Want More Diversity In Rabbinical Schools? Then Move Them Online

By Rabbi Patrick A. Beaulier

Many rabbinical programs are simply not designed to accommodate the people who would make amazing religious leaders. While we have made great strides to promote diversity within rabbinical seminaries and will likely continue to do so, it is important to remember that true diversity is diversity of life experience. And in order to honor this reality, seminaries need to move online.

I’ll admit from the beginning my bias: I am the Director of Innovation for Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary, a distance learning based rabbinical seminary with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis and educators. I am a true believer in the value of online community and am a techno-optimist. Judge my writing based on this obvious prejudice.

Let’s ask ourselves a few candid questions. Do we need rabbinical students who know what it’s like to pump breast milk at their retail, manufacturing or restaurant job? If you are unable to relocate for seminary because you are a caretaker for elderly parents, doesn’t your Torah carry some amazing weight to it that would be very meaningful in an era of people dealing simultaneously with their children, their pending retirement and caring for aging relatives? Who would provide the best pastoral care to people who attended a six month technical school instead of liberal arts college because they were concerned about having a career that actually paid the bills? Perhaps a rabbi who did the same?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then we have hit a hard truth: we need to lower the cost of providing rabbinical education and we need to rethink how we deliver that education to the public.

When I say that we must lower the cost of education, I am not advocating for more grants, more scholarships, more free rides to pre-existing brick and mortar seminaries. If a student wants a year in Israel, a library with printed books or “the college experience,” then someone has to pay for the cost of those experiences and ideally it should be the students themselves who have skin in the game.

But let’s consider the macro-trend. More and more companies are moving to completely remote operations. A growing office building, once seen as a sign of success, is now seen as a waste of valuable resources. Similarly, a campus-free rabbinical seminary with no administrative offices is able to put all its financial resources into what matters: educators and students. Furthermore, by eliminating many of the administrative roles that a traditional campus has, seminaries are able to free up their resources to put toward roles that are valuable such as teaching entrepreneurship, technology or other parallel skills that are beneficial to the Jewish educational future.

There is also the issue of time. Being able to attend a lecture at 2AM while nursing a baby, engaging in chat-based Bible chavrutah or taking a podcast course in Jewish history while on the way to work increases the net time available to students for engaging study. Yes, a student at a brick and mortar school can study anytime. But by eliminating the concept of the classroom and moving toward the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), we can make lectures, and therefore rabbinic education, available anytime. Think this is too “out there”? Consider that Yale and Harvard, as brick and mortar as it gets, have MOOCs on Biblical history comparable to anything at a rabbinical school.

The technology available today for interacting with students is absolutely stellar and amazingly inexpensive. We can not only replicate but improve upon the classroom experience through live streaming and texting-based channels such as Slack. Furthermore, the ability to create new pedagogies through technology such as gamification will make rabbinical schools attractive to non-traditional students such as students with learning disabilities. The impact that having more rabbis with dyslexia would have on Jewish education would be absolutely incredible.

Educators also gain from this change in model. Professors who otherwise are commuting to and from multiple campuses, picking up a course here and a course there, will be able to provide learning entirely from their mobile devices. The quality of life gained from this is amazing and studies show they make employees more productive. Additionally, when factoring in the cost of commuting, wasted time, sick days and other elements of a brick and mortar school, we are able to provide educators an effectively higher hourly rate than we do now!

As I can tell, there are five options available in the distance learning rabbinical education space. Aleph, the program by Jewish Renewal, has a hybrid system of live streaming distance learning, in-person cohort retreats, and a mentor-based, build-your-own credits system that reminds me a lot of the early days of distance learning colleges like Prescott College. Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute takes a streamlined approach with live streaming group learning and a final retreat. Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary, combines live streaming, MOOC, FaceTime-based mentorship and several other systems. Two programs, Rabbinical Seminary International and Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk represents a distance learning model utilizing email, phone and even the postal service, culminating in a final retreat.

I believe that there is room for even more programs than these five. HUC, RRC, JTS and others will eventually move to a majority online (like the Spertus Institute) or fully online system.

A final story: a friend of mine considered attending rabbinical school. When he spoke with the admissions director, he explained his only problem: he was the stay at home parent for a young child, his wife being the sole breadwinner. Relocating for seminary was simply impossible. The admissions counselor replied, “well, you have to make sacrifices to get what you want.”

I wonder what kind of rabbi my friend would have made if his experience as a stay-at-home-father had been honored, if the program had been able to use flexible technology, and if the cost had been made reasonable through rethinking its structure. We’ll never know. What I do know is that the school he wanted to attend is now struggling to make ends meet, struggling to admit students, all while talking up its commitment to Jewish diversity.

Patrick Beaulier is the Director of Innovation for Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary. He is the founder of the PunkTorah network of websites.