Photo: Mike Lovett
Hebrew College's first class of eleven transdenominational rabbis, set to graduate on June 1, 2008.

By Sue Fishkoff

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- When Ruach Ami, a small, lay-led Conservative congregation in Santiago, Chile, began looking for a rabbi, it did not turn to the movement’s Latin American seminary.

Formed last April after the disintegration of Santiago’s only other egalitarian congregation,Ruach Ami members wanted to preserve the spiritual and progressive focus of its parent synagogue, says member Victor Grimblatt. They feared a rabbi from the Masorti seminary would take them in a different direction.

Then they heard about Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass., whose rabbinical school is set to graduate its first class of 11 transdenominational rabbis on June 1.

“When we found out it was not affiliated with any movement, we said, 'That’s interesting,' ” Grimblatt told JTA. “Our group of 20 families is partly Conservative and partly Progressive.”

This summer, if all goes well, newly ordained Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky will take that pulpit.

“I’m learning Spanish fast,” Koritzinsky says from his Boston-area home.

The rabbis Hebrew College expects to ordain this year, and the 41 others coming up in four classes behind them, will join a fast-growing group of rabbis produced by a handful of seminaries not affiliated with the major Jewish streams.

These rabbis, and their teachers, say they are answering a growing need. They are training to serve an American Jewish community where denominational lines are increasingly fluid, where independent, lay-led minyans are popping up from coast to coast, and where Hillel and birthright israel programs provide hundreds of thousands of Jewish college and post-college students a taste for pluralistic Jewish life.

America's growing number of new non-Orthodox rabbis

Like their colleagues from the movement seminaries, many of these new rabbis are finding jobs outside the pulpit, often as chaplains, Hillel directors and Jewish educators. It's when they aim for pulpit positions in affiliated congregations that the walls go up, as they compete for jobs with movement rabbis on a playing field that is controlled by the denominations.

Despite the challenges, the number of students entering non-affiliated seminaries continues to grow, says Rabbi David Greenstein, the rosh yeshiva at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. The unaffiliated seminary he heads has ordained 114 rabbis since 1956, 39 of them --more than one-third -- since 2000. The school currently has 60 rabbinical students.

“We’ve been growing exponentially,” Greenstein says. “People are beginning to understand the denominations were not given at Sinai.”

In fact, the denominations are barely more than a century old, the lines drawn according to levels of ritual observance that are no longer set in stone, says Rabbi Arthur Green, the rector of Hebrew College’s rabbinical school.

Green says the program was created five years ago not just to serve a communal need but to provide a home for future rabbis who don’t fit movement categories.

“We have people who are Reform theologically and Conservative in practice, or who consider themselves Conservadox,” he says.

The seminary’s curriculum reflects that pluralism, combining traditional text study with wide-ranging commentaries, including thinkers from Reform to Orthodox. The faculty also spans the denominational spectrum.

Additionally, the curriculum includes required training in community organizing and pastoral counseling.

“We think the wave of the future is the transdenominational congregation, or a multiplex congregation that welcomes many kinds of Jews and holds different styles of services,” Green says. “We are preparing people to serve in those flexible, varied kinds of settings.”

At 34, Koritzinsky is the youngest in his class. Most are in their 40s and 50s, and are entering the rabbinate as a second career. But he shares with his colleagues a similar eclectic background.

Koritzinsky was raised Reform in a family that was “more culturally Jewish than religious.” His interest in Judaism bloomed during college. A Russian studies major, he worked with Hillel in the former Soviet Union, and helped run Jewish family camps with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the late 1990s. He also studied at Pardes, an unaffiliated, coeducational yeshiva in Jerusalem.

“Those were pivotal years, when I committed myself to international Jewish communal work,” he says.

When Koritzinsky decided to pursue a rabbinical career, he chose Hebrew College because it offered the same pluralist vision.

“It’s about serving the entire community, not one denomination,” he says.

Rabbi Sharon Cohen-Anisfeld, the dean of the rabbinical school, says the 2008 graduating class has been flooded with job inquiries.

“We’re at the beginning of the process,” she says, “but it’s wonderful to see the interest and need and range of possibilities out there.”

Many of those offers are for non-pulpit positions with Hillel or religious schools, or as chaplains.

Judy Ehrlich, 52, plans to take a job as chaplain at Hebrew Senior Life, an assisted and independent Jewish living facility in Boston.

Ehrlich grew up Orthodox in South Africa, but she and her husband have been members of a Conservative minyan in Newton for the past 17 years. The minyan’s combination of traditional worship style with a diverse membership feels “comfortable,” she says, adding that she “identifies with Conservative ideology” but maintains an observance level she describes as Modern Orthodox.

That eclecticism led her to Hebrew College.

“No Orthodox community would accept me as a rabbi,” she says.

Some Hebrew College students transferred from other seminaries, preferring a transdenominational approach.

Rogerio Cukierman, 36, a second-year student from Brazil, received his master's degree in Judaic studies from the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, but switched to Hebrew College for his rabbinical training.

“Rabbinical school is supposed to be a transformational experience,” Cukierman says. “At a denominational seminary I have to decide the kind of rabbi I’ll be without going through the experience. I might consider myself Reform now, but in five years I could see myself becoming a Conservative or nondenominational rabbi.”

The biggest challenge for these rabbis is finding pulpit positions.

It’s no trouble for non-affiliated congregations to hire them. The question isn't relevant among Orthodox congregations because no Orthodox congregation is likely to hire a pulpit rabbi from a non-Orthodox institution.

Synagogues affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements present a challenge. They are bound by the regulations of their rabbinical associations.

Congregations affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism are given a list of approved candidates by the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbis that serve Reform congregations must be members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

While rabbis from the non-movement seminaries may apply for membership in these associations, their acceptance is decided on a case-by-case basis.

The CCAR may soon give accreditation to Hebrew College, so its graduates would immediately become eligible.

While they are applying for jobs, the non-movement rabbis must avoid antagonizing the movements or placing a congregation in an untenable position.

Some of the fifth-year rabbinical students at Hebrew College are interviewing at congregations affiliated with the movements, but none of those congregations except the one in Chile would speak to JTA.

Gottlieb accepts that rabbis from the movement seminaries “get first dibs” on affiliated pulpits.

“We are careful not to invade the boundaries of the denominations or threaten them in any way,” he says. “But some congregations come to us when the lists don’t fit their needs.”

Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, the director of rabbinic development for the Rabbinical Assembly, doesn’t see that as problematic as long as the congregations go through the approved search process first.

Noting there is “plenty of work” to go around, Schoenfeld says she would not view the Academy for Jewish Religion or Hebrew College as "impinging on the opportunities for Conservative rabbis.”

The situation is different in the Reform movement, says Rabbi Arnold Sher of the CCAR’s rabbinic placement office. He says the three North American Reform seminaries have had “unusually large” graduating classes recently, ordaining 61 rabbis in 2007 and 56 more expected this year.

“There will be more rabbis ordained than there are openings," Sher says, "and that won’t help Hebrew College.”

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