Friday, January 20, 2006

Where Have All the Rabbis Gone?

Rabbis Kenneth Brander and Ronald Schwartzberg are terrific people and among the best pulpit rabbis in America. That sounds good, but it isn't right. Each was a top-notch Rabbi, one in Boca Raton and the other in Highland Park. They no longer serve their congregations because they are now at Yeshiva University's new Center for the Jewish Future, one more project in a crowded field of institutions that aim to improve Jewish life. As the ranks of such projects continue to grow, American Jewish life continues to deteriorate. The institutions that can do the most good - shuls and schools - are losing talented people.

What is happening in synagogue life is occurring in day schools. The New Jersey Jewish News recently reported that the principal of the Solomon Schechter School in East Brunswick would be leaving at the end of the school year after two years on the job, while the head of the much larger Solomon Schechter in Caldwell and West Orange was leaving in the middle of his first year. Similar reports are coming from day schools across the country. With so many job changes, it is hard to keep up with the game of musical chairs. I am about to begin a survey of day school principals, the purpose being to get data on job satisfaction and longevity.

Why is there so much moving around and why are rabbis leaving pulpit positions altogether? Greener pastures - or what appear to be greener pastures - is an obvious factor. There is more to the story. In day schools and particularly in the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox sectors, principals' salaries have soared, at times eclipsing by a wide margin what public school principals are paid in the same communities. My impression is that congregational salaries have also risen quite a bit.

The ready explanation is that the job has become too difficult, too stressful. In a May speech at the convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, I described how social change has affected the Rabbinate. There is already too much on rabbinical plates and more is being added because of technological and social developments. Cell phones, email, Blackberries and pagers mean that congregants can instantaneously be in touch with their rabbis, often asking questions or conveying information that demands, in a sense, a quick response or action. There is a parallel growth in the number of events rabbis are expected to attend and an even greater explosion in pastoral duties, arising in large measure from changing family circumstances, including the greater incidence of divorce and relationship issues. If only because of family size, the situation is more acute in the Orthodox rabbinate.

The increase in lifespan adds to the burden. We hear much about the sandwich generation, about middle-aged parents who have responsibilities that encompass their parents and children. The new reality, notably in Orthodox life, is of four-generation families, a development that brings more work to already overburdened rabbis who must also lecture, teach classes, participate in communal activities and also try to be husbands and fathers.

In short, rabbis are overworked in 24/7 jobs. More than a few feel underappreciated and/or tormented by congregants who mistake their rabbis for a punching bag. So they leave (some are told to leave) and go to another shul or leave the Rabbinate. Who can blame anyone who wants to recapture Shabbos as a day of rest?

What is occurring among rabbis and principals echoes patterns in other professions, notably law and medicine, as job satisfaction has declined and job switching is on the increase. A new job may be the best route and perhaps only route for meaningful salary increases and better working conditions.

I do not know what motivated Rabbis Brander and Schwartzberg. What I sense is that changes in Jewish communal and philanthropic life are contributing handsomely to pulpit abandonment as the emergence of a formidable class of superrich Jews who are devoted to our community and want to make their mark has resulted in a network of private foundations and projects aimed at accomplishing meritorious goals.

There is a lot of philanthropic money floating around and rather than spend it on schools and projects that directly do good, the instinct is to reinvent the wheel and this begets the necessity to recruit staff. Is there a better hunting ground than shuls and schools? Why not go after the best, offering good salaries and good working conditions that include many dinner meetings, conferences and conventions and interaction with interesting people? There is also the promise that by taking the bait, those who are recruited will accomplish wonders for the Jewish people. When will they ever learn?

When Yeshiva University seeks to fill top positions, it is logical to look at the best among its rabbinical alumni as the answer to its prayers. But in the process, it is adding to the loss being experienced at the congregational level. When shuls lose the likes of Kenny Brander and Ronnie Schwartzberg, there is a continuing deficit in what is available to serve rank and file Jews. With sincere respect to both rabbis, I cannot escape the conclusion that they would make a larger contribution to the Jewish future by continuing to serve congregations.

If only because rabbis and principals, like other professionals, operate in what is substantially a free market, there isn't much prospect that these and other cautionary words will reverse the trend. As additional projects to promote Jewish continuity come courting, there will be additional raids on shuls and schools and the best talent will not be able to resist what is being proffered. Is it possible to plead with those who are eager to make offers that rabbis and principals cannot refuse to show greater restraint?