Image: HUC Ordination, New York Campus (Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion)
I got a message recently asking, “I think I might like to be a rabbi. How does one become a rabbi?”
Here is what is involved in becoming a Reform rabbi. Other movements have similar processes, although I don’t know the details of those programs. (Perhaps some reader who is an Orthodox, Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi will help us out, in the comments.)
- Language studies. As part of the application to Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, I had to pass a written Hebrew exam demonstrating that I had the equivalent of a year of college Hebrew.
- Application to the school. It was a lot like a grad school application, except that there was also a psychological evaluation, and I needed to get a recommendation from my rabbi. (That included the unspoken assumption that I had a rabbi.) I traveled to the campus in Cincinnati for an interview with the admissions committee, who asked a lot of questions about my personal life and my plans for my life as a rabbi.
- Finances. If they said yes, then I was responsible for my expenses including tuition for a minimum of five years [according to the website, those are currently expected to be slightly over $50.000 a year, minus any financial aid]. Most of my class had a mix of financial aid and loans; many had quite a bit of student debt by ordination. There is no “part-time study” option; the assumption is that rabbinical study is a full time, 24/7 commitment.
- Year in Jerusalem. Upon acceptance, I was expected to make arrangements for a year of study in Jerusalem. I was single, but I was welcome to bring spouse (if I had one) and children with me. I left my cat with my best friend, kissed my college-age kids, sold my house and furniture, and got on a plane to Tel Aviv. I spent the year at HUC Jerusalem doing intensive study of Modern Hebrew, learning the fine points of Biblical Hebrew grammar, learning the services for weekdays and holidays, and getting a crash education in Israeli life, history, and culture.
- Four years minimum full time study at a stateside campus. I attended the Los Angeles campus; there are also HUC campuses in Cincinnati and New York. All rabbinical students take a regular course load of classes in Jewish texts and traditions, as well as professional courses in pastoral counseling, etc. They also work at internships, either serving small congregations or in other settings. I served a congregation in the Central Valley, worked for a year as a chaplain intern at a facility for Jewish elders, and served the congregation for the deaf in the San Fernando Valley. In my case, four years was not enough; for a variety of reasons, I chose to study in Los Angeles for five years instead of four.
- Ordination. At the end of the stateside study, if the faculty agrees, one is ordained to the rabbinate. Employment is not guaranteed: candidates enter the “placement” process and are interviewed by those congregations and institutions that are hiring. Most graduates find full time employment, but not all.
This is a process that requires a lot: sacrifices in time, finances, and much more. I had been to graduate school once already, and thought that rabbinical school would be similar. It was as demanding and much more: rabbinical school challenged me academically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. (Granted, I was 48 when I entered, and most of my classmates were in their 20’s.)
As I said before, the Conservative and Reconstructionist schools are similar. There are also nondenominational schools with programs that are more flexible. There are schools that require less of students, for instance, by not requiring time in Israel or allowing for part-time study. However, there is no reputable school that confers ordination without demanding some serious effort and long term commitment from students. For a look at some other schools and programs, this 2014 article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency may be helpful.