A Radical Change in Rabbinical Student Education

It is time that rabbinical students bridge the gap between the academic and experiential domains and find ways to integrate them.

By Jan Katzew and Samuel Joseph

The North American rabbinate has changed and so must rabbinical education!

This is the major operating assumption of a pilot project in its third year funded by the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rabbinical education for rabbis in the 21st century must be qualitatively different from its 19th and 20th century predecessors, and that means daring to deviate from the previously extant curriculum that privileged ancient and medieval texts at the expense of contemporary cultural contexts. It is time that rabbinical students bridge the gap between the academic and experiential domains and find ways to integrate them.

Students translate theory into practice when they serve agencies that respond to communal needs at a Jewish Family Service vital support center, at Cedar Village Jewish retirement community, at local Reform and Conservative congregations, at Rockwern Jewish Community Day School, at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education, at the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue Xavier University and at Miami of Ohio University Hillel – just to name a few of the institutions that are serving as incubators to nurture and challenge rabbinical students. Each student has a field supervisor who in some cases has effectively become a mentor. The students gain practical experience as they are exposed to working with volunteer leaders, fundraising, budgeting, hiring and firing, as well as strategic planning. They are adding to the capacity of each agency to fulfill its mission, which often involves helping to discern what makes the service explicitly Jewish. To translate service into learning, the students compose reflections on their practice and contribute to an online journal, Avodat HaKodesh, where they can express their own perceptions of their emerging rabbinates. The field supervisors comprise their own cohort and are helping to create collaborative partnerships to supersede the parallel play that is often practiced in Jewish communities.

Now in its third year the project provides 28 rabbinical students with stipends for their service to the Cincinnati Jewish community. From an educational perspective, this project aims to subvert the bifurcation of professional development and academics. The community become the classroom and as a consequence, faculty and students alike are challenged to reify the rhetoric of Rav Kook, i.e., to renew the old and sanctify the new, to integrate experience and education. Noah Ferro, a rabbinical student who is taking this year to pursue an MA in Jewish Education, recently wrote: “We have begun in earnest to redefine the word “rabbi” not as indicating what we do, but rather how we do it. We see rabbis as leaders and teachers who lead and teach wherever they are – day schools, universities, summer camps, JCCs, and synagogues. Our graduates become pulpit rabbis, Hillel directors, hospital chaplains, and school principals, and none of these is a “Plan B” career path. The landscape of Jewish life is changing considerably from what it was two or three decades ago. These changes have provided the impetus and the freedom for every rabbinical student to really ponder the question, “What do I want my rabbinate to look like?” In the course of answering that question, we choose our elective courses, we spend time learning and working with non-Jewish graduate students, we preach, we teach, we pray, and we participate in internships and fellowships.” (www.ss-l.org  October 1, 2014)

For every prize there is a price and we are monitoring the ‘costs’ of this project that provides service-learning for rabbinical students in an effort to provide them with the confidence and competence to become Jewish leaders in the 21st century. Will the students be able to internalize the connection between their experience and their education? Will the academic faculty fully partner with clinical faculty in this endeavor? Will service-learning attract more rabbinical students and when they are ordained will their experience translate into creative and compelling rabbinic leaders? The proof will ultimately come from the project alumni and the contributions they make, individually and collectively, to the Jewish communities they will serve and lead. We will not claim success until there is longitudinal evidence to support such a claim. We will, however, claim excitement and hope as we witness institutions and individuals work collaboratively in a manner that is without precedent in the 140 year history of the first rabbinical seminary of the United States.

Rabbi Dr. Jan D. Katzew is Director of Service Learning at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Rabbi Dr. Samuel K. Joseph is the Eleanor Sinsheimer Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish Education and Leadership Development at the same institution.