Rabbinical Schools Need Money to Breed and Teach Entrepreneurial Leadership

By Rafi Cohen

I enjoyed and appreciate reading “Can Rabbinical Schools Teach Entrepreneurial Leadership?” by Rabbi Hayim Herring. I also read the responses written by Rabbis Jason Miller and Danny Nevins. Somewhere at the beginning of my training in the rabbinical program at JTS I heard the saying, “the role of the rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” The saying is likely familiar to many of us in the clergy and I think about this both in terms of my role (former role) as a congregational rabbi and with regard to both innovation and entrepreneurship.

I’ll leave the first part of the statement alone because I think it’s one hundred percent correct. The second part is more challengeable because there are degrees to which we are both trained and capable of afflicting others or as Herring wrote “[to] upset the way things are done.” I agree with this observation, but I would suggest caution in how our rabbinic programs proceed. Students, who we wish to possess an entrepreneurial disposition, should be trained to be careful because upsetting the balance can be dangerous. I am sure some of my former congregants were “upset” by the way things were done either by the lay leaders or me. Afflicting the comfortable or “upsetting” the way things are done is not always the role of a rabbi and this is where I agree strongly with Rabbi Nevins’ observation that “people seek the most in a rabbi is reliability – a person who will convey a consistent message of compassion, integrity, and wisdom.” I hate to oversimplify and sound naïve; there is something largely missing from rabbinic programs if there is to be an increased desire to teach entrepreneurial leadership to today’s students.

In the world of congregations that are led by board members primarily concerned with the bottom line, there is less, if any interest at all, in risk. Students should be trained in new ideas as well as inculcated with the value of being strategic thinkers and generating new ideas. This also comes with the readiness that some of them may be headed for congregations simply looking for rabbis to “merely lead congregations for decades of meaningful prayers, study programs and life cycle events.” There are communities that do not have the financial resources for experimentation nor do they possess a culture for risk taking and entrepreneurship.

Current students and leaders also need to be trained as much in fundraising and not-for-profit management (thankfully, I received my training in this through the Rabbinic Management Program at American Jewish University) as they are in entrepreneurship and innovation. What is it that is going to make these programs and educational tracks more available to today’s students, and what is necessary to afford each student the comfort and support to be a risk-taker?

That which is missing is greater tuition grants and fellowships that fully fund one’s rabbinical program. I was very fortunate to receive a named scholarship and to this day I am grateful to the family of Harry and Milicent May for their financial support to the rabbinical program at JTS that aided me in my tuition costs. Their generosity did something far greater for me than simply reduce my financial burden. Thanks to their gifts, others like it and what was formerly called “Seminary Shabbat” I traveled to their two home communities; I taught and lectured. I had formative and transformative experiences, and I could take some risks because of their support and the nurturing environment that was created for me.

I cannot speak for those students who received further or full tuition fellowships from the prestigious foundations (Wexner and Crown to name a couple), but I have to believe that those partnerships afford their recipients milieus in which they can be far more entrepreneurial and risk-taking. Financial stability and the worry that is absent when tuition is not an issue can lend itself to a creative and inventive spirit that we all would like to see more prevalent among current and future rabbinic leadership.

Rabbi Rafi M. Cohen is a former congregational rabbi and currently lives in the Bronx, NY where is writes, tutors, teaches and enjoys being a stay at home dad. He blogs at rabbiraficohen.wordpress.com