Who is a real rabbi? Is that the real question?

Annual Report

CCAR Convention, March 2014

Rabbi Steven A. Fox, CCAR Chief Executive


View the video recording


“Who is a real rabbi?”

For the past couple of years, this question has popped up in conversations among CCAR colleagues of all generations and even, intermittently, in the public press.

As you can imagine, my first reaction to the question is a feeling of fear and anxiety.  And, my mind races with questions: 

  • How do we prevent bad rabbis from undermining K’vod HaRav, the integrity of the rabbinate?
  • How do we keep substandard rabbis from lowering the quality of the overall rabbinic profession?
  • How do we stop faux or fake rabbis from stealing jobs, driving down salaries, doing away with benefits like convention, pension, and health insurance?
  • And, ultimately, how do we prevent these rabbis from harming the Jewish people?

Then, as I calm down and reflect, I realize that my anxiety itself tells me that we are focused on the wrong question.   How can we reframe this question?

I confess that I find an approach based on fear and anxiety to be more paralyzing than motivating, keeping us stuck in a world limited to considering how we keep bad things from happening.  It is not an approach that motivates us or lay members of our communities to create outcomes that result in stellar rabbis or vibrant Jewish life.

My concern that we all too often operate from fear and anxiety applies to the broader Jewish community, not just conversations about the rabbinate. 

I believe that one function of rabbinic leadership is to shift the conversations happening in the Jewish world; to move from “problem reacting” to “outcome creating”[1]; from fear and anxiety to hope and aspiration and possibilities motivated by the belief that says, “I can change the world,” and “we collectively can change the world.”[2]

So, how might we apply this to the question at hand:  Who is a real rabbi?

Within the rabbinate we know the issues: An ever increasing number of rabbis with different backgrounds, education, qualities, and interests; multiple ways one can become a rabbi, such as independent seminaries or even internet options; and the possibility of decreasing congregational jobs, especially within mainstream denominations.

What would most of you like to hear from me today? That we are going to shut down these second-rate ordaining institutions, especially those that are fly-by-night, internet-based and the like? That we are going to bar these substandard or fake rabbis from serving the Jewish community or individuals?

But we know better: It’s not going to happen. As much as we might want, we cannot close down those institutions and we cannot bar people from calling themselves rabbis.

And so, we need to reframe the question away from “who is a real rabbi” to questions that commit ourselves to ensuring the highest quality rabbinic leadership.

Who are the rabbis who provide the highest quality rabbinic leadership?  What makes them outstanding rabbinic leaders?

For me, these questions ignite hope, inspiration, and my highest aspirations; questions that can set us on a path of action.

Even as we may recognize varying ways of becoming rabbis, we members of the CCAR will not walk away from our high standards.  We believe in rabbis who are:

  • well-educated,
  • talented,
  • insightful,
  • compassionate, and
  • live up to the highest ethical standards. 

We remain committed to the liberal spirit of Judaism,

  • to Israel,
  • to social justice, and
  • to Torah,

and all the while, anchored in our tradition and at the same time looking to innovate.


Who defines a high quality rabbi?  Other rabbis? Lay people? 

At the core of this issue, we are talking about our role as rabbis to shape and influence the definition of a high quality rabbi.  

At this particular time a reshaping is happening, and it is influenced by an exertion of control by lay people in synagogue life and in other Jewish community organizations.  From my world-view, we are seeing a “competitive shaping”. We are seeing strong lay influence and a challenge to rabbinic influence[HP1] .[3]

Over the centuries, the tension between rabbinic leadership and lay leadership is nothing new.[4]

Given this tension, and today’s realities, we need to strive for a co-shaping, not a competitive shaping.  We Reform Rabbis need to take the lead to inform and influence the conversation and the outcome.


So how will Reform Rabbis influence the outcome?

Today, I am opening this conversation among us.  Over the coming year, I hope to engage with you and with lay leaders about this issue.  Concurrently, every one of you in this room must help to transform our talk into action; action, collectively, through the CCAR, and by each of you individually.  

My thinking at the moment involves a straightforward approach:  First, make the case and, second, take action individually and collectively.

The CCAR needs an intentional strategy that advocates and educates the Jewish world about high quality rabbis.  This includes a system of communications directed at Jewish communities, congregations, and organizations, as well as individuals.

There are many ideas as to how we can do this – and I am pleased to let you know that the CCAR Board of Trustees has budgeted funds to this endeavor.  Some of the finest thinkers about strategic communication have already provided pro bono consulting, and soon we will retain a communications firm to help us.  In-house, Hara Person is taking the lead to expand our capacities and resources.  You already see the impact of her leadership:  RavBlog, which brings the voices of rabbis into the broader community, is now read by thousands of people.[5]  She has increased our presence in print and electronic media, and at the same time enhanced communication among CCAR members ourselves.   

Each of you plays a key role in this work: Urge your community members to follow RavBlog through your bulletins and social media.  Use the CCAR Journal for your adult learning. Invite engaged lay leaders to join the CCAR Friends of the Conference, who participate in serious conversation with us and are truly advocates on behalf of rabbis.


We Make the Case By Taking Action

Simply saying that we are the highest quality rabbis is not enough – we must make the case through our actions.

1.  We take action to ensuring that we are the best educated.

The CCAR membership process is the first step to see that CCAR rabbis are among the best-educated rabbis.  Most CCAR members are ordained at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and graduates of other seminaries go through a rigorous membership admissions process.  And we welcome all high quality rabbis from HUC-JIR, as well as other seminaries here today.

But that is not enough.  Each of us must commit to a life of learning and growing as professionals and as human beings.

When I came to the CCAR eight years ago, we had a wonderful convention but few other learning opportunities.  Looking at the model of MCLE, mandatory continuing education, I had lived with for 21 years as an attorney, I envisioned our rabbis committed to a comprehensive program of Leadership Initiatives, including a lifelong learning program.  Today we have built an outstanding program of leadership learning guided by Debbie Prinz’s steady hand.  We offer numerous opportunities for Rabbis to learn and grow in the Torah of the Rabbinate:  Torah Lishmah and Tachlis professional development.[6] 

So what is next?  Each of us as a rabbinic leader in the CCAR needs to act. 

I urge you to outline a three to five year plan of personal learning and growth, with specific goals for yourself.  And while here in Chicago, commit to that path.  To begin, I ask:  Have you recently done an honest and thorough self-assessment?  Do you know your natural gifts?  Areas where you need to continue to grow?  Have you reached out to one of our CCAR coaches, many of whom are here this week, or CCAR rabbinic staff, or a close friend, to begin the process?  For some of us, we need to improve our Hebrew and text skills; for others it may be fundraising or learning to deal with difficult leaders.  For some, public speaking is a challenge.  For others, it may be reengaging in a spiritual life.

As a leadership organization, it is time to take up the question of a mandatory minimum number of hours of lifelong learning for every CCAR member to remain in good standing (as is true in many other professions).

CCAR rabbis are distinguished today among rabbis in North America because of our commitment to lifelong education.  And collectively, we will raise our voices to tell the Jewish world that high quality rabbis participate in lifelong learning.

2.  We take action by living up to the highest ethical standards.

The CCAR Ethics process advocates for the integrity of the rabbinate.  Working with the Ethics Committee, the Appeals Board, and the Ethics Process Review Committee is at times the hardest, saddest, most emotionally draining part of my job.  Is our process perfect?  No, not yet.  But it is ours – an organically growing and changing system led by rabbis for other rabbis, with assistance from outstanding lay leaders.

At the end of the day, the ethics process says that we, as an organization of rabbinic leaders, hold one another accountable and that when high quality rabbis make mistakes, we have the potential for t’shuvah, rehabilitation, and to return to serving the Jewish people.


3.  We take action by advocating through Placement.

How does a highest quality rabbi and a Jewish community find one another?

Since 1962, the CCAR has become one of the finest rabbinic placement services that exist in North America, a service we offer to the Jewish community (to which we are so committed, that CCAR pays the entire cost of the placement office).[7]

Yet, in today’s world, CCAR Placement is not good enough.

Ultimately, the Jewish world needs to know that when a congregation or organization comes to the CCAR they get up-to-date, professional, comprehensive placement services including access to the highest quality rabbis. And we must make that statement a reality.

Alan Henkin, our placement director, and I have been listening and learning from experts in the placement world who handle for-profit and not-for-profit companies, so that we can enhance and expand and transform the Placement office.

I now believe that in the years ahead, the Placement services must become a part of a bigger, more comprehensive career development office.

  • We must attend to a rabbi’s entire career trajectory, including personal and professional growth, no matter how unique a rabbinic career path someone may choose.
  • The CCAR career development and placement office must reach out to the broader Jewish community to cultivate more opportunities for rabbis. [8]

What else might a career development office do? I am not sure, but, as one idea, I am very interested in facilitating an entrepreneurial spirit in the rabbinate, and supporting colleagues who are building new communities with Jews who do not choose to walk into a more established congregational structure.

Another key role of a career development program is to advocate for fair and equitable compensation and benefits.  In this arena, I am thrilled to let you know that the CCAR Board of Trustees approved on Sunday, a proposal I presented to them for a pension plan for rabbis not eligible for the RPB. More info to come.


Everything I have mentioned today changes the question to one of asking who are the highest quality rabbis?

Who is a high quality rabbi?  Look around the room.

You are!

You are the finest educated rabbis, who continue grow and learn from the first year rabbis here at Convention to the 50 years we honored on Monday.

You are the rabbis committed to an ethical life and to helping each other maintain that standard.

You are the rabbis who lead and serve small communities and large, URJ congregations and independent organizations, Jews in the military, hospitals, and universities; those who live in mountains and on islands, and in rural and urban settings.

You are the highest quality rabbinic leaders in North America today.

It is my great honor to work with you and for you, to advocate on your behalf and, ultimately, to call you my friends.

Thank you.


[1] Language taken from the Leadership Circle, LLC.

[2] The conversation about the implications for the broader Jewish community is important, but not within the scope of this report today.  We all are aware of the numerous forces at work that, if left unchecked, will adversely impact the North American Jewish community, as well as rabbinic work:  issues of finances, demographics, membership, affiliation, and so forth.  To move forward, we cannot remain locked in a world of fear and anxiety, worried only about the present “blowing up,” focused on things like institutional survival for its own sake, or only react to prevent bad things from happening.

The questions for the broader community must move away from fear and anxiety to outcome creating questions like:  (a) What serves progressive North American Judaism?  (b)  What serves the vitality of our congregations and Jewish organizations? (c) What serves rabbinic interests?

[3] To help frame my thinking, and in conversation with lay leaders, I sometimes use language from my background of over 21 years in business and law, a language used by many lay leaders.  With that language, we are talking about shaping and influencing the “market place” for rabbis.  While the term is troubling, it does represent some of the thinking among our community leaders.

[4] See A Concise History of the Rabbinate, by Simon Schwartzfuchs, [Blackwell Publishers, 1993].               ,

[5] In this work, we need to articulate our highest goals and aspirations for the North American Jewish community, synagogues and organizations, and the rabbinate.  

[6] The first year of the CCAR program we had four telephone seminars – today, just take a look at the Leadership Initiative program book with unprecedented opportunities for conferences and webinars, in-person seminars, most offered in partnership with outstanding teachers, coaches, and other learning institutions.

[7] The CCAR maintains and houses the Reform Movement Placement office and staffs the Reform Placement Commission.  Currently, we do so with no charges to congregations and no financial contribution from our partner organizations in the Reform Movement (URJ or HUC-JIR).

[8] A career development office will also focus on building healthy communities.  One example: For many years we responded to unhealthy congregations with fear and anxiety – when I began at the CCAR some rabbis would say to me, “How can we send a rabbi to one of those congregations that has burned through rabbis.   Tell them they can’t have a rabbi.”  We know that’s not realistic. All a congregation has to do today is go onto JewishJobs.com and get someone who is substandard or a faux rabbi.  Today, we as rabbinic leaders focus on creating positive outcomes for those communities.  Among other things, we have educated a cadre of transition specialists as intentional interim rabbis.   And, as a benefit to CCAR rabbis, we have created career opportunities for rabbis with special gifts and talents at interim work.