An RRC student in her second year recently shared a story with us. Before rabbinical school, she spoke with a prominent leader in the Jewish philanthropy world to ask which rabbinical school would best enable her to continue her training in social justice work. As our student remembers the conversation, the person said that she would not find this kind of training at any rabbinical school. Our rabbinical student shared this story with us after she had a “eureka moment” in a class on Jews and Money in which she realized that she was indeed deepening her training in social justice work at RRC.
Over the summer, I had a conversation with an employee (a rabbi) of a relatively new Jewish social justice/service organization that has been doing great work in engaging young Jewish adults in volunteerism. During this stimulating and rich conversation, the rabbi said that all rabbinical schools are completely blind to the importance of social justice work in Jewish life. He suggested that rabbinical schools operate as shtetls, unaware of the real world around them.
I understand why this impression exists, especially for rabbis who endured an education that was less than satisfactory. The truth is that liberal rabbinical schools in the United States tend to run more conservative than other progressive Jewish organizations. Rabbinical schools are stuck between the past and the future, and finding new modalities of engagement with Jewish tradition is challenging.
While I concede this, I do not agree with those who continue to claim that rabbinical schools are all essentially the same – out of touch with reality. I personally know faculty members, students and alumni from every liberal rabbinical school who are engaged in cutting edge activities and who provide important public voices. Their challenge, as I understand it from conversations, is that they do not feel supported by their seminaries – they see themselves as the outliers, the rebels on the margins of the institution.
At RRC, justice work is at the center of rabbinic training. We put people before abstract concepts: Judaism should serve Jews, and Jews should be serving the betterment of humanity (and the environment). This conviction runs throughout our curriculum and co-curriculum in both required and elective courses. This year, for example, we are offering courses in Conflict Resolution (Cherie Brown), Leadership for Social Change (Rabbi Mordechai Liebling), Food Justice and Judaism (Rabbi Mordechai Liebling), Jewish-Christian Hevrutah (Rabbi Melissa Heller), Group Work (Rabbi David Teutsch), and Rabbi as Organizational Manager (Barbara Hirsh). Some of these courses are required of all students and most students take advantage of most of the other offerings.
Our students are interns in such places as: Operation Understanding; POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild); Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Philadelphia; Greenfaith: Interfaith Partners in Action for the Earth; Institute for Jewish-Christian Studies, and in congregations as social justice rabbinic interns. This is in addition to service through chaplaincy, education and campus work.
So what do I mean by “justice work at the center”? I mean that there is an alignment of our philosophy, mission, core values, curriculum, teachers, students, administrators and board members. Our approach to Judaism is consistent with our curriculum and our core values. The stakeholders at RRC are all committed to actualizing our vision. It never surprises us that despite the small size of our school, we are consistently over-represented at conferences run by Rabbis for Human Rights and the Hazon bike rides.
Many of our students have come from programs like Avodah and organizations like American Jewish World Service or have done community organizing for Jewish or secular organizations. They come to rabbinical school because they want to professionalize the work they have been doing as volunteers or grassroots organizers. They want to make a life-time commitment to social justice work within a Jewish framework. And from what we hear, there is a need for this type of leadership.
Repair the Worldhas announced that one of its strategies is to “make the case for service as a life-long practice, central to American Jewish life and intrinsic to Jewish identity.” Rabbis trained at RRC make service a life-long practice.
In 2008, the Nathan Cummings Foundation commissioned an assessment report on the state of Jewish social justice work in the U.S. (Visioning Justice and the American Jewish Community, Shifra Bronznick and Didi Goldenhar). Under the section on challenges for the future, the following appeared as the first challenge (p.42)
Leaders are in short supply.
The key Jewish social justice organizations are led by talented, committed executive directors who function as round-the-clock strategists, ambassadors for the vision, chief fundraisers, and operational managers. With a few exceptions, they are shouldering multiple responsibilities and have few people on their senior team with the experience or training to manage the extraordinarily demanding levels of work, especially given the rapid pace of change in these organizations.
There is an urgent need for succession planning, especially at the most influential organizations. This need has not yet been addressed by the organizations, nor by the leadership development programs. What will happen if any of these leaders — many of whom are young — leave for other opportunities? Their replacements are not obvious — either within their organizations or in the field as a whole.
Rabbinical school is a leadership development program and RRC is invested in training the next generation of leaders for the field of Jewish social justice.
Rabbis have a crucial role to play in helping to cultivate service as a life-long practice. Rabbis are in the unique role of encountering Jews at key moments in their lives, moments in which new directions are chosen and commitments renewed. Rabbis can lead communities to make service a key component of Jewish family education and synagogue life.
The likelihood that the twenty-something volunteer has a transformational experience that contributes positively to Jewish identity is high; the probability that s/he will make service a life-long practice is not as high. Most of these volunteers will move on to graduate school and the accumulation of debt and/or family and employment. These people are most likely to encounter Jewish life again at a commitment ceremony, baby-naming, bar/bat mitzvah of a child… At each point, the rabbi is there to reinforce the ideal of service as “a defining element” (to use Repair the World’s language) in Jewish living.
In addition to the traditional career paths that rabbis have taken, more and more of our graduates are seeking leadership positions in service organizations. If trained properly, rabbis can function as high level managers and fund raisers and can offer a unique voice to the public conversation about the role of religion in justice work. These rabbis can serve as role models, showing the creative potential for Jewish expression that emerges from the values that we hold as Americans in the early part of the 21st century.
In order to have rabbis in this critical and unique role, we must provide them with the skills in organizing, leadership, and management. Learning how to create a business plan must be learned side by side with the study of midrash. At RRC, we are committed to providing the training necessary for the new rabbi; we have already begun articulating new objectives and implementing new courses, and we now provide a specialization in social justice organizing led by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling.
However, those of us who seek social transformation know that authentic change can only come about through partnerships and networks of allies. We have something unique to offer and we have much to learn. We are holding out our hand to do our part in helping to lift up service as a significant element of American Jewish life – who will be our partners?