Who’s leading the U.S. rabbinical school scene?

Just how much ground has shifted in recent years in the U.S. rabbinical school scene?

Consider this: This year the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, the Conservative movement’s L.A. seminary, will surpass the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in ordinations – 17 vs. 14. And Hebrew College, the decade-old nondenominational school near Boston, will be ordaining just as many new rabbis this spring as JTS.

Here’s another interesting statistic: For all the hoopla over Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, the New York seminary is ordaining just two rabbis this year. By contrast, Yeshiva University, for all its troubles (financial and otherwise), ordains more rabbis than any of the non-Orthodox seminaries – more than 50 per year.

Here’s the school-by-school breakdown for 2014 ordinations:

Yeshiva University: 55* (approx.)
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (three campuses): 35
Ziegler: 17
Hebrew College: 14
JTS: 14
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College: 6
Academy for Jewish Religion-N.Y.: 4
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah: 2
Academy for Jewish Religion-California: 1
* Y.U. declined to provide figures for 2014 but says it has ordained 225             rabbis over the last four years.

In the old days, the rabbinical seminaries were there to serve the movements, producing rabbis to fill their denominations’ pulpits and schools. These days — thanks to the proliferation of rabbinical seminaries, rising disaffection with denominational ideology and the growth of rabbinic employment outside synagogues — there is increased overlap between seminaries, and they’re competing for students as never before.

An Orthodox-minded rabbinical student might opt for Chovevei instead of Yeshiva, then find himself in Chovevei’s beit midrash next to someone raised as a traditional Conservative Jew. In the Conservative movement, prospective rabbis have not just JTS and Ziegler to consider but also Hebrew College, which sends some graduates to Conservative pulpits and attracts some Conservative and Reform Jews interested in a nondenominational approach. Then there’s the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Reform’s Hebrew Union College, and the two Academies for Jewish Religion, in Los Angeles and New York (the two AJRs are no longer formally connected with each other).

The potential overlap, plus the dwindling number of incoming students overall (down 28% in the last 10 years among seven of the non-Orthodox schools), has some rabbinical schools marketing themselves more aggressively.

“We’ve expanded our marketing so we wouldn’t lower the quality of incoming students,” said Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the RRC.

If you go to a nondenominational school, you can still get a job in a denomination-affiliated synagogue. For example, the Rabbinical Assembly, which controls the hiring process for Conservative synagogues, grants waivers to synagogues affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism that want to hire rabbis from outside JTS or Ziegler – so long as they consider RA rabbis first.

“We’re very flexible and understanding of congregations’ needs,” says Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, international placement director at the RA.

Rabbi Dan Judson, director of professional development and placement at Hebrew College, explained the RA’s motive: “The Conservative movement would rather grant a waiver than lose the congregation,” he said.

Inside the movement, rabbis who have just graduated from JTS or Ziegler can’t take any Conservative synagogue job they’re offered. The RA has rules that limit newly minted rabbis to assistant positions, or senior leadership positions in synagogues with fewer than 250 membership units. After two years, rabbis can go to a congregation of up to 500 families, after five years to a 750-unit congregation, and only after 10 years to any Conservative synagogue that’ll have them.

As with many school and career choices, sometimes the most significant determinant is geography: Aspiring rabbis may choose Hebrew College because it’s in Boston, or Ziegler because it’s in L.A., or HUC because it has a campus in Cincinnati (for all those Bengals fans).

The same goes for a job: A senior pulpit position at a synagogue in Des Moines may not be as attractive a prospect as being a Judaic studies teacher at a day school in Chicago – or a Hillel rabbi in Florida, a hospital chaplain in L.A. or an employee of a Jewish organization in New York.

“Rabbis are being called upon to do all kinds of things that rabbis were never before called to do – working for federations and foundations, for Israel advocacy, working on organic Jewish farms, at hospices, schools, running agencies,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, a dean at Ziegler. “We live in an age that values Jewish learning and that recognizes that the difference between a moribund and dynamic institution can be having a rabbi at the helm. In that sense we’re living in the golden age of rabbis. But the age where you can expect a congregation waiting for you — those days are gone.”

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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.