by Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu
To sustain innovation one must be reflective, flexible, and creative. Since its launch five years ago, Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders (RWB) has established a reputation for giving rabbis the skills they need to be visionary thinkers and practitioners in 21st-century America. We challenge RWB rabbis to think outside the box and push the boundaries of business as usual. This year we are stepping up to that challenge ourselves, modeling the bold thinking we expect from our rabbis.
Our signature program, the Rabbis Without Borders Rabbinic Fellowship, is unique. We include rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, place them in a room together, and have them grapple with how Judaism speaks to the needs of people today. We provide a framework that allows the rabbis to push their own and each other’s borders as they explore contemporary trends in American society. We live in a time when social demographics, technology, science and other issues are rapidly affecting how Americans relate to religion. We need a rabbinate that can respond to these issues and remain relevant. Rabbis Without Borders has developed a cutting-edge curriculum to address these issues in a pluralistic, open environment. The result is a network of rabbis who are incredibly creative and adept at responding to both significant cultural issues and the needs of individuals.
To date, we have trained 103 rabbis and 68 rabbinical students in the RWB Fellowships. These rabbis are in turn reaching over 750,000 individuals. As a result of their learning in RWB, over ninety percent of the rabbis report that they have the tools to make Judaism more meaningful and accessible to a larger population, have increased their audiences, and have enhanced people’s connection to Jewish life. The results have been powerful, and the demand for the program is high. Last year 104 rabbis applied for one of 21 spots in the fellowship cohort. In addition, for the last two years, RWB has been recognized as one of the fifty most innovative programs in North America by The Slingshot Guide.
We are incredibly proud of these accomplishments and the success of the program, but we do not want to rest on our laurels. Since our goal is to help rabbis stay ahead of the curve of American Jewish life and lead us in to the future, we need to gain more information about how and why people use Jewish traditions. After five years of RWB, we now have a strong network of rabbinic alumni from which to draw such information. During the 2014-2015 academic year, instead of soliciting a new fellowship cohort of rabbis, we will devote considerable resources toward meeting with our alumni and their communities and exploring ways they experience Jewish rituals, teaching, and wisdom in their lives. We want to collect data that will give us a better understanding of the motivations and challenges of practicing Judaism today. What is working for people and why is it working? What does it mean for something to “work?” We intend to gather and study critical information Jewish leaders need now in order to prepare for the future.
The recent Pew Study of American Jewish identity gave us an interesting snapshot of Jewish life today. On the one hand, the survey showed an increase in “Jews of no religion.” Jews who identified as Jewish, yet did not practice aspects of Jewish tradition. And traced rising intermarriage and falling observance rates across the Jewish population. On the other hand, 94% of those surveys said that they were proud to be Jewish, including 83% of “Jews of no religion.” And three quarters say that they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Though observance levels seem to be down, an astonishing 72% state a belief in God, including 45% of Jews of no religion.
These statistics are contradictory and fascinating. They have compelled us at RWB to ask more questions, to better understand what aspects of Jewish ritual and wisdom are enhancing people’s lives. If we can continue our exploration and grapple with answers to these tough questions, then we can be even better suited to train rabbis to speak to the needs of people today and into the future.
Some people may think we are taking a risk by spending a year engaging in research rather than soliciting a cohort of RWB rabbinic fellows, our signature program. However, we are continuing both our student fellowships on the East and West Coasts, The Clergy Leadership Incubator, and several other rabbinic programs. Furthermore, we don’t see this as a risk. One of the first things we teach our rabbis is that context is everything. You must know your audience in order to be successful. We truly believe in this principle. Researching how and why Jews use Judaism is part and parcel of building our program. At this important five-year mark, taking the time to research, reflect, and evaluate will only fortify our program in the years to come.
In fact, this research will not only benefit RWB, but the entire Jewish people. As we understand ourselves better, we can plan for a better future. When we finish reading the Torah we say, “May we go from strength to strength.” That is what we are doing. Let’s build our reflective and creative skills, and enter the next phase of Jewish life from a place of strength.
Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.