Entrepreneurship: The New Role of the 21st Century Rabbi in America
by Rabbi Jason Miller
A recent editorial in The Forward demonstrates how much the American rabbinate has changed in the 21st century. The economy has made it difficult for many rabbis to find good jobs; and for them to keep good jobs when the synagogue or organization falls on tough financial times. A reduction in the number of congregations due to closures and mergers has also caused a dearth of desirable positions for rabbis in the U.S. and Canada. But there are other factors involved as well. New rabbinical schools (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Ziegler at the American Jewish University, Hebrew College and the Academy for Jewish Religion) have cropped up in the past fifteen years increasing the number of new rabbis looking for work. The Internet has also made it much easier for the laity to learn synagogue skills – life-cycle officiation, prayer leading and teaching – that may ultimately reduce the need for a rabbi, although I don’t believe that to be the case.
As The Forward editorial makes clear, “the role of rabbi is being challenged as never before.” Some sociologists like Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University predicted precisely such a change in the American rabbinate based on shifting demographics and the needs of the community. However, I don’t see this as a crisis in American Jewry. Rather, I find this to be an interesting opportunity for rabbis to become more entrepreneurial – both as a way to be necessary and to make a significant contribution to our people. Rabbis who see this as a chance to reinvent their rabbinate will ultimately be the most successful in the new era of Jewish life. And that holds true not only for American rabbis, but for rabbis throughout the Jewish world who have the entrepreneurial spirit.
When rabbis meet each other for the first time, I’ve noticed that in general, they no longer ask each other “Which congregation do you lead?” Rather, the question is something along the lines of, “Where are you from and what do you do?” Rabbis today are exploring much different rabbinic paths of leadership than in previous generations. Growing up I always thought the role of the rabbi was solely in a synagogue. All of the rabbinic role models I had as a child were pulpit rabbis. Today, much has changed and the majority of rabbis do not work in congregations.
Talented rabbis are working in day schools, Jewish Community Centers, camping agencies, communal organizations, college campus institutions and philanthropic foundations. They are also cobbling together two and three part-time jobs in ways never imagined in previous generations. Several entrepreneurial rabbis are taking a page out of the Chabad emissary playbook and founding new congregations and small prayer communities where there is a need. While not an easy task, these rabbis are finding the “start-up” experience to be exhilarating, significant and spiritually fulfilling. Rabbis are also freelancing their skills more often. As the number of Jewish families and singles unaffiliated with a congregation rises, there is an increased need for rabbis to perform life-cycle leadership roles. With the growth of the internet it has become easy for people to identify rabbis to officiate at a baby naming ceremony, wedding, funeral or unveiling.
An article recently appeared in The Jewish Week that showed a new trend for private bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, independent of synagogues, that is prevalent on the East Coast. And that trend is spreading to the rest of the country. As a rabbi who is not affiliated with a congregation, I am called upon often to lead life-cycle ceremonies and I know that is the case with my colleagues around the country who likewise aren’t working in a congregation. Our culture of desiring the best products has reached into the religious leadership marketplace as well. A Jewish couple no longer feels compelled to have the rabbi of their childhood congregations preside at their wedding ceremony. Instead they will select the rabbi who they believe will create the most meaningful, memorable experience. So too with other life-cycle events like funerals. I’m often asked to perform the weddings of young people with whom I developed a relationship working as a rabbi on a campus Hillel or at a Jewish summer camp. Many of these young people have moved away from their childhood communities and don’t have a meaningful relationship with the rabbi of their parents’ congregation, but like everything else in life they are seeking the personable, meaningful and memorable.
Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneurial rabbi and a “Rabbi Without Borders” whose personal blog has been viewed by hundreds of thousands. He writes the “Jewish Techs” blog for The Jewish Week and the monthly “Jews in the Digital Age” column for the Detroit Jewish News. Rabbi Jason Miller is also president of Access Computer Technology, a computer tech support and social media marketing company based in Michigan. Rabbi Miller can be found on Twitter @RabbiJason.