A New Paradigm for the Rabbinate

By Rabbi Jennifer Gorman and Rabbi Sean Gorman

Rav Kook once said, “hayashan yithadash, v’he’hadash yitkadeish – that which was old shall become new, and that which is new shall become holy.” We got married 27 years ago, young, full of the fire of Torah, and ready to change the Jewish world. We are a little older, still full of fire, and still ready to change the Jewish world.

We are about to embark upon a new journey, a rabbinic search. It’s a journey we’ve taken before. It’s a journey we’ve always taken together, but this time ‘together’ means something different. This time we’re applying as one. Over twenty years ago a rabbinic couple was an oddity. Women were only one-fifth of Jennifer’s graduating class. Upon graduation, when we suggested that we might try to seek a pulpit together, we were told it wasn’t possible. No one, neither colleagues nor synagogue leaders, seemed able to conceive of a joint rabbinate.

We tried a more traditional approach. Like any couple, we needed to decide who would follow whom. Jennifer was halfway into a DMin program in New York. Sean was a chaplain candidate in the US Navy Reserve ready to begin active service. Initially, we thought we’d stay in New York so Jennifer could finish her program. When the Navy suggested a posting to Pearl Harbor, we decided it was too good to pass up. Jennifer left her program, and we moved to Hawaii. Our first journey had begun.

But if anyone thought we’d find our way into two traditional rabbinic careers, they didn’t know us. Instead, we found ways to make our rabbinate unique, teaming up even while working different positions.

Over the next twenty years we juggled. We smiled knowingly when people asked us, “What happens if you get jobs in different cities.” Like any professional couple, decisions have to be made. Jennifer’s early decision not to take a pulpit made things seem easier, but years of non-traditional work at a time when the world expected rabbis to fit a mold made finding work harder. On the flip side, living in places like Pearl Harbor, HI and Jacksonville, NC, where colleagues were limited, we had each other. In those years when email was just getting started, when Facebook, Skype, and Zoom didn’t exist, when even cell phones were still rare, we had each other to bounce ideas and provide rabbinic support when needed.

Over the years, we’ve learned together, taught together, fought together, and we’ve rabbi-ed together. And through it all we’ve become a solid team.

In the intervening years the number of clergy couples (rabbi/rabbi, rabbi/cantor, and cantor/cantor) has increased exponentially. Multiple rabbinic couples are searching for co-positions even as we write this article. The number of clergy couples presents an opportunity and a challenge to synagogues willing to consider a new paradigm.

You may have seen the tongue-in-cheek piece about the perfect rabbi. The rabbi visits people in the hospital, checks in on those who are shut in, is a constant presence in the Hebrew School, and always answers the phone. We know, however, that there are only 24 hours in a day. Our clock marks time no differently from anyone else’s. Suddenly, this standard becomes more accessible. The rabbi cannot be in two places at once. A rabbinic team can. Their agility doubles.

That Jennifer and I are a team is of no doubt. That we are always of one mind is almost laughable. We differ in what we like to teach and in the way we teach it. We differ in what we write and in the way we write it. To bring in a rabbinical team in place of a single rabbi gives a congregation a broader sense of the Jewish world than only one rabbi would be able (or willing!) to provide. This would be true of any team, but a married team can take it to a new level. Hiring a couple offers a congregation and their rabbis a new way to look at the work/life balance, or as Rabbi Ilana Garber calls it, the life/work balance, because life should always come first. Too many rabbis preach about the importance of family. They praise individuals in eulogies for not staying too long at the office, all while working 70 – 80 hour work weeks.

The advantages are limitless. The surprise events that postpone meetings and cancel classes no longer affect the smooth operation of the synagogue. Compensation can be built into the package in ways that do not place a further financial burden on the synagogue budget. A system can emerge with rabbis working five days a week, but still with the same (or even greater) overall level of rabbinic presence. Meanwhile, because there are two rabbis, the congregation maintains a rabbinic presence for its members, and benefits from the greater range of talent and people-power. Shabbat and holiday bima responsibilities can be split, leaving one of the rabbis to lead alternative services or classes. One rabbi can lead a group on an offsite program, while the other oversees minyan. A wider variety of learning at different times can be offered to appeal to more members of the community. How interesting would it be to take the same topic for a Rosh Hashanah sermon, allowing the congregation to hear two different perspectives on a topic for a new year.

Lest you think that having two rabbis is only a luxury for a larger shul, we point out again that there can be very little cost to this idea. Even the smallest congregation will benefit from a second rabbinic voice. Even the smallest community will benefit from the extended reach of two rabbis, from the bimah to the pastoral, from the shul to the larger community.

Some opponents to this plan may worry about who will make a final decision in a disagreement. There are extant models of co-senior rabbis in congregations. Halakhic decisions are discussed. Usually that’s enough to come to a decision. But if it’s not, responsibilities are divided with each rabbi being mara d’atra over particular areas of the congregation, whether the kitchen, the weekday minyan, or how the Omer is counted. If the rabbis choose, disagreement can become a learning opportunity for the congregation on how to deal with conflict and how Halacha is decided.

There is benefit to the rabbis as well. Clergy stress and burnout is on the rise, and with it come the related health issues. Multiple studies show vacation is not enough. Every rabbi knows there will be dozens of emails, if not hundreds, upon returning from time away. So rabbis check email and worry, working through what is supposed to be time off. Rabbis work weekends and evenings. Days off … often lost to funerals or preparation … exercise neglected because of long hours … too many meals eaten on the run. A married couple sharing one pulpit can help alleviate most of these issues. Couples can watch each other for signs of exhaustion or burn-out in a way that the rabbi will never show in public, that an assistant rabbi may be too junior to recognize, that congregations cannot see on the bimah.

As we come out of COVID, there will be pastoral needs that we cannot even begin to predict. We have already seen an increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide. Many of us have gone over a year without seeing parents, children, or grandchildren. Loved ones have gotten married or died, and we are only able to watch via Zoom. People have not been able to see their doctors. How this plays out in the long run is unclear. With a shared pulpit, the rabbis’ reach widens. With a team, our individual approaches to those pastoral issues will resonate differently amongst the varied demographics in any congregation.

As we look back the opening sentence of this article, we bring that which is ancient wherever we go. The words of the Torah, the commentaries of our Sages throughout history, the practices and laws of Jewish tradition all continue to speak to us. We will always look to teach them, and they form the foundation of how we think and act. At the same time, we also understand that Judaism is an open book, awaiting new chapters at every turn. Rabbis of the past wrote so many of those chapters. Rabbis in the present and the future will continue the writing. We encourage congregations to write a new holy chapter with us.

Rabbi Jennifer Gorman is the Executive Director of MERCAZ-Canada and Canadian Foundation for Masorti Judaism. She has experience in almost all areas of the rabbinate.

Rabbi Sean Gorman is a US Navy Chaplain in the Reserves, currently taking a sabbatical after 18 years in the pulpit.