Rabbis are the spiritual leaders of Jewish religious congregations. They interpret Jewish law and tradition and conduct religious services on the Sabbath (a daylong period of rest and worship from Friday evening to Saturday evening) and holy days. Rabbis perform wedding ceremonies and funeral services, counsel members of the congregation, visit the sick, and often take part in community and interfaith affairs. Most rabbis serve one of the four main types of Jewish congregations: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. The remaining congregations are other unaffiliated streams of Judaism.
Rabbi Career History
The term rabbi comes from a Hebrew word meaning master, and it has been used to describe Jewish leaders and scholars for the last 2,000 years. During the Talmudic period (from the first to the fifth century a.d.), the term was used to refer to preachers and scholars.
Over the centuries, rabbis became the leading religious authorities in Jewish communities. It has only been in the last 150 years that rabbis have become salaried officials in religious congregations.
The Job if Rabbis
Regardless of their congregational affiliation, all rabbis have similar responsibilities. Their primary duty is conducting religious services on the Sabbath and on holy days. They also officiate at weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage in the Jewish tradition. Rabbis further serve their congregations by counseling members and visiting the sick, as well as supervising and even teaching some religious education courses.
Within Judaism, the rabbi has an elevated status in spiritual matters, but most Jewish synagogues and temples have a relatively democratic form of decision making in which all members participate. Rabbis of large congregations spend much of their time working with their staffs and various committees. They often receive assistance from an associate or assistant rabbi.
Naturally, the Jewish traditions differ among themselves in their view of God and of history. These differences also extend to such variations in worship as the wearing of head coverings, the extent to which Hebrew is used during prayer, the use of music, the level of congregational participation, and the status of women. Whatever their particular point of view might be, all rabbis help their congregations learn and understand Jewish traditions and the role of faith in everyday life.
Many rabbis take on additional responsibilities in the community at large. They may become involved with such social concerns as poverty and drug abuse, or they may take part in interfaith activities with ministers of other religions.
A small but significant number of rabbis do not serve as congregational leaders. They instead serve as educators at colleges, universities, and Jewish schools and seminaries, as writers and scholars, or as chaplains at hospitals or in the armed forces.
Rabbi Career Requirements
Many aspiring rabbis informally begin their training early in life in Jewish grade schools and high schools. Aspiring rabbis should take all religious and Hebrew language courses available to them. It is also important to study English and communications to become an effective leader. Business and mathematics courses are a good foundation for administrative work as the leader of a congregation.
Completion of a course of study in a seminary is a prerequisite for ordination as a rabbi. Entrance requirements, curriculum, and length of the seminary program vary depending on the particular branch of Judaism. Prospective rabbis normally need to complete a bachelor’s degree before entering the seminary. Degrees in Jewish studies, philosophy, and even English and history can fulfill seminary entrance requirements. It is advisable to study Hebrew at the undergraduate level if at all possible. Seminarians without a solid background in Jewish studies and the Hebrew language may have to take remedial courses.
While seminary studies differ between the four movements of Judaism, there are many similarities between them. Most seminary programs lead to the master of arts in Hebrew letters degree and ordination as a rabbi. With more advanced study, some students earn the doctor of Hebrew letters degree. Most master’s programs last about five years, and many of them include a period of study in Jerusalem. It is becoming more common for seminarians to complete internships—usually as assistants to experienced rabbis in the area—as part of their educational requirements.
The general curriculum of ordination for all branches of Judaism includes courses in the Torah, the Talmud (post-biblical writings), rabbinic literature, Hebrew philosophy, Jewish history, and theology. Students should expect to study Hebrew for both verbal and written skills. Courses are also offered in education, public speaking, and pastoral psychology. Practical courses in conducting religious services are usually required. Training for leadership in community service and religious education may be available to those who wish to serve outside the traditional synagogue situation.
In addition to the ordination requirements, a primary consideration in choosing a career in the clergy is a strong religious faith coupled with the desire to help others. Rabbis should be able to communicate effectively and supervise others. They must have self-confidence, initiative, and the ability to deal with pressure. They need to be impartial and attentive when listening to the troubles and worries of congregants. They must be tactful and compassionate in order to deal with people of many backgrounds. They must set a high moral and ethical standard for the members of their congregation. Orthodox seminaries accept only men, but all other denominations accept men and women into the rabbinate.
Exploring Rabbi Career
Those interested in becoming a rabbi should talk with his or her own rabbi and others involved in the work of the synagogue or temple to get a clearer idea of the rewards and responsibilities of this profession. Choosing a career as a rabbi requires a good deal of levelheaded self-assessment of your suitability for the rabbinate. Prospective rabbis should also spend time in prayer to determine whether they are called to this ministry.
Aspiring rabbis may volunteer at a temple or synagogue in order to get better acquainted with the work of rabbis. Most Jewish seminaries are also eager to speak and work with young people to help them learn about the rabbinate before making a firm decision about it.
Most rabbis are employed by their congregations. Others work for schools, colleges, seminaries, and publications. Some serve as chaplains in hospitals or in the various branches of the armed forces.
Only ordained rabbis can work in this profession. Many newly ordained rabbis find jobs through the seminary from which they graduated or through professional rabbinical organizations within their particular Jewish movement. With the growing popularity of internships for seminaries, it is possible that these will lead to permanent positions after ordination. Rabbis generally begin their careers as leaders of small congregations, assistants to experienced rabbis, directors of Hillel foundations on college campuses, or chaplains in the armed forces.
With experience, rabbis may acquire their own or larger congregations or choose to remain in their original position. The pulpits of large, well-established synagogues and temples are usually filled by rabbis of considerable experience. They may also choose to open new synagogues in growing communities that require more religious facilities. Others may discover that their talents and abilities are most useful in teaching, fund-raising, or leadership positions within their particular movement.
Salaries for rabbis vary according to the size, branch, location, and financial status of their congregations. Information is limited, but the earnings of rabbis tend to range from $50,000 to $100,000. Smaller congregations offer salaries on the lower end of the scale, usually between $30,000 and $50,000 a year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary for all clergy was $37,870 in 2004.
Benefits include health insurance, paid vacations, pensions, and car and housing allowance. Rabbis usually receive gifts or fees for officiating at weddings and other ceremonies. Some congregations may allow their rabbi to teach at local universities or other settings to earn additional income.
Rabbis work long hours. Like all clergy, rabbis are on call at any hour of the day or night. This can make a rabbi’s private life difficult at times, particularly if he or she is married and has a family. As far as accommodations and professional offices are concerned, rabbis are usually well provided for by their congregations.
There is no such thing as a standard workweek. Rabbis have to divide their time between religious services, administrative duties, and pastoral care of their congregations as they see fit. They must also take time for personal prayer and the continuing study of Jewish faith and traditions. Rabbis are generally independent in their positions, responsible only to the board of directors of their congregation rather than to any formal hierarchy.
Rabbi Career Outlook
Job opportunities for rabbis are good for all four major branches of Judaism. Orthodox rabbis should have good job prospects as older rabbis retire and smaller communities become large enough to hire their own rabbi. Conservative and Reform rabbis should also have excellent employment opportunities, especially because of retirement and new Jewish communities. Reconstructionist rabbis should find very good opportunities because this branch of Judaism is growing rapidly.
Opportunities exist in Jewish communities throughout the country. Small communities in the South, Midwest, and Northwest offer the best opportunities for those rabbis who do not mind receiving less compensation and working away from big metropolitan areas.