Music seen as key to attracting young people to Jewish clergy

St. Louis’ Rick Recht discusses Judaism Alive initiative.


Rick Recht, Executive Director of Judaism Alive. Photo: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan, Special To The Jewish Light

An ambitious initiative aims to help train and place 500 young Jewish leaders across North America by 2027. The program is being developed by Judaism Alive, a nonprofit organization that includes Jewish Rock Radio, JKids Radio, Jewish Star and Songleader Boot Camp.

It is intended to address a looming nationwide shortage of Jewish clergy. The goal is to encourage and support teenagers and young adults to pursue careers as rabbis, cantors, song leaders and lay leaders, said Rick Recht, executive director of Judaism Alive.

“There’s a huge demand and incredible supply shortage of rabbis, of cantors, of Jewish leadership,” Recht said. “We have formed a leadership pipeline that we are formalizing through this drive.”

The looming shortage of Jewish clergy is due in part to an aging rabbinate. A Faith Communities Today survey of 15,278 religious congregations across the United States in 2020 showed that the median age of U.S. rabbis was 56. Some rabbis are retiring early, which exacerbates the problem.

Conservative movement leaders prepredicted that more than 80 Conservative synagogues will have had vacancies for rabbis this year. Finding 80 replacements wasn’t a given, though. Reform congregations face a similar dilemma. One study showed a 37% decrease in rabbinical school enrollment for Reform rabbis.

Judaism Alive plans to cultivate Jewish leaders using the power of music, where many teens and young adults form a connection with their Jewish identities. The five-year plan to develop 500 Jewish leaders will help create a pipeline of talent using a job-placement database.

“We’ve created an open-door using music as the secret sauce to identify and to attract these young leaders,” Recht said. “Then we provide them with holistic leadership skills from marketing and public presentation, self-preparation, and all kinds of different nonmusical skills, human skills and leadership skills that are absolutely critical in the Jewish world. Those include skills surrounding disability inclusion and gender inclusion and Israel advocacy. These are all incredibly important.”

Recht said identifying and nurturing young Jewish leaders through music is an extension of what his organization has been doing for some time.

“It’s important to note that we’ve trained over 3,000 leaders over the last decade,” he said. “We’ve helped pioneer an entire field of Jewish artists-educators that didn’t exist 10 years ago. This is a continuation of what we’ve been doing really successfully for many years, which is identifying, training, promoting and placing new young leaders into Jewish life. It’s just taking it to the next level.”

Recht said the job-placement database for Jewish leaders will help candidates build professional profiles and market themselves to Jewish organizations searching for talent.

Lisa Friedman is among the musically inclined future Jewish leaders who have already benefitted from Judaism Alive. Friedman, 23, lives in Los Angeles. She fell in love with contemporary Jewish music at a URJ camp and began song leading after her bat mitzvah. She started writing original music at age 15. During the early days of COVID, she learned about the Jewish Star competition.

“That’s how I got connected to Rick Recht and the Jewish Star Academy, which offers mentorship,” Friedman said. “And I just fell in love with this cohort of young Jewish leaders. We’re getting personalized mentorship from people who have been successful in their careers in the Jewish realm and beyond. It was really life changing for me to get that personalized mentorship.”

Friedman graduated from the University of Arizona last year, earning a degree in literacy learning and leadership. She plans to attend rabbinical school soon. A decade from now, she hopes to be ordained, possibly working at a synagogue but also writing and performing Jewish music.

“It’s really my goal to put my music out there,” she said. “As Jews become more secular, I think it’s important to change with the times and incorporate the prayer and the values into music even more so that we continue to grow as a people and as our rituals continue to expand.”

Zac Gondelman is another recipient of mentoring and support from Judaism Alive. Gondelman, 19, lives in Boston and is a freshman in the Jewish studies program at Brandeis University. Like Friedman, he sees his future in the clergy.

“I want to think about diversity, inclusion and belonging,” Gondelman said. “I want to leave the world just a little better through stories and song. I fundamentally believe there’s magic in the air with Judaism. It lifts you. What I want to do is take that magic and determine how to use that for social justice and look outward.”

Gondelman began his musical journey when he was 5 years old. He studied classical music at the New England Conservatory of Music and Jazz at the Berklee College of Music. He also served as a student intern at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Mass. He credited his musical growth and leadership skills to Judaism Alive.

“Rick Recht has fundamentally changed the game,” he said. “He has removed every barrier to entry and said to everyone, ‘We want you at the table.’ It’s a philosophy at the core of my being as a leader. He tells us, ‘You can make this a career.’ ”

For up-and-coming Jewish leaders like Friedman and Gondelman, the support provided by Judaism Alive is valuable, and available at no cost. Recht said the program is supported by local and national philanthropy.

“For teens and young adults who are part of Jewish Star, it’s a free program,” he said. “The personal consultation, the AV equipment that we give them, the registration, the song leader boot camp, the mentoring programs, it’s all free.”

Recht said Friedman and Gondelman are typical of the future Jewish leaders that Judaism Alive is supporting. They are motivated to develop careers in Jewish clergy, so it makes sense to give them a boost. 

“What we’ve found is that teens and young adults who are part of our leadership training pipeline are choosing their colleges and their jobs in Jewish life,” he said. “They’re choosing a trajectory in Jewish life because of the inspiration and training that they experienced in our pipeline.”