by Rabbi Jerome K. Davidson

Affiliation with the traditional institutions of Judaism, the denominational synagogue in particular, is under siege.  According to studies by HUC-JIR Professor Steven M. Cohen, the under-40 generation characterizes the synagogues of their parents in a highly critical “ABCD Fashion”:  Alien to their 20’s and 30’s world;  Bland and Boring, filled with a predictable demographic of the middle-aged and upper-middle class;  Coercive regarding the views they do not  readily accept, the importance of in-marrying, and unquestioned support of Israel and it’s policies; and Divisive, separating Jews from non-Jews and, denominationally Jews from Jews. Furthermore, the demographic Jewish landscape has undergone stunning alteration: 50% intermarriage; 43% single Jewish households; nearly 10 percent LGBTQI Jewish families; 10 percent non-white American Jews, as are 15-20 percent of their adopted Jewish children; 50 percent of Reform religious school children with but one born-Jewish parent.

HUC-JIR must now assume the daunting yet realizable task of educating leaders with the knowledge, vision, and skills to create and recreate Jewish institutions able to respond effectively to these new realities. What then is required of us?

Advocacy of Social Responsibility

We begin by teaching our students to recast modern Judaism with the strong appeal of a clear moral imperative.  Association with institutional Jewish life is justified by the elusive emerging Jewish generation only if it represents a larger purpose, a worthy mission, and can connect them with organizations that are dedicated to creating a moral, compassionate society, and a just, peaceful world.

Our required core curriculum includes a course whose goal is to teach that rabbis, cantors, and educators, inspired by Jewish social vision, can mobilize our congregations to bring about societal and communal change.  Among areas studied are civil rights and civil liberties, domestic and global poverty, immigration, gay/lesbian rights, Israeli issues of pluralism and peace, interreligious relationships, and community organizing.  All are demanding issues new Jewish professionals will surely confront almost daily.  All of our students are required to fulfill social action projects through work with agencies and organizations devoted to social justice.

Outreach Within Our Ranks and Beyond

Our task is to create a culture of welcome and embrace. In addition to their classes, rabbinical student internships, and summer residencies in congregations with effective outreach approaches, every fourth-year rabbinical and cantorial student is required to attend one of three Outreach Institutes held in a Reform congregation where professional staff and lay leadership have partnered in the transformative skills that reshape congregations into welcoming outreach communities.

Students live with congregational families, often intermarried, and are led in discussions by rabbis, interfaith couples, and lay leadership who are effectively dealing with the difficulties faced by interfaith families, successful integration of diversity into temple life, controversial questions related to intermarriage officiation, outreach to the LGBTQI community and, especially, to unaffiliated young singles and couples.

In addition, all third-year rabbinical and cantorial students participate in the required Gerecht Family Institute for Outreach and Conversion for an immersion in Jewish texts relating to outreach and conversion, the psychology of conversion, conversion curricula, practice interviewing techniques, and Jewish ritual and beit din practices worldwide.

Practical Skills Training

badge-leadership Rabbinical colleagues whose administrative abilities enabled the creation of effective, dynamic institutions were surveyed for the leadership insights and managerial skills that would better prepare our students at the beginning of their careers.  Their priorities were strategic thinking, planning, and the skills in managing change; varying styles of leadership for differing situations; managing conflict, “hot buttons” issues, and misplaced anger; working with laity and staff by building trust and empowering others; financial concerns, especially budgets and fundraising.

Students study these issues, often through actual cases. Work in student pulpits, internships, and summer residencies become more valuable when students have also experienced in the classroom the all-important self-reflection and discussion on the values and the skills of authentic leadership.

This, then, is what we hope to view in the near future from our tripod of leadership education:

  • Young graduates will have learned to translate their moral vision into dynamic social action communities that inspire affiliation.
  • Cantors, rabbis, and educators will be equipped to create in congregations, a spiritual home large enough for our people’s diversity, with portals wide enough to welcome back those who have drifted afar.
  • A new generation of leaders will possess the courage and ability to transform institutions, with professionals and laity working in a trusting, authentic partnership that shall thrive with renewed vitality in the changed landscape of 21st century American Judaism.

For more on leadership development at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, see the Chronicle.

Rabbi Jerome K. Davidson is the National Coordinator of Leadership Initiatives, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Originally published in the Chronicle