April 18, 2024
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‘Great Resignation’ Impacts Orthodox Rabbinate Too, and What You Can Do

One of the greatest fallacies that still besets the observant Jewish community is the stubborn but ill-founded belief that somehow we are immune from the ills that affect the larger society in which we live. In my years as a congregational rabbi, and in my current position as director of Jewish Career Placement and Guidance at RIETS/Yeshiva University, I have seen that the societal dysfunctions of America make their way into our kehillot too.

So it was with a shrug of familiarity that I read the recent Wall Street Journal news story (February 21) “Houses of Worship Face Clergy Shortage as Many Resign During Pandemic” by Ian Lovett. The article’s attention to Jewish houses of worship consisted of facts, figures and anecdotes in the Reform and Conservative movements. Yet I can tell you from my vantage point that the Orthodox Rabbinate is also being impacted by the “Great Resignation”—the growing trend of professionals leaving high-demand/high-stress jobs, for more fulfilling and less taxing work elsewhere.

We are seeing a higher rate of congregational rabbanim resigning to make aliyah, take on a new career, or simply retire, and fewer semicha students becoming pulpit rabbis than in years past. And that should concern us all.

Lovett’s report underscores the utter exhaustion felt by clergy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought pre-pandemic pressures of the clergy to a breaking point. Many rabbis I encounter are dedicated to their congregations and feel great satisfaction in their work; they enjoy the challenge of building strong, healthy relationships with their congregants and guiding them in their lifelong growth in Torah knowledge and observance of mitzvot. But the seesaw of COVID-19 precautions, and the bitter battles about masking and vaccinations, came home to shuls too and they were, by so many accounts, incredibly difficult for rabbanim to navigate and a source of frequent stress.

The COVID-19 dialogue frayed relationships among congregants and often between congregants and their rabbis. The wisest among us understand that this is temporary and a return to normalcy will take place. But after a two-year pandemic rollercoaster, it will take some time for us to return to a balance point.

I suspect, however, that the impact of the “Great Resignation” on the Orthodox rabbinate may reflect other trends as well that were simmering under the surface. Our rabbanim are not prophets or miracle workers, and our communities need to recognize where their expectations of their spiritual leaders have been excessive, unrealistic and even harmful. Rabbis do not arrive in their jobs with magic dust that grows membership and solves budget issues. They need serious lay leadership partnership and support as they confront the everyday issues of congregational leadership and the newest problems such as resurgent antisemitism and heightened needs for shul security.

What can a regular baal habayit, a member who isn’t a member of their shul’s board, do to help reverse the stresses facing rabbanim at this time?

A few simple suggestions.

1) Show some hakarat hatov: If your rav has shown you support personally or inspired you, tell him! Rabbis are humans too and they get chizuk from kind words of praise.

2) Encourage your shul’s board of directors to provide ample vacation time for your rav and encourage him to use it.

3) Suggest that the board provide the rav with a post-COVID-19 bonus. Trust me, he has earned it.

4) Volunteer in some area that is lacking in the shul so the rabbi (and the board) does not have to worry as much about that concern in the shul.


Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg is the director of the Morris and Gertrude Department of Jewish Career Development and Placement of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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