Rabbis respond: What about us?

A few rabbis ordained by online programs took issue with JTA’s characterization of their schools in my story “So you’ve decided to become a rabbi…

Here’s what they had to say:

Dear Mr. Heilman,

Thank you for your article, “So you’ve decided to become a rabbi…”

My name is Rabbi Steven Blane and I am the founder and Dean of JSLI, a Rabbinical Seminary you alluded to as not being “real.”

First, you seem to know nothing about us, yet you dismiss us out of hand based on our one year track of study. You know nothing about our Curriculum. And you do not seem to understand that our students typically come to us with many years of serving the Jewish community as Educators, Cantors, Chaplains, Hebrew School Principals and Teachers.

If we were a two, three or four year Rabbinical School and charged $25k per year plus travel and additional expenses, would that then make us more “real?” You prefer to perpetuate the same old Seminary model of requiring students to incur significant debt, leave their families and friends for a year to study in Israel and then pack up and move for four years. Another choice is to simply deny qualified rabbinical candidates the option to study for the Rabbinate.

We offer a practical paradigm which responds to the reality of modern liberal Judaism. Our Rabbinical school, is completely online and attended by students from around the world. JSLI trains rabbis for millions of Jews including those for whom none of the Jewish movements resonate. Our success is obvious as we now total more than 60 Ordained Rabbis.

From reading your article and the information you have presented, including the cost of education and the lack of guarantee of employment, I would strongly encourage potential students interested in the Rabbinate to consider JSLI for it’s practical and responsive vision for the future.

As your article concludes we read, “Faith counts for a lot,” in pursuit of a career in the Rabbinate. For anyone to incur debt of more than $100k, as well as the stress on family life without being sure of even having a Rabbinic position at the end of the rainbow- well, that certainly is very “real” and perhaps an “awful lot to count on.”

Shalom and Blessings,
Rabbi Steven Blane
Founder & Spiritual Leader
Congregation Sim Shalom, International Jewish Universalist Community

Mr. Heilman:

Thank you for a very interesting article on rabbinical schools in America. I would like to mention that the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism has been ordaining rabbis since 1999, and as of 2013 had ordained 11 rabbis, with another coming this fall and at least one anticipated next year. While a far cry from Hebrew Union College’s numbers, it is comparable to YCT, AJR and other smaller programs. Our students are regular participants in CLAL’s “Rabbis Without Borders” Rabbinical student retreats, and we are a sponsoring institution for that initiative. If you are listing denominational rabbinical programs, then, we should be part of the discussion. You can read more about our program at www.iishj.org.

Thanks for the important work you do for the Jewish world!

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Rabbi, Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, Lincolnshire, Ill.
Dean – North America, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism

Re: Your Recent Article – “So You’ve Decided to Become a Rabbi…”

Dear Mr. Heilman,

Your use of the word rabbi in quotation marks is disrespectful to JSLI, its graduates and the congregations that rely on them. The fact that it involves no detailed discussion of the curriculum of JSLI, the quality of its graduates’ as rabbis or even its educational leadership is rather telling.

The fact that a rabbinical program only takes a year is not enough to put its graduates’ title in question. Members of the Chabad movement currently run an online program for rabbinical ordination that graduates its students in 18 months. Pirchei Shoshanim runs a similarly intensive program oriented towards the wider Orthodox community. I have not heard these programs derided in such terms as your article uses or its graduates referred to as “rabbi.” Like the graduates of JSLI, their graduates are adequately prepared for their purpose in their respective communities.

The fact is that a growing number of communities are willing to think outside of the box when it comes to selecting their rabbinic leadership. JSLI graduates, some of whom come to rabbinic study after considerable community leadership experience and graduate level Jewish study, are securing positions and are ably leading their congregations. These congregations are more than willing to call them rabbis (without quotation marks) and to rely on their spiritual leadership. And ultimately it is the individual communities that get the last (and, in my opinion, the most authoritative) say on who is and isn’t a rabbi.

Rabbi Dario D. Hunter
Haifa, Israel

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Uriel Heilman is JTA’s managing editor, responsible for coordinating JTA’s editorial team. He re-joined JTA in 2007 after a stint doing independent reporting in Israel and the Arab world. Before that, he served as New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post. An award-winning journalist, he has worked as a reporter for a variety of publications in the United States and in Israel.