‘Off the Beaten Path:’ Rabbis Increasingly Finding Roles Outside the Pulpit, Education

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

kirtan rabbiRabbi Andrew Hahn, a.k.a. “Kirtan Rabbi,” weaves traditional Jewish liturgy and musical modes into the increasingly popular call-and-response chant methodology from India, known as Kirtan. He’s deep, he’s fun … and he is making music and melodies that work at the local synagogue and at the area yoga studio.

Kirtan is what Hahn calls an “easy” form of meditation. When he first learned about it more than a decade ago, while studying for his rabbinical degree through Hebrew Union College, he admittedly was turned off. It seemed anti-Jewish. But several years later, in 2004, when he encountered the ancient music methodology while studying under Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, his mind changed.

“I started to shift my consciousness and was thinking about my work as a rabbi in a different way. I realized I was not a fit for the pulpit or academic jobs I was looking for at the time. Kirtan made me happy and I immediately thought, this could work,” says Hahn, who started his career by turning traditional Hebrew songs to Kirtan call-and-response songs and presenting them at synagogues and JCCs.

When he approached a yoga studio and they welcomed him in, he realized he could use Kirtan to speak to both worlds – Jewish and secular. Since then, he has become increasingly popular for bringing Jewish wisdom and “groundedness” to the yoga world.

“Music is one way to get people to reach out beyond traditional borders and boundaries,” says Hahn.

Music is just one example of how some rabbis are breaking their traditional molds of pulpit mouthpiece or teacher to pursue very different dreams before increasingly diverse audiences. Hahn says he believes there are multiple reasons for this shift, among them the fact that synagogue and day school membership is dwindling.

“There are still people in synagogue, but there are also people not in synagogue. There are still people that go to day school, but also a lot of people that don’t. If you want to reach the greatest number of people possible, you have to go where they are,” he says, noting that dwindling membership translates to dwindling salaries for pulpit rabbis, as well.

Further, rabbis are discovering they can be good at more than one thing – and the other things are not necessarily Jewish, he says. These rabbis don’t want to limit themselves, so “they become musicians, go into business or become journalists.”

Warrior Rabbi

Rabbi Hillel NorryTake Rabbi Hillel Norry, “artist, warrior, sage.” He graduated from rabbinic school in 1993 and spent 20 years in pulpit work. During the last decade, he became interested in martial arts and embarked on a 10-year training program in Tae Kwon Do and marksmanship, discovering “a lot of serious spirituality in physical training” until it became “a serious part of who I am.”

He couldn’t reconcile with it, until he joined the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership’s Rabbis Without Borders program, which he says opened his eyes to the possibility of stepping outside well established rabbinical borders.

“I felt constrained by my synagogue work. There were many amazing and incredible times, but there is also a dark side to congregational life and leadership. I saw a lot of it,” he says.

Today, Norry offers a unique blend of experiential learning through his marital arts program, which he teaches while wearing a kippah on his head.

“My Torah is for all Jews and non-Jews, also,” he says. “Some people think rabbis are only for the Jews. I disagree. When I am teaching Tae Kwon Do, I consider this my rabbinical work.”

Getting Technical

IMG_0084Did Norry have to give up the pulpit to pursue his dream? Rabbi Jason Miller – “rabbi, tech entrepreneur and blogger” – might argue no. Miller wears many hats, including holding a part time pulpit in Ohio while running a successful marketing technology company in Detroit.

When Miller completed his rabbinic degree in 2004 his only intention was to be a pulpit rabbi. But when his father retired in 2010 from the tech company he founded in January 1994 and left it to his son the company, Miller – who had always been a techie – was faced with a choice: Sell the company, manage from afar or become the active owner.

“I realized this was something I could do while still maintaining my identity as a rabbi,” he tells eJewish Philanthropy.

Today, he infuses his love of technology into his rabbinic role (even into his sermons) and uses his Jewish knowledge to build his company. He says many of his clients are Jewish organizations who appreciate that they don’t have to explain the nuances of their religion and language to him in order to achieve their web and other marketing goals. Further, he says, he uses his superior listening skills, acquired from years listening and assisting congregants, to make his start-up clients feel at ease and best understand how to assist them.

He has managed to stay true to his Jewish ideals – not working on Shabbat and officiating with weddings, funerals, Bar Mitzvahs etc. – even beyond his part-time pulpit obligations.

“In the last couple of decades, there has been a major culture shift and rabbis are now in all sorts of positions, including rabbis like myself,” says Miller. “We are doing what feels right and fits well. For me, this is the perfect life.”

Notes Hahn: “I think it is important to see and support rabbis who go off the beaten path and take some risks.”