21st-century rabbinate

The emerging rabbinic pulpit 

In Short

Base has become the non-denominational, non-institutional rabbinate that the next generation of Jewish leaders seek to inhabit.

As we continually reaffirm our organizational commitment to embrace the unknown, we open ourselves up to seeing our world and our work anew. Base – Moishe House’s thriving network of rabbinic couples engaging young Jewish adults across the United States — offers us a new lens through which to understand the emerging rabbinic pulpit.

The last few months have seen an uptick in conversation and debate around the sustainability of traditional structures of Jewish leadership in religious settings. In December 2021, JTA published an article entitled, “The Great Resignation is fueling a rabbinic hiring crisis.” This past April, the Hartman Institute’s Identity/Crisis Podcast discussed the rabbi shortage and the closing of Hebrew Union College’s Cincinnati campus. A growing number of initiatives, including CLAL, the Center for Rabbinic Innovation and the Beloved Network have spent the last several years building programs that support rabbis with supplemental trainings and resources in the hope that it might enable them to create more vibrant and fiscally sustainable forms of Jewish life. I can’t tell you exactly how we got here (although I certainty have theories), but my work building Bases across the country these last seven years has reaffirmed two things. First, the problem is not a lack of desire by young Jewish spiritual leaders to serve, nor a lack of desire by the next generation to be served. In fact, I would argue both impulses are growing. The problem is how we have traditionally set our rabbis up – behind a pulpit.

In the United States, rabbis (Judaism’s most ancient form of communal leadership) have had three primary institutional structures from which to serve: a synagogue pulpit, a teaching position or in a community organization (e.g. JCC, hospital chaplain, etc.) As we know well at Moishe House, this is not where the next generation of young Jews is showing up. Young adults are gathering in each other’s apartments, or at the coffee shop, bar or gym down the street. They are in the metaverse, or on TikTok and Instagram. And now, with the support and vision of many leaders and communities, they are also showing up to our Bases – seeking mentorship, spiritual guidance and a community in which to explore our ever-shifting world and its impact on our lives and Jewish identities. 

Base has become the non-denominational, non-institutional rabbinate that the next generation of Jewish leaders seeks to inhabit. Like our generation, the Base rabbinate defies the traditional binary of work/life and allows us to live and serve in a more dynamic and integrated way. We can be parents, partners, neighbors, teachers, hosts, pastors, organizers and artists all at once. If Moshe was the paradigm that the rabbis of the Talmud looked to for guidance, somewhat removed from the community, then Base leads in the model of his brother Aaron, with the people. If synagogues were built to resemble the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple), then Base has been built to resemble to mishkan, a temporal structure that allows for change and movement. Ultimately, Base is a communal pulpit based in the heart of where life happens: our neighborhoods. As the global leader of post college, young adult Jewish engagement, Moishe House is primed to grow this initiative, and to attract early career rabbis who seek to serve their peers in a fundamentally new way. In fact, this summer we are opening two new Bases in Denver and in the Bay area. 

Since founding Base seven years ago, I’ve seen tremendous changes in the rabbinate. When we first began to expand beyond our flagship pilots in New York City, I had to explain in painstaking detail, what Base is – how it is not kiruv work, and how it is different from the residential Moishe House model. If I got through that, then I had to convince young rabbis it was worth the risk of not taking a more traditional pulpit. Truthfully and understandably, I was often unsuccessful. But a lot has changed in these last seven years. 

Today, dozens of early- and mid- career Rabbis reach out to our team asking for a chance to build a Base, or advice on how to create something Base-like. When I dig into what that “Base-like” means, I usually hear something like, “I want to be with people. I want to help steward them through this turbulent moment in the world. I don’t want to wait for them to come in the doors of the synagogue, I want to go out to the streets and meet them where they are.” Perhaps even more pointedly, since we started, six Basers (participants) have chosen to leave their careers and pursue rabbinic ordination themselves, seeing Base as a potential avenue for communal leadership, entrepreneurship and self-expression. 

This need, and this work, is not new to us at Moishe House. In 2016, the Open Dor Project was founded in our R&D wing, which was designed to offer entrepreneurial rabbis the financial, strategic and spiritual support they need to build inspiring Jewish communities. Through five years of evaluation and research we learned that a relationship with a rabbi is a prominent aspect of communal participation. Respondents’ initial motivation to participate, along with their decision to continue their involvement, is related to their strong sense of connection with the rabbi. Almost half of participants (46%) said one of the ways they engage with their communities is through meetings with the rabbi. Most feel connected to the rabbi and indicate their participation is linked to that relationship.

Two things have become increasingly clear: Rabbis want to be with people, and people want and need more support than ever. The emergence of the joint economic and public health crises from the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the critical nature of the pastoral care that Base rabbis offer their communities. In fact, increasing evidence continues to emerge to demonstrate that young adults are being more heavily impacted by the emotional fallouts of COVID-19 than other age groups. 60% of young adults surveyed in 2020 by the Springtide Research Institute report feeling very isolated, and nearly half say they feel scared and do not want to be alone. Similarly, a study released by Brandeis University in January 2021 revealed that one in every four young adults surveyed feel lonely “often” or “all” of the time. The study went on to say, “The biggest danger facing young adults in a post-COVID world may not be medical or even economic, but emotional… Institutions and organizations in the Jewish community and beyond that serve young adults should recognize that social and mental health support might be the most pressing current need for young adults in the United States.” 

Base rabbis and their partners are doing this work. In 2021, despite the ongoing pandemic, the Base movement engaged over 3,000 unique young adults IRL (in real life!) in over 9,000 touch points including pastoral conversations, Shabbat dinners, immersive retreats, Jewish learning and acts of service in our neighborhoods. These teams are making space for uncomfortable conversations, hard feelings and the emotional turmoil of our moment; and they are also carving space for celebration, joy and Jewish pride. Like the mishkan (tabernacle) that the Jews carried with them throughout their wanderings in the desert, our rabbis are carrying their pulpit with them, from soul to soul.

To learn more about Base, check out our website here. 

Faith Leener is executive director of Base.