinctive rabbinic voice, with the founding of seminaries and the ordination of generations of rabbinic leadership.

The roles performed by American rabbis have been evolving for decades, and in the process of redefining their place within this society, the rabbinate is also reshaping the image and status of American Jewry. But such transitions have occurred in stages.

If we could identify an elitist, high profile American rabbinate covering the four decades, 1930 through 1970, as represented by such extraordinary personalities as Stephen Wise, Abba Hillel Silver, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the decades that would follow one could document a push back on the part of both Jewish lay leadership and other Jewish professionals, designed to reign in and reconfigure the balance of power between the American rabbinate and its communal elites. The “church-state” divide that had been constructed in American Jewish life, separating the functions and roles of the world of the synagogue from that of the federation system would also experience a recalibration of authority in the post-1967 era, as a new cadre of leadership would emerge to capture the Jewish political stage. Rather than being seen as setting the agenda for American Jewry during the later decades of the 20th century, rabbis were often not acting as central players to the American Jewish story.

Rather than seeing the rabbinate continue as marginal to the shaping of 21st century Jewish life, we are beginning to observe a growing presence of a new generation of rabbinic voices that are committed to both reshaping American Jewish life and impacting the public discourse beyond the Jewish world.

Today, one finds a renewed American rabbinic voice, not limited to such extraordinary public figures as Rick Jacobs, David Saperstein or Avi Weiss but by the emergence of a new generation of rabbinic activists who are in the process of reinventing the rabbinic presence within American society. The power of the pulpit, once seen as lost or marginalized, appears to be in a stage of renaissance as rabbis now are identified as group on the basis of their influence and standing, including such high profile congregational figures as David Wolpe, Peter Rubenstein, Rolando Matalon, and Ed Feinstein.

During the post-Second World War era, we could identify a number of rabbinic public servants who fulfilled important organizing roles that would both reshape Jewish communal life and the role of Jews within the broader society. Rabbi Herbert A. Friedman was the architect during the 1960’s in the successful creation of the United Jewish Young Leadership Cabinet. Through the efforts of Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee, a new chapter in Catholic-Jewish relations was initiated, resulting in Nostra Aetate. Today, we are beginning to witness within the public square and elsewhere the reemergence of these type of rabbinic role models.

Their growing presence can be documented in a number of distinctive areas, including the public square, where rabbis are asserting once again a high-profile political presence through work in the social justice arena and with regard to public policy concerns. The concept of Just Congregations as envisioned by Jonah Pesner represents but one of these new expressions of congregational engagement, designed to reinvigorate Jewish social consciousness. The writings and activities of Jill Jacobs has added another dimension to this story of the growing presence of rabbis in blending the religious imperatives with the political.

Just as we could account for rabbinic leaders as builders of our seminaries, more than one hundred years later, rabbis have assumed a significant role in creating new models of worship, community, and study. Today, one finds an extraordinary number of younger colleagues implementing new visions of Jewish public and religious expression. As a part of the reinvention of Jewish life, rabbis have become identified with an array of new ventures covering interfaith relations, Israel affairs, and community-building projects. Sharon Brous, Asher Lopatin, Naomi Levy and Sharon Kleinbaum represent only a small sample of the growing power of the next generation of rabbinic voices exploring new avenues of religious and communal expression.

Well beyond their longstanding commitments within Hillel, the contributions of rabbis to the intellectual and academic environment have been significant and continue to be so, whether within the seminary world as reflected in the leadership of such figures as David Ellenson who successfully joined his research interests with his presidential portfolio or across the landscape of America’s premier universities, where rabbis are engaged in building Jewish studies programs.

Today, new generations of rabbis are performing essential and extraordinary roles as chaplains within our hospitals, military, and universities. Often their impact on the lives of those they encounter can be life altering.

Yet the story that continues to unfold is the growth of the American rabbinate in terms of the number of new seminaries that have emerged and the reassertion of American Orthodoxy, as represented in part by its rabbinic presence. Chabad must be seen as a primary force in expanding and reinventing the rabbinic presence.

When the conversation today turns to the idea of re-imaging community and recapturing meaning in the lives of people, the rabbis have increasingly come to understand the changing social construct with its focus on the culture of entrepreneurialism and experimentation.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball campus in Los Angeles of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His complete writings can be found at thewindreport.

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  1. Abbushuki says

    Steven represents life in a fish bowl, where the fish can only see their own reflection.

    To claim all of American Rabbinate as liberal is not only misleading, but dangerously leads toward false conclusions:

    The majority of rabbis in America are Orthodox. Surprise!
    (If you doubt it, either simply try to prove the opposite with data or google photos of the Daf Yomi Siyumim.)

    63% of Jewish youth in New York under age 21 are Orthodox, per the latest poll. Conservative Jewish institutions’ memberships are in freefall as youth finds them irrelevant. The list of data is huge.

    But the main issue is not how a few liberal rabbis are making such a big splash. The main issue is that in 45 years there will be not enough liberal dues-paying members to financially support liberal Jewish institutions. That includes temples, seminaries, and national organizations such as Federations, Mazon, ADL, AJC, etc. It’s a philanthropic issue.

    How can one make such a bold statement? Because liberal Jews with all those brilliant rabbinic stars are not producing even 1/4 of the needed children just to replace those life-long committed Jews who built the temples and are now passing on.

    Not one of these great rabbis can do anything about this: a 0.9% fertility rate, a 52%+ intermarriage rate and similar divorce rate; anything more than a Jewish flavored pre-bar/t mitzvah party education; or even an ability to inculcate any distinctly different Jewish behavior or attitude that can make a difference in the lives of today’s youth. Do Jews own the patent on Tikkuning the World? That’s what missionaries have been all about for centuries! Mother Theresa was a Catholic nun. Hello…

    Being a good social worker (Tikkuner) is not a religion. It has no language, literature, holidays, songs, smells or sounds. It loses transmission quickly downstream. Tikkuning Somalia, etc. is the main prop holding up liberal Judaism today.

    If I were a newly minted liberal rabbi, I’d be mightily concerned about future employment, or if employed, my pension. Because liberal American Jews are an endangered species, soon to be extinct for lack of both procreation and near total Jewish illiteracy. This is as self-evident as it is irreversible.

    If one takes off the liberal goggles, it becomes apparent that only the Orthodox, with all their ‘outmoded’ ways, who are mass producing Jewishly and professionally educated and committed youth, will be entitled to represent the American Jewish voice in just a few decades, when they will be the obvious majority of affiliated American Jewish adults.

    In the mean time, please be circumspect when thinking that Reform speaks for all American Jewry or that it’s seminaries are making a difference for the future. Their future is similar to that of a cut flower. It’s continuity is naught but a liberal Jewish delusion.

    It’s time for Jewish philanthropy to put it’s bets on the future reality, not in a shiny and beautiful but sinking Titanic.

  2. Aaron says

    Dr. Windmueller’s article highlights, perhaps unintentionally, a dualism for the future of the progressive American rabbinate. On one side is a group of charismatic leaders inspiring the next generation of Jews from within congregational life – David Wolpe, Peter Rubenstein, Rolando Matalon, and Ed Feinstein – and on the other a group of charismatic leaders inspiring the next generation of Jews from outside those walls – Sharon Brous, Asher Lopatin, Naomi Levy and Sharon Kleinbaum. Voting by bodily/monetary presence will continue throughout our lifetime, as the younger generation especially finds their home in Jewish life. It will be interesting to see which side wins.

  3. Dan Ab says

    Interesting perspective, the one point where I differ is The “church-state” divide that had been constructed in American Jewish life, separating the functions and roles of the world of the synagogue from that of the federation system would also experience a recalibration of authority in the post-1967 era, as a new cadre of leadership would emerge to capture the Jewish political stage. Rather than being seen as setting the agenda for American Jewry during the later decades of the 20th century, rabbis were often not acting as central players to the American Jewish story.”

    I’m not sure if rabbis weren’t acting as central players or that they became central players in the rise of suburban synagogues as Jewish Community Centers. The refocusing of Jewish life around buildings that were heavily controlled by their head rabbis was a fairly radical change. With hindsight, this change turned out to have many negative results, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have significant influence on the American Jewish story.

    @ABBUSHUKI, Your comment includes several problems. First Dr. Windmueller is including several Orthodox rabbis in his list. You also quote the 2011 Jewish Community Survey of NY to say that 63% of Jewish children in NY are Orthodox. While this is true, it ignores that there is an increased centralization of the American Jewish Community in several areas, including NY. Also you quote that 63% of children are Orthodox, but neglect to quote that the same survey shows that 36% of Jewish who were raised Orthodox are no longer Orthodox (Exhibit 4-7, page 124, in the survey). Similarly 4% of Conservative Jews, 2% of Reform Jews, and 6% of no denomination/other become Orthodox. Those percentages are small, but, since the raw numbers of nonOrthodox American Jews are much high than the numbers of Orthodox Jews, they make up a non-trivial percentage of Orthodoxy.

    Orthodoxy has always hemorrhaged it’s children to more liberal denominations and depends on a high birthrate and people raised in other denominations to keep population stability or its slight growth. It is in Orthodoxy’s best interest to have healthy liberal denominations because people raised in those denominations are critical to the survival or Orthodoxy. The question isn’t why Jewish philanthropists are interested in supporting the majority of Jewish who aren’t Orthodox, it’s why more Orthodox philantropists aren’t interested in actively supporting a diverse, healthy Jewish community.

    As for the employment prospects of liberal rabbis, as the original article notes, the roles of rabbis regularly change and the new generations are finding different and important roles. Employment is something no one takes for granted, but I don’t think the role and relevance of liberal rabbis will suddenly disappear.

  4. Dan Ab says

    @Aaron, I’m not sure I see the same contrast. The four names from outside the walls, Sharon Brous, Asher Lopatin, Naomi Levy and Sharon Kleinbaum, are all leaders of congregations or minyanim. For example, Rabbi Brous’ IKAR is clearly a synagogue with a paid rabbi, cantor, religious school, and is looking to purchase a building. There’s no question they are all rethinking what a synagogue can be or should be, but there isn’t a huge gap between what they do and what many more establishment synagogues do. Excitingly, many things they do could be adapted whole or in piecemeal by more establishment synagogues. This may be why they are considered to relevant to the national Jewish conversation.

  5. Bob Hyfler says

    This is a well grounded and insightful article.

    While I have no one dog in the denominational hunt, I have increasingly little patience for the serial “triumphalism” that has plagued Jewish life since whenever. Vitality cannot be defined by the manipulation of numbers, the liberal streams are still alive, productive and kicking, secular Israelis are not all post-secular and Orthodoxy of all shades has its troubling internal contradictions. We, the ever competitive, ever difficult people, seem to be running a dead pool as to which valuable part of our collective will go to the great historical beyond first.

  6. Abbushuki says


    Your comments are important as they represent today’s mainstream liberal Jewish myths that are important to address.

    1. No Orthodox Jews are triumphalist in the impending demise of the non-Orthodox community. Make no mistake about that. All are aware that liberals are the reason for the great influence of AIPAC, Federations, et. al. in politics and especially in secular philanthropy. Without their numbers and influence, the American Jewish community will lose so much clout, it could be dangerous.
    2. Some secular demographers in search of optimism, have pointed out that, as you cited, data such as the 36% of born Orthodox who are no longer Orthodox. But, there’s a major demographic survey error in this. The bulk of Conservative Jews in the 1950’s were former Orthodox. The war changed life for so many. Also the lack of quality day schools led Jews to put their children in non-Orthodox Sunday Schools and after-school Hebrew schools that for the most part inoculated their kids against going to shul post bar mitzvah.

    None of the surveys segment that question’s responses by age. While it is very true of that era, the rate of ‘hemorrhaging’ of today’s Yeshiva-raised children is very a small fraction of what it was two generations ago. “Always”, by the way was only in the last 200 years or so. But that is no more. Today Orthodox kids grow up in quality yeshivot, getting grad degrees in good schools. They remain Orthodox by and large. If one projects the future, current rates need to be used, not out-of-date rates.

    3. What is certain is that today’s children of liberal Jews are both so few and remote to Jewish knowledge, commitment and the Jewish People, that even if only 40% of them do not support Jewish institutions, those organizations will be out of business. Scholarships for 5 years of grad school at HUC, JTS and AJU are expensive, and if they only produce people who work for marginally Jewish or secular non-profits, donors will dry up.

    I know that so many are vested in the hopes for a vibrant future in liberal Judaism, but I have yet to see numbers that can support a realistic retort to the overwhelming evidence that the non-Orthodox Jewish population of the U.S. will be shrinking into oblivion in the next 50 years. They are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams in assimilation into American Society and there is no way to stop it. Pity.

  7. Dan Ab says

    @ABBUSHUKI. I’ll respond to your numbers.
    1. Instead of saying liberal Jews are the reason for the influence of AIPAC, Federations, secular philantropy, etc, one might ask why Orthodox Jews haven’t been so critical to those areas of influence. Why is secular philanthropy so much rarer in the Orthodox world and, if that’s a cause for concern, why aren’t people talking about it more?

    2. The effect of generational changes on movement switching is real, but not as dramatic as you claim. If you look at the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey you’ll see that 81% of current (circa 2000) Orthodox Jews were raised Orthodox. In that survey, 59% of Jews who were raised Orthodox were no longer Orthodox. 59% nationally became 36% in the NY Metro area 10 years later. That is a drop, but the Former Orthodox Jews who were adults in 1950’s are already a small fraction of the 2000 Orthodox population (20% of their Orthodox sample was people over the age of 65).
    I thought the 2000 NJPS segmented denominational switching by age, but I can’t seem to find it now. It did segment Orthodox day school attendance by age. It’s useful to remember that Day School as normative Orthodox practice is a very recent innovation. Only 67% of Orthodox children in the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980s went to day school (also from the 2000 NJPS). Particularly without donations from the non-Orthodox world, it is very unclear whether high quality universal Orthodox day school education is viable in the long-term. I’d go farther and say I haven’t seen any data or proposal that points a path towards long-term viability of universal education without dramatically reducing school quality. Even then, I can walk into many egalitarian services and find a healthy presence of young Jews who were raised Orthodox and went to day schools.

    3. Both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish life is in the middle of fairly dramatic changes. There are some old and storied institutions that have not kept up with the changes are no longer effectively serving the communities they were created to serve. Some will disappear. Others are forming and growing. I don’t claim to know exactly what the future denominational divisions will be (or whether that label will cease being as relevant), but there are interesting and exciting things happening everywhere. Dr. Windmueller’s original post highlight a few of the many people doing do and interesting things.