The Great American Rabbi Shortage

The following is a transcript of Episode 96 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Wednesday, April 13th, 2022. 

So I was recently reading about one of my favorite episodes in the history of American Judaism, a story that deserves its own narrative podcast, or maybe even a Netflix series: a dinner celebration, known to Jewish history as the Treifa banquet held in 1883 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The banquet was held in honor of the first graduating class of the reform seminary, Hebrew Union College, and featured, as its name suggests, a vast array of non-kosher offerings, including famously frog legs. The legendary version of the story is that several of the guests stormed out offended and in so doing, in the lobby, lay the groundwork for the movement away from reform Judaism, that then became conservative Judaism.

The real story as written by historians is a lot more subtle, but the legend contains a kernel of truth. The banquet was in fact named by the founders of Conservative Judaism as a kind of evidence for the overreaches of Reform. And within a relatively short time, American Judaism had given birth to an institutional infrastructure with two very different branches of what we now understand to be liberal Judaism.

We actually reenacted the banquet at our Purim celebration at home a couple of weeks ago, albeit with fake versions of the non-kosher offerings. Do I want to get hate mail for that? So I love this story for a lot of reasons. I especially like the disdain that the founder of HUC, Isaac Mayer Wise, had for his critics of the banquet. He mocked their concern by calling them adherence to quote kitchen Judaism. Which personally, I feel most closely describes my own denominational affiliation, but I especially like the story because I like myths of origins about our institutions and what they tell us about why we have institutions to begin with and what purposes they’re meant to serve.

You see that a lot of people out there in today’s Jewish community who like to hate on our Jewish institutions as a hobby or as a habit, even as a profession. Sometimes this comes across in the widespread terminology of quote, the American Jewish establishment, as though it is a depersonalized monolith.

Other times it’s just the diffidence that’s implied when many of us get really excited about things that are innovative, even as we lose sight of those boring and prosaic institutions that still have to do all the heavy lifting. I think Jewish institutions get a bad rap because they’re always catching up because there’s a certain tragedy built into institutions.

Here’s the fundamental problem. Jewish institutions exist because they get created for particular needs. At any given time, we Jews have commitments, ideologies, identities, and needs, and Jews like other human beings need institutional frameworks to enact and perform those identities and ideologies and to take care of those needs.

We, we need social service agencies based on our socioeconomic realities. We need synagogues to pray in and based on what we believe, we need community centers to gather in based on our social position in a society. But those identities and ideologies change quickly and institutions are always going to struggle to catch up.

It’s partly because it’s hard to turn a big ship, but also because institutions invariably take on another mission. Even if they originate in trying to address the needs of the people as articulated by their founders, they then wind up spending a lot of time, simply trying to survive to feed the institution itself. So we Jews are always evolving in terms of our identities, who we are, and in terms of our ideologies, what are our commitments, and ostensibly, our institutional infrastructure needs to keep pace as well.

For all the reasons we could spend a lifetime talking about, that is easier said than done. So stories like the Treifa banquet are kind of exciting. In a dramatic moment, new institutions are born. But the real version of pivoting institutions to meet the needs of the Jewish people is far more subtle and far more difficult.

And, um, I would say probably less delicious. So today we’re going to explore a prominent case study for the question of institutional and ideological adaptation. This past week in the news, it was announced that the board of Hebrew Union College, now called Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion, approved a plan to shutter the rabbinic program at one of its four campuses, the aforementioned one in Cincinnati.

And this is supposed to kick in in several years as part of an organizational and financial restructuring. It comes on the heels of increasingly public recognition that there’s deep instability in the field of rabbinic education, that the system is training fewer and fewer rabbis. We’ll talk about all this today. And more generally in response to what we’ve all seen for a while, a significant evolution in American Jewish identity and it’s needs. 

So I’m thrilled today to be joined by Dr. Andrew Rehfeld, the president of HUC-JIR. His own biography tells a fascinating story of Jewish leadership and the leadership pipeline, a professor of political science who came through a stint in the Federation system in Jewish communal leadership and arrived at HUC at a powerful moment of inflection for both the institution and for the movement. HUC-JIR is the academic and intellectual arm of the reform movement. It trains its leaders, not only rabbis but cantors and educators and Jewish communal professionals.

And, uh, and as a result is faced with a major set of questions of what it means to lead the, not only reform Jews, which is the largest domination in America, but American Judaism more generally on its academic, intellectual, and leadership trajectory. So, so Andrew, thanks for being on Identity Crisis today.

Andrew: Great to be here, Yehuda. Thank you for the invitation, really honored. 

Yehuda: So there’s a lot we could unpack about the, this, uh, story that’s in the news today, but I guess I want to start here, which is, um, tou know, the obvious thing that those of us were watching this on the side are looking at is what appears like a rational economic decision. Marketplace changes, the institutions have to make rational economic changes as a result. But the response has been unbelievably emotional. I don’t want to overplay the, the dichotomy between the rational and the emotional, but the response has been unbelievably emotional, both by those who support this kind of decision. And especially uh, by those who oppose it.

So maybe you could help us understand what is that stake emotionally, uh, for all of these stakeholders on all of these sides, when, when your institution, you know, engages with a decision like this one. 

Andrew: Yeah. So I want to just push back a little bit on the framing. Although finances were a motivating factor throughout our strategic planning process, and this does generate significant financial gain, the decision was based on academic excellence and on educational, uh, quality. Uh, let me be clear, not the decision to leave Cincinnati per se, but the need to go from running three rabbinical programs to two. That as we simply didn’t have the resources, the faculty, or the students to maintain vibrancy in three places.

And then there’s a lots of disagreement, lots of good, important disagreement about where those two should be since we’re running three. But I just want to be clear that the decision of consolidation was based on those trends that we had seen before about declines across, and we can talk about them more. 

So why is it so emotional? I, you know, I think for perhaps three reasons and I try to reduce everything to threes. But first of all, there is the history, you know, as you just did, as you just declared, this is where reform Judaism in America was founded. And arguably, this is where the idea of liberal Judaism really took root.

It was created of course in Europe and Germany, but it didn’t take root until the institutions were formed by Isaac Mayer Wise in Cincinnati, 1873, for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1875 for HUC, and 1889 for the Rabbinical Association. So, number one, you just have a break with history that is so profound for us as a people and for us as a movement. And it’s shaped liberal Judaism today. 

Uh, number two, there is the identity that people have with their Alma mater and with the connections that they have to the people, the faculty that so shaped and formed profoundly the lives of thousands of people. And to think that we were doing something to take away their memories of what was there. And, uh, I think is really powerful and I know how I would feel and you know, my own Alma maters. Uh, so I think there was that. 

There’s a third one that I can speak to much more directly. I spent most of my adult life in the Midwest, uh, nine years in Chicago and 18 in St. Louis. And there is a profound difference of Judaism in the midsection, broadly speaking than in, certainly in LA and New York. This is the first time I’ve ever lived in New York. And there is a set of presumptions. There is a lifestyle. There’s a, a, just a different approach. And the decision here really reverberated for congregations and for our alum, who felt like once again, the coastal elites are abandoning the middle. 

Now I can tell you why I don’t, that was not, certainly not driving my view, but I do understand the emotionality. When just to give up a parallel example, when Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis was sold to InBev. And I think uh, that company from the Netherlands. It was a shock. It was a civic harm in um, uh, to St. Louis. 

And I think for that, that sense of identity, that sense of collective purpose that you see when institutions, they feel like they’re leaving a community. Uh, just one other thing. One of the reasons I was so committed to maintaining most of our infrastructure in Cincinnati. We had not, and I would just take issue with the word shutter, which is, uh, you know, you described the shutter, we didn’t shutter the rabbincal program.

We were transitioning the rabbinical program in Cincinnati from what it was, and yes, we are closing that, but we are looking to be forward um, innovators in terms of having an academically rigorous low residency program, which will raise up rabbis and cantors across North America, anywhere you are, with our faculty, with high academic standard,s and bring them back to Cincinnati for the in residency program. 

We’re maintaining the American Jewish archives. We’re maintaining the cloud library, both of which have extraordinary, uh, holdings for the Jewish people and the Skirball Museum, which is a terrific collection we have, the Bnei B’rith collection that was given to us, uh, many years ago and working with the University of Cincinnati to really strengthen that platform as a research center and a communal education center to engage people locally and throughout North America.

Yehuda: Great. So there’s a lot here, uh, that I want to unpack with you, especially around, I think the geographic question is really interesting. Uh, the question of elitism that’s implied in the geography question I think is part of that. There’s even a political story that, that I want to get to around the politics of reform Judaism and what’s different between the coast and the Midwest, but let’s start with what you, what you said at the beginning, which is a kind of a break with history.

And it’s so interesting to start there Andrew, because we’re talking about reform Judaism, right? I mean, you know, like history, it gets, I think the term is usually Jewish law gets a vote but not a veto, but when it comes, this is the, this is the denomination of American Judaism that has been the most, uh, historically audacious and courageous about saying like history changes. We evolve with history. We move on. 

So I guess there’s some, there’s a kind of powerful irony of, oh my God. We’ve abandoned our historical roots when it comes to, of all denominations and all institutions, reform Judaism on that issue is I, I wonder if you see that in the institution. 

Andrew: Ah, of course I do. Look at the, one of the challenges of reform Judaism, is it is grounded on the premise of reason and rationality, and one of the great challenges of reformed Judaism is a can’t overcome human emotion.

You know, that’s sort of the irony. And I think human emotion is connected to time and to place and to story and to history and very powerful. And I think that’s, those of us who find religion engaging and meaningful, find it because of the connection throughout the generations. So I see this as a much more of a, of a human moment than I see it as a moment that reflects reform values or otherwise, I, I just think it’s the complexity of the Jewish people with complexity of religion and complexity of humanity. 

Yehuda: Yeah. So, um, we’ll come back to specifically the reform movement in a couple of minutes, but you showed me maybe a month ago or so when we met on zoom, you showed me a chart that then appeared in the Forward, which was, um, you know, showing the decline, precipitous decline, over the past 30 to 40 years, of enrollment in, um, in North American rabbinic seminaries, I should say American, there is no Canadian liberal  rabbinic seminary. I learned that in the last couple of weeks. I obviously knew that, but never really knew it. 

Um, a precipitous decline over 30 to 40 year period. Uh, you’re talking about something like nine campuses for non-Orthodox rabbinic education in America and drop by more than half, I believe of, uh, the number of rabbis attending. The biggest number drop is in the reform movement because you’ve retrained many more rabbis than any other, right. I don’t know if the percentages are any lower or higher. 

Andrew: No, we still, the data that we have that, we’re still the market leader, but our numbers are that the whole thing, the whole market, the ecosystem is declining. That’s right. 

Yehuda: The whole market system is down. So let’s talk for a little bit about why, what ha what happened. And, and I want to particularly probe on, like we’ve talked about this a little bit on Identity Crisis before, but it’s, it’s more material here. There is no obvious economic reason with this should happen. There are jobs on the other ends.

So there it’s gotta be something else besides economic reasons that are forcing this, uh, this decline and why people are choosing to become rabbis.

Andrew: Yeah. So it, it questions. Yeah. I want to say something ironic about Marxism here, but I, and we’ll move into that then, you know, the jobs, aren’t the explanation, because there are really good jobs.

I think that there, I was talking to Rabbi Amy Perlin, who’s one of our graduates. Uh, first, uh, first female creator of their own synagogue. Uh, just honored in our Holy Sparks Exhibition. You know, she was talking about the fact, and you’ve talked about this, Yehuda, the nature of the rabbinate is changing, what it means to be a rabbi.

And I think that what people think of as what a rabbi is, is not what is compelling people generally and is connected to the decline in religious engagement, the rise of the nuns, and then the no religion whatsoever. And so long as you view rabbi in a very traditional, religious framework. You’re going to, it’s going to decline along with the pipeline that comes in.

But I think part of what I’m interested in doing, and I think that others who hold similar positions as I do, are interested, is to understand the rabbinate is changing. And that we have to catch up the marketing and the communication about what that is. The ability to be with people, to hold them in times of sorrow and celebrate in times of joy and use our tradition to develop communities of meaning and purpose, in some, that’s what the rabbi’s always done. 

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be done in the way that it has traditionally been done or been seen. And so maybe it’s an image issue as much as anything, but I think that we’re all trying to figure out how to repurpose and rethink about the role of rabbi. You’ve talked about the centrality of rabbis to communities.

They remain central, and we have to make sure that we’re tapping into the flow of talent, the best and the brightest, to get them in, because I do fear where we’re losing them. I’m speaking too long. So you go ahead. 

Yehuda: No, no, it’s okay. I, I guess let’s reduce the problem to its core components. Is it a supply problem? Is it a demand problem? Or is it a training problem? Those are, those are your three easiest hypotheses, uh, to what’s taking place here. And, and obviously HUC is going to have a material interest in, you need to keep that supply chain open. Otherwise the system doesn’t work. Otherwise you need to, you need to transition your campuses to becoming something very different. 

So how do we, how do we attack all three manifestations of those problems? I find your portrayal compelling. There’s something off. Rabbis are obviously important. Many of us take them for granted. There’s something off in the construct of what a rabbi is supposed to be.

How do we address it on all three of those trajectories?

Andrew: Yeah. So let’s begin with supply and let’s begin with a pipeline. One thing that we’ve seen over the last 30 or 40 years is the dramatic decline of the, of the ponds that we were fishing from. So I went back to Baltimore Hebrew Congregations, where I was confirmed, and I think my class was either 60 or 70.

And when I went back there to visit with Rabbi Andy Bush, who is the rabbi there now, and I think the confirmation class is either 15 or 18 people. And when you’re talking about that dramatic a decline and our whole system has been built on fishing in the pond of people that have come through there.

We have to look for different ponds and what we find when we go to different ponds is that the fish that are in there, to press the metaphor further, are not yet as strengthened by Jewish education, engagement. We don’t have people coming through the camp system, coming through the confirmation system as much as we used to.

So our numbers are down and the ponds that we’re now fishing in, and that we’re looking for, maybe people got a positive Jewish identity. But don’t have as many engagement opportunities. So they’re coming in with less of a sense of Judaism and learning that we then, to get to the training piece, have to design training programs for. 

Uh, in terms of that second level training, a lot of people have pressed us, do we really need five years of study anymore? And shouldn’t we lower it? And the irony is what I just said. That fish that are coming in, the students that we’re looking at, are going to tend to be even less trained than they were in generations past.

And so the pressure to have fewer years is actually countermanded by the, by the forces bringing them in. And then finally, the jobs, the availability, they are expanding, but there are two things that are challenging. Number one, you’ve seen this by articles by Rabbi Lewis Kamrass and others, about how hard it is to be in congregational leadership now, and the demands of the job. And people are leaving, which is creating more jobs, but it’s a job that people are saying, what’s the relationship between them and layleaders, et cetera.

And number two, as much as there’s the opportunity for jobs. The ecosystem decline is making it clear, there are more mergers, congregations are getting smaller. So I think anybody looking from a jobs perspective is going to say, well, maybe there are jobs now, but how long would they be there? Because the vibrancy will depend on us continuing. So there’s and then it gets into the whole, you know, cycle again.

Yehuda: Right. I mean, I tend to. You know, there are those three and probably six other major factors that are fueling this and they basically are just, they’re creating kind of a whirlpool effect. Right. Because I can’t, the more that I try to like put my finger on the, you know, or put your finger in the dam over here and then it bursts out over there. So there’s no way to address this unless we try to do it systematically. 

But let’s pull out a few things that you said. I like your metaphor of fishing and ponds. And I think that’s probably right. I know better the conservative movement, that for reasons I will never understand, significantly diminished their, um, college student programming and youth movement. And of course, you’re not going to have rabbinical students later on, but I wonder whether maybe the whole thing, it assumes that the, assumes that the system is going to produce. And we just have to look in different places.

One rabbi suggested to me a couple of months ago, it’s a bizarre metaphor, but stay with me. He said uh, if you’re a superstar 12 old basketball player, the NBA knows who you are by age 12. Right. Um, and people know who you are now, and there’s places that they’re going to push you, there are going to be coaches who show up at your door, opportunities that arrive. 

And the problem is that like a reform seminary is kind of waiting until people are fully cooked to recruit them. So like, what would it look like if the institutions that were committed to rabbinic education were thinking totally differently about young Jews from age, I don’t know, 10, what would that, what would that actually have to entail? And is the infrastructure capable of doing that kind of work? 

Andrew: The infrastructure is capable of it. This is where movements come in. And what you said at the beginning about institutions is really important. I hope we’ll be able to get back to that, Yehuda, because I think there’s a bigger issue about movements and institutions, but the infrastructure that we were built on, was built on our partners working and their work looking a certain way. 

The URJ, the Union of Reform Judaism, that is the congregational arm of the reform movement, has done a spectacular job in shifting and pivoting, given all of the ecosystem challenges, but it’s left us with a different kind of an infrastructure. And we’ve never changed really how we have connected with that infrastructure.

So, so long as there were regions of the URJ, for example, there used to be regional offices. It was much easier to plug into the regional programs and the regional conventions and NFTY that was happening. And when that shifted, we were continuing to do our work, but without that kind of natural gathering and natural places of connection.

Um, uh, but sure. Uh, tuching into, uh, high school and college programs, I think we’re going to have to get into pipeline development. I’d like to see us develop a great books program for two weeks on our Cincinnati campus, using our resources there for college students, giving them credit either from the University of Cincinnati or the University of Southern California, both of them we have relationships with so they can have college credit. 

You know, in whether from high school or even college two weeks, I think, you know, there’s something at Yale that is similar, but we ought to be doing that. We ought to be identifying that. And, uh, Rick Jacobs and I are speaking later this week and Rick and Hara Person, two rabbis, Hara being the head of the CCAR, and I are in close contact to talk about how we rethink our movement, our institutional relations as a movement to strengthen our collective work together. 

Yehuda: Great. So another thing that you said when we were talking about the supply, demand, and training, as you said, about the question of, is it too long or the question of debt that’s associated with that? That’s a complicated question. 

I tend to agree with you that based on the current educational knowledge of who American Jews are going into rabbinical school, you probably can’t cut it much lower than four or five years, you probably can’t. Um, but I, I th the, the more pressing question is, what do you do with those five years?

Um, and, and here I have a, I have a pointed criticism, which hopefully we can talk about, which is, does it make sense for rabbinic education to be juxtaposed, to a accredited institution, a higher education institution, or does the wedding of those two things force a rabbinic curriculum to take advantage of those resources when they might not be what you would design for how somebody should spend five years getting trained to be a rabbi for the Jewish people. 

Now, there are economic consequences in both directions of that choice, but I would love for you to talk through like, what are the strengths and weaknesses of a training program for rabbis that that is wedded to a institution of higher learning in that way. 

Andrew: Look, one of the things that distinguishes reform Judaism and the seminary from others that existed before 1875 was its commitment to an academic study of Jewish, Judaism and Jewish life. And while it’s entirely possible that you don’t need the formality of academia anymore, given the expansion of Jewish studies departments, et cetera, that you don’t need that formality in a seminary, I think it’s essential. 

I think it’s essential because it, as so long as we have the faculty that are driving academic scholarship, you are maintaining a high standard. I wouldn’t be worried about the first three years or five years, or maybe 10 years of abandoning that. I’d be worried about the next few decades.

As we move further and further away from that, we move more and more into adopting, the emotive spiritual practice is essential and will always be part of our training, but they will, they will tend to overtake that commitment to academic rigor and, uh, you know, one reason that we are advancing the changes we’re making is because our faculty becomes so depleted on our campuses that we can’t maintain three vibrant faculties. 

Uh, and we want to go back to that because intellectual vibrancy is core to what I think we should be doing in training rabbis. So I would be very reluctant to withdraw from that because it creates, its a fence around our own Torah, of scholarship. 

Yehuda: That’s interesting. So it’s a tenure system effectively, guarantees the intellectual rigor of the institution. 

Andrew: Just to be clear, I’m, I’m very much supportive of maintaining the tenure system, but I want to say it’s not tenure that guarantees it. It’s tenure that guarantees us securing top talent. And it’s the talent that drives it. I mean, we could do adjuncts that are all or part-time and we would do it, but it’s the academic model that matters. Tenure is a means to preserve that. 

Yehuda: And have you seen in your experience when it comes to actually designing a rabbinic curriculum that that actually is an asset? Because I could anticipate all the ways in which the very kind of freedom that, uh, that that system affords academics may not actually incentivize them to be the people who are shaping what a rabbinic education is supposed to look like.

Andrew: So just as what a faculty looks like at a liberal arts college looks like different than what it looks like at a technical college. It looks different than a top, uh, multi-function university, like Harvard or something like that, faculty will look different, but they all have tenure and they all have academic standards.

Our faculty are chosen for a diversity of strengths and diversity representing the multiple excellences that we need to train our rabbinic students for. So our tenured faculty have to not only be great faculty, they have to be great advisors and teachers and, we also count on a robust, uh, adjunct faculty or non-tenured faculty that bring to it pastoral skills, uh, spiritual skills and all of that training.

That’s what makes this place so it’s exciting, that we are committed to all of the excellences that are required to form modern rabbis today. 

Yehuda: You know, I agree with everything you basically, you just said, okay, here are all of the various skillsets. There’s also, it, it kind of conveys in some way that what we need out of rabbis is a superhumanity.

And I, we see it. And that’s part of the reason I think on the supply part of the supply chain problem is people look at these jobs and like, wow, that’s really hard. It’s not, you know, again, it’s not, they tend to be pretty well-compensated jobs as things goes. It’s not, you know, you have some measure of job security, although it’s variable in different places.

But I wonder whether we’re really set up to move. Part of the pipeline issue is how do you help people become specialists at the things that they’re good at and then build out a system that people don’t have to feel like if I’m not a great pastor and a great speaker and a great educator and a great CEO that I actually can’t be an effective rabbi for American Jews. 

Andrew: When I speak of a modern rabbinate, I’m speaking of the rabbinate that encompasses these multiple excellences that I’m speaking of and their multiple talents and their multiple strengths and skills and the area that I would like to see our faculty and director of our rabbinical program, brilliant Devorah Weisberg, rabbi in, in LA, um, move to, now that we’re moving towards a consolidated model, is to begin to build a curriculum that has a base core of knowledge, and then allows more tracking, for people that want to be organizational managers, that want to be social justice advocates, that want to be great pastors, that want to be great scholars, and also get one of the great teachers. 

And the panoply not expecting that everyone should do these things uh, in equal measure, but that we can be offering strengths to reinforce the work of our students. Right now we have that. We have the benefit of having the Zelikow School of Jewish, uh, nonprofit management, which does allow students who want to take an extra year to get a master’s in that too, to have that training, we have a school of education, a similarly situated.

Um, and I think we need to be thinking about, can we do more with those five years in exactly the way that you’re thinking of that can reinforce and strengthen a more concentration, a more, a greater concentration of, uh, of skills. 

Yehuda: So w the way that you’ve, that, that move, that kind of pivot kind of reawakens the question about movement, because in order to be effective in any particular context, you’ve, essentially need an ecosystem.

Now I want to, I guess I want to push on two fronts on that ecosystem. One is. Oh man. That’s a lot of institutions for a declining movement. It’s a lot. And it means that there’s a lot of replication and duplication and politics inside a movement, the same in the conservative movement that is as it is in the reform movement.

And it’s just, it’s hard to imagine that if you were gonna design that system today, if you could like Thanos, snap your fingers, that somehow that that would be, would we, would we recreate these networks? And I guess I’m pulled by the sense of, of course you need a synagogue network and of course you need a rabbinic union and of course you need, uh, a social justice arm.

There’s something about it. It just feels like a lot. So without getting yourself into too much trouble, like, what are we supposed to do? Looking at the system, what’s gonna, what’s gonna have to give?

Andrew: So I want to press back on one thing and just take a step back for a second. Movements and institutions are two different things. They’re not just two different words. They refer to two different things. I want to step back and ask the question, what is a movement? Because there’s no way to answer the question without thinking about what a movement is and let’s, let’s take it out of the current context. Let’s think about other movements we know about. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement.

And think about the three things that make a movement. So let’s use the labor movement as an example, principles of, of workplace justice or, or worker justice or whatever, you know, some core principles that workers ought to be treated fairly.

And then you move from the principles to a set of goals, distinctive aims that they have. Child labor laws. The workdays should be eight hours, uh, uh, eight hours, a 40 hour a week, workweek. Okay, so you have principles and ideas. You then have aims that you’re achieving well, how do you achieve the aims? You need to create institutions. 

And so in this case, you create labor unions. And labor unions work, and they function well to achieve the aims, child labor laws, OSHA, workplace safety. And, um, and they continue to attract people to them and be vibrant, so long as those two first steps are needed, that is so long as people are needed to embrace the ideas and number two, they are looking to achieve the aims. 

But Yehuda, where we are right now is exactly where the labor unions were after those aims had been achieved, labor unions and institutions weaken when the aims are achieved or the principles are widely adhered to, so they’re, they’re no longer necessary.

So now let’s think about reform Judaism or any of the movements. You know, you, you talked about liberal Judaism, which is, you’re using now, but that is reform Judaism. I would say that the principles of reformed Judaism had been so widely accepted by most American Jews, including those that call themselves conservative, that call themselves modern Orthodox, even that call themselves reconstructionist or, or secular, but not, you know, uh, that is the embrace of reason, of individual autonomy, of understanding our congregations and communities are there not only to serve our own needs, but for general purposes. 

Those are no longer reform Judaism, but that is what reform Judaism began. The embrace of the enlightenment to transform traditional.

Okay. So now you have institutions that exist in an ecosystem where the principles that formed the movement of reform Judaism are widely embraced. They’re called liberal Judaism. The aims of what you have are met by many places, have a place to congregate, to learn, to engage, and you have to ask how are the institutions now meeting the needs?

And I would say that that’s the challenge for us right now. I think the question is not, are the institutions of the reform movement necessary? I think they are and they’re important. I think it’s the question more of denominational boundaries. How much are they, in fact, doing the work that they’re doing?

I think the future of liberal Judaism in the next 10 to 100 years is to see much more seamless integration and the expression of differentiation between reform, conservative, modern Orthodox, even, and reconstructionist be much more on a continuum rather than these firewalls between them. That’s certainly what I’ve been promoting with my seminary partners.

And we’ve all been trying to work together to, not to merge, but to, to understand the continuity rather than the distinctiveness. 

Yehuda: What, so why not to merge? I know it’s a naive question that people who are the outside of institutions can’t fully understand the politics, the stakeholders, the legal implications, et cetera, not merging, but what, but like play out the thought experiment. You’re sitting on, in Manhattan alone, a billion and a half dollars of real estate between HUC and JTS.

Why is the idea of merging or even not just, not just seeing places for collaboration, but creating some shared infrastructure around which you could have different rabbinic and conservative education. Like why is that so absurd?

Andrew: Yehuda, because the terms you’re using make it absurd. 

Yehuda: Oh god. Go for it. 

Andrew: I want to explain. I’ve been advocating and will continue to advocate. And we’re all looking into ways that we could, we could share space. We could co-locate, we could share back office. We could share IT. We could share faculty. We could be in the same classrooms. 

So what you’ve just described, nobody’s opposed to, in fact, I would say we’re all looking for ways to do that in a much stronger, uh, uh, manner. In fact, we are exploring, uh, selling 1 W 4th Street, as part of our comprehensive review of the institution, moving up across the street from you or nearby, up in Morningside Heights. And I’m saying that publicly, because we’ve been talking about it and it’s, it’s a core part of our strategic visioning for the future.

Why don’t we share classrooms with JTS? Why don’t we use back office? So that’s not a merger. A merger means sublimating your history, your identity, the things that do make you distinctive and merging them into one. And I don’t see the need for that. We can have infrastructure sharing, by the way, we could be one institution with multiple tracks, but the tracks are still important.

And that’s what I would, I fear a merger would, would get in the way of, uh, because you do lose some sense of distinctiveness. Um, so at this point, I think I, we’re looking at shared let’s, let’s share infrastructure, let’s share faculty, let’s share classrooms, and let’s share, let’s be co-located, for sure.

Yehuda: I think that the sticking point for me is I think you’re right. That ref, the ideas of reform Judaism. I think the ideas of conservative Judaism too, are, are, um, have been unbelievably powerful and transformative. You know and, and I actually, I find this, whenever I’m in a conversation with scholars about major Jewish issues, there’s what I started to call the infinite regress to Mordecai Kaplan.

Everybody eventually kind of gets back. Oh yeah. Kaplan was pretty much right about everything. So there is something about that in reform Judaism also like you’re right. Ideas of liberalism, just unbelievably transformative. And you can’t, you can claim that you’re, you’re not in that intellectual trajectory, but you’ve been influenced by it.

So on one hand, what you’re saying is we’re winning. 

Andrew: We’re all this, not only are we winning, but reform Judaism, the principles of them that came out of the enlightenment and the Haskalah, that’s who we all are, with the exception of the, of the fundamentalists. That’s who we all are.

Yehuda: So I guess what I’m trying to hold intention with that is a perception of a narrative of decline. That’s the paradoxical place that quote unquote liberal Judaism is at, which is unbelievably effective at winning in the marketplace of ideas in a whole bunch of ways. And the perception, partly because of institutional infrastructure, of a narrative of decline.

So when I use the language of merger, it’s not because I want to sublimate history. The reason I’m interested in that is I’m trying to figure out how do you get on top? How do you get in front of? Get on the offensive again? To make an argument for the future and for the soul of American Jewry. 

So forget about the mergers. The, people don’t want fear, fear mergers, because they fear the loss of identity. I’m interested, the merger analogy that I’m interested in, forgive me. It’s like once you create a state of Israel. You don’t want to have an Etzel and an Irgun and a Palmach. You actually want to have an IDF and it become the national story of a group of people.

So I know it’s a bad metaphor, but when, when will American Jewry basically say, we are collectively taking ownership of going on the offensive again, as opposed to feeling like there’s this narrative of decline. 

Andrew: I think you’re seeing that already as part of what’s happening and look at what Hartman represents. Look at what you and Donniel had done with transforming. And Hadar is part of the same piece and where we are situating, where we have potential to growth as in the same arena, in partnership with all of us in this ecosystem. 

And by the way, as much as the traditional institutions are declining, there has been growth in opening of places like AJR and Aleph that offer uh, much more distanced learning, in a way that’s challenging to some of us, but nevertheless, that is attracting people. Um, because they’re using new technology. 

So I don’t have a, I don’t have a fix, but I think understanding that you can engage seriously in Jewish ideas, the value and importance of community without the heavy infrastructure of religion or what that represents to so many people, God, in the centrality of it, which frankly is a deterrent to a new generation that identify as secular, but they’re not materialist or athiest. 

They’re just secular in the sense of they don’t want, they don’t want the God language. They’re uncomfortable with it. But they’re looking for meaning and purpose. And I think to the extent we can realign what we’re doing in the language of meaning and purpose without having to be so explicit for many of us, that it has to do with the divine, but for others, that really is an alienating piece.

We will find a place for spiritual fulfillment. People go to SoulCycle, they use, they go to yoga for these things, but that is no less in my mind a spiritual practice than what we offer based on thousands of years of experience. 

Yehuda: So let me ask you a little bit of a different question, which kind of goes to, you and I have talked about this a bunch of times over the years, and I know it goes back to the kind of heart and soul of your own research here. You think about politics and political, as a political thinker, political theorist, um, there is a, what I would say, a growing politicization of denominational Judaism in a bunch of different directions.

And it’s most visible in the reform movement around essentially a, a certain type of left politics, which are considered to be part and parcel of what it means to be a reform Jew. You can make a good historical argument that that’s always been the case. Um, but I think that there’s, I think what we’re seeing feels a little different today than it would have felt 30 or 40 years ago with the language of one prominent reform rabbi who said to me, I can’t tell the difference between the agenda of the DNC and the URJ bi-annual, like they’re identical language on an identical set of issues. 

So, you know, there’s two approaches one might take, is say, okay, well, and that’s clearly where rabbinical students are headed, is a certain type of political activism. One is to say, well, if that’s who’s coming to our programs, we have to cultivate them as political leaders.

But meantime, there are a whole bunch of issues that I know you care about around civil discourse, around resisting partisanization, around liberalism as opposed to progressivism. So how do you both as an institutional leader and as, as a leading intellectual of this movement count kind of interact with these political trends?

Andrew: Yeah. So first of all, what you’re describing is for sure true in terms of the perception and the identification of the movement with, you know, left leaning politics, et cetera. I see a seminary’s role as being much different, and this is how I engage with it. I don’t think there’s anything about reform Judaism that demands of particular political program endorsement of a party, but I’ll bracket that, what’s the role of the seminary?

The seminary is to prepare Jewish leaders to lead and to navigate, uh, in work that most of, that is going to be done outside of the seminary. And so that’s why inside the seminary, we have to create the conditions for deliberative discourse around, uh, pluralistic ideas.

And, uh, I’ve taken a lot of heat from our, our current students. And I really appreciate the pushback from them, simply by saying, we’re going to create communities that can talk about even the most challenging issues that press up against your identity, your politics. And if we can’t create the sacred space to do that, we are not doing our jobs.

And so that means not just accepting the accepted language about any number of things, but to say in the classroom and that these sacred spaces, we’re going to do the hard work and not be walking on eggshells and really work to that.

Um, but there’s also another piece to it. And that is, I do think we have to be training our students for what political activism looks like, not the content, but to be good political actors. Because often I think that, um, you know, there’s a difference between prophecy and prophetic Judaism. Prophecy being, just speaking truth to power and making sure your soul is pure and everyone knows what it is. That’s not always the most effective thing to do. So even for students who would want us to take a stronger, uh, side in the partisan wars, understanding that they need to be smarter and, and more savvy in the, uh, the execution of achieving their goals.

I think that partisanship is not helpful and conducive to either spirituality or to learning. And that’s why I don’t think that it has a place in a seminary. 

Yehuda: And I guess the arc goes back to what you were talking about before, around segmentation, which is those are rabbinical students who are interested in becoming social justice activists should travel through rabbinical school and get the training that is both how to be really good at that. But also what does it mean to actually do that from a place of Torah and love of the Jewish people and love of Judaism, but you have to also count, you have to kind of counterbalance that with not allowing the rabbinical school to take on the reputation of being exclusively a factory for the production of social justice activists. 

Andrew: That’s right. And that’s right. And I do recognize that there are different views of that, but, uh, I, I feel strong. This gets back to the academic commitment. If we are going to be an academic institution, we have to create this space where people can be open-minded about really everything and is particularly the seminary, the most important topics, whether about God or identity or politics, we need to have a place where we can discourse about it.

Yehuda: Great. So last question, uh, you’ve been really generous with your time and I appreciate it. But last question, it’s going to be an impossible one. So, um, looks like, I just want to hear what you have to say about the future of this liberal Jewish project. And what I mean by that is, you know, the success of liberalism is personal autonomy.

And, and as a result, like there’s a version of, of what it means to be a liberal Jew, which seeds its own demise for the collective of the Jewish people. I’m s, I’ve become freed of the burdens, of the burdens of belonging. Um, that kind of leaves me on the other end. This is why there has been so much continuity anxiety among liberal Jews over the past half-century, um, through, through the processes of assimilation, that American Jews have a narrative of themselves that I think is fals,e of disappearing, but it’s one that is pretty pronounced and it’s out there.

So how does a fundamentally liberal denomination think about seeding, uh, a, a future that’s actually rich with continuity. 

Andrew: It’s an impossible question, but I’ll take a shot at it. 

Yehuda: Great.

Andrew: Um, so first of all, if we understand that liberal Judaism is no longer limited to the reform movement, we can look to places of vibrancy, I mean, and the reform movement that has, has lots of places of vibrancy within it, uh, both large and small congregations.

And we can take in a lesson from that, but look at what you’re doing. Look at what others that identify, not as reform Jews, but liberal Jews who are Orthodox, liberal Jews who are conservative. So I think that liberal Judaism does some face, which you’re talking about as a particular slice of that in reform Judaism of a certain kind.

And I think the places where it’s most vibrant, whether in a synagogue in, uh, run by Gary Mezo. Rabbi Gary Mezo in Southwest Indiana. Or in Central Synagogue with Rabbi Angela Buchdal, you have engagement on the most important ideas and practices of Jewish, in Jewish education, Jewish ritual, Jewish practice.

Um, the fact that we are individual, if you stop with the fact that we are morally responsible for our own actions and say, therefore, I don’t have to belong. I think that’s just a misunderstanding of what reform Judaism and liberal Judaism is asking. Saying, what do you do with that autonomy? What choices are you making?

And I think on, I’ll be self-critical here of our movement. I think that too often, we think that it’s simply the embrace of choice without understanding the second half of that, through learning. Your choice has to be directed in a way. And this is just a version of Kant, has to be directed to make choices that you, that obligate you, that execute duties.

And one of the obligations I believe strongly, is in Jewish learning, is in Jewish ritual and practice, and is in Jewish, uh, belonging to community. So I think a place that we have growth as a, as a reform movement is to elevate again, that it’s not just about protecting yourself from making choices, by owning the individual responsibility.

It’s by making choices that strengthen your identity, your education, your engagement in the Jewish world. I think that second half is where we have some growth to do. To elevate that, not to fetishize choice, not to fetishize reason, but to ask the question, what are you going to do with that choice? And that’s the path by which we can continue to strengthen the North American Jewish world.

Yehuda: Thank you so much for listening to our show this week and special thanks to my guest, Dr. Andrew Rehfeld. 

Identity crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman common and edited by Cory Choi at Silver Sound NYC with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by so-called.

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