In yesterday’s post about online conversion, I mentioned that I had more to say about choosing a rabbi. There was a time, not long ago, when I told people, “call around to your local synagogues” and felt like that was all I needed to say about the subject. Synagogues go through a very careful process in making a covenant with a rabbi; ideally, a committee not only reads resumes, but checks credentials and references. Rabbis are trusted with sensitive information about congregants’ lives. They are trusted to deal ethically with that information, with funds, and with congregants themselves. So synagogues are usually pretty careful in their hiring.
That said, many people these days don’t find rabbis through the synagogue. Moreover, there is nothing preventing a person from putting “Rabbi” in front of their name and simply setting up a website and some business cards. While there are laws against practicing medicine or law without a license, pretty much anyone can go online and get “ordained” for a fee. There’s also nothing preventing someone from setting up an online “rabbinical school” that requires little of their students.
You may be wondering, why does this matter? If you are looking for someone to stand up front for a ceremony and read a service, maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe then you’re just as well off asking a cousin or a friend – why worry about the title “rabbi” at all? If on the other hand, you want a real rabbi: someone qualified to do premarital counseling, or someone who can be a resource in making Jewish choices, or someone to guide you through a conversion process, then perhaps you will want to choose more carefully.
Particularly where conversion is concerned, the rabbi’s credentials will determine not only how and where you are accepted as a Jew, but how your descendants will be accepted. An ethical rabbi will be honest with you about exactly what conversion with them will mean to other Jews, and they will not charge money for the conversion.
So what is a layperson to do, especially one who is new to the Jewish community? Three things will tell you a lot about any rabbi: ask about their Education, Affiliation, and Experience.
Education. Where did this rabbi study? How many years of study were required? For comparison, I can tell you that Hebrew Union College (the Reform rabbinical school) as well as the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles (both Conservative rabbinical schools) require five years or more of graduate study (meaning, incoming students already have a B.A.). All three require students to live for a year in Israel, studying texts and immersed in the Hebrew language. Their coursework includes not only Jewish text learning, but training in counseling, education, and professional ethics. The Orthodox world has a lot more variety, as does the nondenominational Jewish world, but the same question applies: how many years did you study before you got the title, Rabbi? Were you ordained by a single individual, or by a faculty of learned Jews?
This relates to more than just academics. What was this person willing to invest in becoming a rabbi? How many years, how much inconvenience? It is not only a question of money (although trust me, five years of grad school is expensive) but also a question about dedication to the Jewish People.
Affiliation. To what professional organizations does this rabbi belong? The reason you ask this question is that a rabbi who belongs to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) or the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) or the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) has agreed to maintain certain ethical standards, and is answerable to the association if there are questions about his or her behavior. You can ask if they are members of their local Board of Rabbis, or other professional organizations. The idea is, how connected is this rabbi to colleagues? To whom, if anyone, is this person answerable?
Rabbis who are connected to other rabbis also can tap a deep well of resources for you. As a CCAR member, I can ask a quick question by leaving a message online for other rabbis to chime in. If I am concerned about how best to handle a tricky situation, I can pick up the phone and call a mentor or a more experienced senior rabbi. I participate in continuing education, and my colleagues challenge me to do my best.
Experience. Have they ever served in a congregation? Been a Jewish chaplain? Lived in Israel? Worked with Jewish youth? Done prison chaplaincy? Served the Jewish community overseas? Of course, not every rabbi has done all those things, but by asking you will get a better idea of who this person is, and what depth of experience they will bring to you.
A rabbi who has solid credentials and experience will be glad to answer these questions and proud of the answers. Be wary of anyone who seems to want you to feel bad about asking.
No rabbi is perfect. No rabbi is knowledgeable about everything, and perfectly trained in every respect. We’re fallible human beings. But asking about Education, Affiliation, and Experience can give you a better idea of who this rabbi is than you can get from a nice website or a well written marketing blurb.