Yes, I Do Want to Become a Rabbi, Despite All

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A rabbi conducts a service at a synagogue (illustration)Credit: AP

Twelve years ago, a young man, wearing a brand new suit, about to graduate from college, walked 12 blocks in the New York City winter to a rabbinical school interview. On this day, he began the journey toward becoming a rabbi.

I remember that morning well. I wore my lucky tie. I wanted this. I had wanted this for a long time.

It all started at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the place I first discovered that Judaism can be meaningful and magical. It developed through my college years and there this desire manifested itself into a major focusing on Biblical Hebrew, Comparative Religions, and even the esoteric field of Syriac Aramaic. Finally, as my senior year approached, I came to terms with this part of myself: the part that wants to lead, the part that wants to be learned, the part that wants to listen, to help, to be a change agent. And so, there I sat, in the hallowed halls of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, waiting for my rabbinical school interview.

The ensuing moments are a blur; questions about my faith, my upbringing, why I wanted to become a rabbi. But in the end, this younger version of myself, one with tremendous potential, but little to show for it at that point, was accepted into rabbinical school and I began my six-year journey toward becoming a rabbi.

With these memories firmly in hand, it is little surprise that when I was asked recently to sit on an admissions panel at my alma mater, I was honored and I jumped on a train and headed to New York.

While on the train, I happened upon an article recently published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency entitled, "So you've decided to become a rabbi..."

This article, written by Uriel Heilman, attempts to describe the cross-denominational modern landscape of rabbinic education in America, and has a general tone of “It ain't what it used to be.” After explaining that the number of rabbinical candidates in non-Orthodox rabbinical schools has fallen by 28 percent over the last decade, and after lambasting the rise of online, or virtual rabbinical schools, Heilman focuses his attention on the brick and mortar institutions of Hebrew Union College (Reform Movement), Hebrew College (non-denominational), The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Conservative Movement), The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Yeshiva University (Orthodox), and the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies (Conservative Movement).

Heilman is correct in pointing out that for all of these options there is a hefty price tag (except Yeshiva University, which fully funds its rabbinical school). One year of study at these accredited institutions will cost a student between $20,000 and $28,000, and although financial aid and student loans can help, the financial burdens in higher rabbinic education are very real, and therefore occasionally prohibitive.

To further complicate the modern state of affairs of the rabbinate in America, Heilman points out the fact that the job market, once promised to offer many more pulpits than there are rabbis to fill them, is simply no longer as robust. Now, those rabbis who do want to lead a traditional religious community find themselves competing with a national pool of candidates for a handful of truly desirable positions.

So, Heilman concludes, given all of this, you had better be really sure you "still want to be a rabbi."

My issues with Heilman's article are many, but I wish to zero in on one over-simplified argument he is attempting to make. He seems to be saying that given the competition, given the price tag, given the years of study it will take and given the paucity of pulpits, why would anyone still want to become a non-Orthodox rabbi in America in 2014?

Could not the same argument be made with regard to the modern state of law schools in America? A recent article in Forbes Magazine does just that. There, the author reflects on her own path and offers those up-and-coming lawyers “1,000 reasons to skip law school.”

What's that? You don't like lawyers anyway? So let’s look at doctors then. Could not the argument be made that, given the competition, given the price tag, given the years of study it takes, given the uncertainties in the health care industry and given the scarcity of surgery fellowships, why would anyone still want to become a doctor in American in 2014?

And yet they do. And do you know why? Because they want to. They deeply want to.

Because somewhere deep inside of them is a desire to lead, to help, to save, to heal. And we are all grateful that their passions outweigh their pragmatism, and despite student loans and long years of study, there are, thankfully, enough surgeons to go around.

So there I sat, 12 years removed from that younger version of myself, projecting nostalgic memories across the table at the candidates, and the following thought occurred to me: Thank God for this place and thank God for the education I received here. I am deeply grateful for the hours I spent in serious study with deep-thinking professors who challenged me and my classmates to push ourselves to our academic limits. I carry with me every day the lessons I learned in my internship with my rabbinic mentor, and the profoundly impactful summer spent as a chaplain in a Manhattan hospital, a summer that taught me to think “heart over head,” to get in touch with another kind of intelligence: my emotional intelligence.

And I am forever indebted to the countless exemplars of rabbinical leadership who taught all of us that this chosen “profession” of ours is not merely a path to a pay stub, but a calling; if not a literal sense of God's mission in life, then in an internal motivation to heal the world, to seek justice and to teach Torah.

For all of these reasons, and for the fact that I have now spent six years of my life as a rabbi, and in doing so experienced the myriad moments of triumph and tribulation, exultation and exasperation, I know one thing for certain:

Yes, I still want to become a rabbi.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish summer camp experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. 

Yeshiva University in New York, whose rabbinic education program is fully funded. Rabbinic education elsewhere in the United States can be costly.Credit: Wikimedia Commons