Rabbis are the spiritual leaders of their congregations, and teachers and interpreters of Jewish law and tradition. They conduct religious services and deliver sermons on the Sabbath and on Jewish holidays. Like other clergy, rabbis conduct weddings and funeral services, visit the sick, help the poor, comfort the bereaved, supervise religious education programs, engage in interfaith activities, and involve themselves in community affairs.
Rabbis serving large congregations may spend considerable time in administrative duties, working with their staffs and committees. Large congregations frequently have an associate or assistant rabbi. Many assistant rabbis serve as educational directors.
Rabbis serve either Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist congregations. Regardless of their particular point of view, all Jewish congregations preserve the substance of Jewish religious worship. Congregations differ in the extent to which they follow the traditional form of worship for example, in the wearing of head coverings, the use of Hebrew as the language of prayer, or the use of instrumental music or a choir. The format of the worship service and, therefore, the ritual that the rabbi uses may vary even among congregations belonging to the same branch of Judaism.
Rabbis also may write for religious and lay publications and teach in theological seminaries, colleges, and universities.
Rabbis serving large congregations may spend considerable time in administrative duties.
Rabbis work long hours and are on call to visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, and counsel those who seek it. Community and educational activities may also require long or irregular hours.
Some of their duties are intellectual and sedentary, such as studying religious texts, researching and writing sermons and articles for publication, and preparing lectures for adult education.
Rabbis have a good deal of independent authority, since they have no formal hierarchy. They are responsible only to the board of trustees of the congregations they serve.
In 1992, there were approximately 1,600 Reform, 1,300 Conservative, 850 Orthodox, and 160 Reconstructionist rabbis. Although the majority served congregations, many rabbis functioned in other settings. Some taught in Jewish Studies programs at colleges and universities. Others served as chaplains in the military services, in hospitals, in college settings, and other institutions, or in one of the many Jewish community service agencies.
Although rabbis serve Jewish communities throughout the Nation, they are concentrated in major metropolitan areas with large Jewish populations.
To become eligible for ordination as a rabbi, a student must complete a course of study in a seminary. Entrance requirements and the curriculum depend upon the branch of Judaism with which the seminary is associated.
In general, the curriculums of Jewish theological seminaries provide students with a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible, Talmud, Rabbinic literature, Jewish history, theology, and courses in education, pastoral psychology, and public speaking. Students get extensive practical training in dealing with social problems in the community. Training for alternatives to the pulpit, such as leadership in community services and religious education, is increasingly stressed. Some seminaries grant advanced academic degrees in such fields as Biblical and Talmudic research. All Jewish theological seminaries make scholarships and loans available.
About 35 seminaries educate and ordain Orthodox rabbis. The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and the Beth Medrash Govoha Seminary are representative of the two basic kinds of Orthodox seminaries. The former requires a bachelor's degree for entry and has a formal 4-year ordination program. The latter has no formal admission requirements but may require more years of study for ordination. The training is rigorous. When students have become sufficiently learned in the Talmud, the Bible, and other religious studies, they may be ordained with the approval of an authorized rabbi, acting either independently or as a representative of a rabbinical seminary.
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America educates rabbis for the Conservative branch. The Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion educates rabbis for the Reform branch. For admission to their rabbinical programs leading to ordination, both seminaries require the completion of a 4-year college course, as well as earlier preparation in Jewish studies. The Conservative seminary usually requires 5 years to complete the course of study. Normally, 5 years of study are also required to complete the rabbinical course at the Reform seminary, including 1 year of preparatory study in Jerusalem. Exceptionally well-prepared students can shorten this 5-year period to a minimum of 3 years.
The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College educates rabbis in the newest branch of Judaism. A bachelor's degree is required for admission. The rabbinical program is based on a 5-year course of study which emphasizes, in each year, a period in the history of Jewish civilization. A preliminary preparatory year is required for students without sufficient grounding in Hebrew and Jewish studies. Graduates are awarded the title Rabbi and the Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters and, with special study, can earn the Doctor of Hebrew Letters degree.
Newly ordained rabbis usually begin as spiritual leaders of small congregations, assistants to experienced rabbis, directors of Hillel Foundations on college campuses, teachers in educational institutions, or chaplains in the Armed Forces. As a rule, experienced rabbis fill the pulpits of large and well-established Jewish congregations.
Job opportunities for rabbis are expected to be generally favorable in the four major branches of Judaism through the year 2005. Present unmet needs for rabbis, together with the need to replace the many rabbis approaching retirement age, should insure that the numbers of persons completing rabbinical training in the years ahead will encounter good job prospects. Since most rabbis prefer to serve in large, urban areas, employment opportunities generally are best in nonmetropolitan areas, particularly in smaller communities in the South, Midwest, and Northwest.
Graduates of Orthodox seminaries who seek pulpits should have good opportunities as growth in enrollments slows and as many graduates choose not to seek pulpits. Orthodox rabbis willing to work in small communities should have particularly good prospects.
Conservative and Reform rabbis are expected to have good employment opportunities throughout the country.
Reconstructionist rabbis are expected to have very good employment opportunities since membership is expanding rapidly.
Income varies widely, depending on the size and financial status of the congregation, as well as its denominational branch and geographic location. Rabbis may earn additional income from gifts or fees for officiating at ceremonies such as bar mitzvahs and weddings.
Based on limited information, annual average earnings of rabbis generally ranged from $38,000 to $60,000 in 1992, including benefits. Benefits may include housing, health insurance, and a retirement plan.
Rabbis advise and counsel individuals and groups regarding their religious, personal, social, and vocational development. Others involved in this type of work include social workers, clinical and counseling psychologists, teachers, and counselors.
Reprinted with Permission of U. S. Department of Labor