"Congregations all want to hire the same rabbi," [Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, of the Rabbinical Assembly] says with a chuckle. "They all want..." and he reaches across his desk to grab a page with "The Perfect Rabbi" printed across the top, "...someone who attends every meeting and is at his desk working until midnight, someone who is twenty-eight years old but has preached for thirty years, someone who has a burning desire to work with teenagers but spends all his time with senior citizens, basically someone who does everything well and will stay with the congregation forever.
"We try to tell them, You're not looking for the best rabbi. You're looking for the best match, the best fit. And that's a hard thing for people to adjust to, the idea that the best rabbi may not be the best rabbi for them."
I ask him where the Har Zion rabbi search fits into the international placement picture. How would he handicap the upcoming season for Conservative rabbis?
"Har Zion is one of the great plums," he explains. "It's one of the top ten congregations in the country-if there is such a list. It has only had wonderful rabbis, it has only done wonderful things and it has made major contributions to Philadelphia, to the Seminary and to the country. Still, not everybody wants to be rabbi of a congregation of that size and that magnitude."
[.] The first step in the process, he explains, is that the congregation fills out a questionnaire evaluating itself and its needs. Har Zion's pulpit will not be open for another year, and rabbi-hunting season generally runs from January to April, with the new rabbi showing up in the summer and making the first big splash on the High Holidays in the early fall. This means that Har Zion really shouldn't even bother sending in its questionnaire for another year. But the overachievers have already finished their homework, and they want to know from Schoenberg how soon they can post their vacancy on the "Yellow Sheets," the placement list that is the bible of job-searching rabbis.
The last time Har Zion hired a rabbi, the process worked differently. The RA and the Joint Commission were more dictatorial back in the sixties: they decided themselves which rabbis should be seen by which congregations, and doled out a handful of resumes. Only if all candidates from the initial panel were interviewed and rejected could the synagogue get more. In 1989, the rules were changed after rabbis complained that the process should be more democratic, the RA's whims less powerful. A rabbi can now apply for any pulpit, as long as certain eligibility standards are met.
"Rabbis don't have free agency," Schoenberg says. "It is a controlled and hierarchical process." They can't break a long-term contract with their current synagogue to pursue a better job. And they have to meet certain requirements of experience depending on the size of the synagogue: the larger the congregation, the more experience necessary. This system is meant to protect older rabbis from being forced out by younger rabbis, and to protect younger rabbis from getting in over their heads.
[.] As we talk, I am reminded of the peculiar experiences of rabbis-all clergy, really-in the sheer volume of emotionally charged situations, assaults on the human condition, that they must witness and process. These are referred to as "life-cycle events" in the retail business of religion. And after a while, rabbis see and oversee enough of them that they are able to compare and contrast trends and patterns. In any give week, a pulpit rabbi in a large congregation might give two or three eulogies, and might visit three times as many people struggling with life-threatening medical conditions. That's more death and destruction than most war veterans will ever have to process, and for the clergy, there's never a lull in the battle. Then there are the bar and bat mitzvahs, the baby namings, the weddings and the private pastoral counseling sessions, where the weights of various worlds are placed on the rabbi's shoulders. It's enough to create post-traumatic stress disorder by proxy.