By Rochelle Maruch Miller
That RIETS/Yeshiva University’s musmachim are hired in communities throughout the nation—indeed, the world over—attests to the venerable institution and its time-honored Torah legacy. RIETS has trained over 2,700 of the world’s most distinguished Orthodox rabbis, scholars, and teachers. With their rich grounding in the full spectrum of our hallowed tradition, graduates assume a broad range of leadership roles in the community while ensuring the perpetuation of Jewish scholarship.
Firmly set in its emphasis on Talmud and halacha, RIETS has developed programs to meet the communal and personal needs of our contemporary world—for example, business ethics, bioethics, technology—with the unique ambiance of intellectual and spiritual exploration that has always characterized the great academics of Jewish learning in the past.
The Morris and Gertrude Bienenfeld Department of Jewish Career Development and Placement is part of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF). The department represents the three major Orthodox communal institutions that broadly share a similar worldview and vision, serving a common population and goals: Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary/Yeshiva University, the Orthodox Union, and the Rabbinical Council of America. Congregations who contact RIETS/YU, the OU, or the RCA seeking rabbis, Jewish educators, and Jewish communal professionals are referred to their office.
CJF serves as the community-service arm of RIETS. It continues the work of the Max Stern Division of Community Services, which was one of the premier service agencies of the Jewish community for over 60 years.
As a communal-service entity, CJF is eager to serve those congregations, schools, organizations, and communities who turn to them. The network of rabbis whom they serve are musmachim of RIETS and/or members of the RCA.
Rabbi Kenneth Brander serves as director of the CJF and Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg serves as director of the Department of Jewish Career Development and Placement. Prior to assuming his position in July 2005, Rabbi Schwarzberg served as senior rabbi at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, NJ. Before that, he served as educational director and the assistant rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
“What we do is a very open, transparent process,” Rabbi Schwarzberg explained. “There are no favorite sons and no favorite positions. Everything is completely open to all rabbis, and everybody can apply to any position they are interested in. The community would like us to screen, and we do screen, meaning that we do have conversations with the rabbis we send out, and try to make them understand whether this is going to be a good date or a bad date. We try to discourage candidates from going to bad dates. However, when a rabbi tells us that he is interested [in a position], even though we don’t think it’s the best shidduch in the world, we send a résumé and follow our process of being open and transparent.”
“But, in general, placement is about trust,” Rabbi Schwarzberg explains. “And one of the things we try to do is visit every community that we are working with, because you don’t really develop trust over a phone. And when you sit with a search committee, and they get to see who our office staff is, and can put a face to it, then, when you have subsequent conversations with them, it just makes everything fall into place. So you build relationships by shaking hands and sitting for a few hours in a shul with a search committee and by getting to know the people. And when you go to meet a search committee at night, I can spend the day going to the day schools and the other institutions that are in the community in order to get a feel of that community. This enables us to better understand the larger community with a much better perspective.”
Finding the ideal candidate to lead a congregation is a herculean task; a lengthy process involving months and months of meetings, interviews, and decisions. It takes a congregation to hire a rabbi; indeed, Rabbi Schwarzberg posits the critical steps that should be taken prior to embarking upon the search. “It is always best to develop a mission statement and goals for your congregation prior to beginning a formal search for a rabbi. While the planning process may appear to be highly ambitious, we are here to help you with this. It is a highly critical and thoughtful component for a thoughtful, systematic, and methodical search for your new rabbi. At this time you should ensure that your synagogue by-laws have a clearly defined process and lines of authority for hiring a rabbi. We strongly recommend that the entire synagogue membership—not just the board—be given the privilege to vote for the candidate recommended by the search committee.
“I worry about the expectations that many 21st-Century congregations have of their rabbis. Many suggest that the rabbi is the CEO of his congregation. Most CEOs have many levels of management that oversee various divisions and operations under their charge. Most Orthodox rabbis are fortunate if they have a part-time secretary, youth director, and a custodian. Other than some larger synagogues, there are very few with executive directors. How do we define a CEO who has no directors? What is the role of lay leaders and how can they partner with the rabbi to help him succeed? This is the question that each congregation must ask themselves. This question becomes very important as a congregation embarks on choosing new rabbinic leadership.
“Striking the ‘perfect match’ and engaging the right rabbi requires an intense and dedicated process. It will only succeed when the search committee connects with and gathers input from their fellow congregants. This will establish credibility and a respect for the process. Despite the urge to do so, do not become a member of a rabbinic search committee unless you are process oriented and willing to dedicate hundreds of hours over the course of 10-12 months. A serious, thoughtful process takes time.
“Finding the type of rabbi your research and review process has indicated is probably the single most important decision that the congregation will face for a number of years, and, hopefully, if the search committee has done its work well, will not have to face for a significant number of years in the future,” Rabbi Schwarzberg explained.
“There is a cadence to the rabbinic search and timetable. Rabbinic contracts usually commence in the summer of year one, and conclude two, three, five, or seven years later. We recommend a minimum two-year first initial contract, and, by mutual agreement, possibly a three-year initial contract—but not shorter or longer.”
He adds, “Rabbinic contracts generally end in the summer of any given year. The standard cycle for a rabbinic job search commences in October/November and hopefully culminates in the rabbi’s selection by Pesach. Transitioning into the new position does not take place until summer. The congregation should aspire to have its rabbi appointed between Purim and Pesach, with the expectation that he will move into the community and assume his new responsibilities over the following summer.”
What should a rabbi’s balance be in advocating for change within his community when he deems such change necessary or accepting his community on its present level?
“A rabbi first has to build trust in his community before he can make any changes,” Rabbi Schwarzberg explained. “When a rabbi builds trust between himself and the congregation and establishes a relationship, then he can begin to elevate his community in ways that he feels are appropriate for them. I think that all of us who are bright, thinking people do not believe you should remain stagnant; we have to continue to grow. And that’s what a rabbi’s job is—to inspire growth, not force it, not demand it. The rabbi needs to live a life where he, through his own behavior and actions and family life, is inspiring, and collaboratively builds his institution in an inspirational way that will make people want to grow.” v