Unless American Jews readjust their expectations for their rabbis and give them more personal time, the already critical shortage in new rabbis will only get worse, according to the head of the country's Reform rabbis.
Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis--the umbrella group representing the country's Reform rabbis--said in his September newsletter that rabbis need a break.
"One rabbi cannot do it all...be good at everything and with everyone," Menitoff wrote. "Congregational rabbis, therefore, live with the knowledge that they cannot be all things to all people and that many of their congregants would rather have a different rabbi."
Together, the CCAR and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) represent the largest and most liberal stream of American Judaism, shaping the religious lives of about 1.5 million Jews in 902 congregations.
Last year, Menitoff convened a two-day brainstorming session to ask why fewer men and women are entering the rabbinate, a problem faced by many faiths, which poses serious questions for the future.
Menitoff and leaders from the UAHC convened a task force to look for solutions. Already, there have been some initial findings.
Part of the problem, and perhaps part of the solution, may lie in unrealistic expectations that congregations put on their spiritual leaders. Rabbis do not have enough time to study, spend with their families, or adequately do their jobs, Menitoff said.
"Too often congregants want to see their rabbis on demand," Menitoff said. "They will leave their offices for dental appointments, but bristle when they are asked to do so for an appointment with their rabbis."
The always-on-call aspect of being a rabbi is a turn-off to many would-be rabbis, and congregations need to reassess what they ask of their rabbis.
When college graduates are looking at prospective careers, they see more money as a doctor or lawyer, less stress as a business leader, and fewer demands as a stockbroker, Menitoff said.
Not so with the rabbinate.
"When people look at what they have to contend with [as a rabbi] in a congregational setting, they find they can contribute significantly more in a non-congregational position," Menitoff told Religion News Service.
While the number of rabbis in the Reform movement has doubled in the last 20 years, the number of entering rabbis has fallen dramatically. Menitoff said ordination classes are down from about 60 graduating rabbis to only about 20. Unless the structural demands of the job change, Menitoff said, those numbers will only continue to get worse.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the UAHC, said there is now a "terrible crisis" in the recruitment of new rabbis. But Yoffie sees the problem as more than just an occupational health hazard--what is bad for the rabbis is bad for Judaism, he said.
"There are some structural issues here that may make the life of a rabbi more difficult, more stressful, than is necessary and reasonable even for most people," Yoffie said.
Menitoff wrote that congregations will only benefit from a rabbinate that is well-rested, well-educated, and better able to meet all their needs.
"Without major changes, it is reasonable to expect that only a few of the 'best and brightest' graduates will opt for the rabbinate instead of medicine, law, or business," Menitoff wrote. "That would be a tragic loss for them and for the Reform movement."