HUC head sees boom for Reform in the West

Can a graduating class of 10 to 15 rabbis in Los Angeles mark the dawning of a new day for Reform Judaism on the West Coast?

A leader of the Reform movement thinks so.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, the president of the oldest Jewish college in the country, can hardly wait for the spring of 2002, when the first group of rabbis will be ordained at the L.A. campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

It will be a turning point for Reform Judaism, said Zimmerman, who is scheduled to speak Friday evening, June 16 in San Francisco. The graduating class will create a pool of rabbis — some of whom will take pulpits in the Bay Area — and will help position California as an academic center for Jewish life.

"This is going to be a major step for Reform Judaism on the West Coast and in the Bay Area," Zimmerman said. The head of HUC-JIR for the past three years is slated to give the sermon at a communitywide Reform Shabbat service at Congregation Sherith Israel.

To a large degree, Zimmerman will be sounding the trumpet of concern.

In a phone interview last week from his office in Cincinnati, he used the word "crisis" to describe some aspects of Reform Judaism.

The movement isn't altogether sure how to attract people to its synagogues, he said, and is trying desperately to sustain a community that continues to erode.

Also, it is plagued by a national shortage of rabbis, cantors and educators.

The shortage began to develop seven or eight years ago, Zimmerman said, when the school cut class sizes following a five-year period that produced 250 to 300 Reform rabbis.

"There was a feeling that the congregations couldn't absorb all of that," he said. "There were people being ordained who couldn't get jobs."

But the cycle shifted. In the second half of the 1990s, about 10 new Reform congregations sprang up every year, boosting the total to nearly 900.

"For the first time in generations, all of this is coming together at the same time: all of the new jobs out there and a decline in applications," Zimmerman said.

"We're talking a major crisis."

Other factors contributing to the problem, he explained, include people wanting to cash in on the hot economy or not wanting to spend five years studying to become a rabbi.

"Also, who wants to go into a job today where every minute of the day you're on call? The burnout has been extraordinary."

Some rabbis today refuse to take large congregations or work full time, he said.

Others are opting to become educators, chaplains or communal service workers rather than pulpit rabbis.

"Three-fourths of our graduates are taking pulpits, and that's not taking care of all the new jobs that are on the scene," he said.

And what do rabbi-less congregations tell Zimmerman?

"They scream a lot and get mad at us and get mad at the school," he said. "Every unfilled rabbi slot represents hundreds of lives that are not being touched."

To that end, HUC-JIR is now making recruitment of potential rabbis a big focus. Alumni are being asked to seek out and encourage young members of their congregations or communities who might make good rabbis, he said.

Also, HUC-JIR will step up its presence on college campuses, looking to hook interested Jewish students.

The past few years, HUC-JIR has been ordaining between 40 and 50 rabbis per year. This spring, 45 rabbis were ordained, 28 in New York and 17 in Cincinnati.

The L.A. campus will help boost the numbers, Zimmerman said. "It will enable a lot of people who were never able to do it before to pursue the rabbinate."

HUC-JIR rabbinical students spend their first year studying in Jerusalem. Upon returning, they can continue their studies at any of the school's three U.S. campuses.

However, until this year, students who chose Los Angeles for their second and third years of studies had to relocate to Cincinnati or New York for years four and five.

"A number of our students are [older] students, and to ask them to spend a year in Israel, then to bring them back [to Los Angeles] for two years and then ask them to move again was too much," Zimmerman said.

California residents, knowing they can spend four straight years in Los Angeles, will be more likely to apply for the program, he added.

The Conservative movement's University of Judaism is the only accredited rabbinical school currently ordaining rabbis west of the Mississippi, doing so at its L.A. campus since 1996.

There are other institutions, including the Academy for Jewish Religion slated to open in Los Angeles in the fall, but most are not accredited.

"The more Torah study centers the better," Zimmerman said. "I wish them well. But the problem is that they are not accredited. We need to make sure the standards are high."

Founded in 1875, HUC-JIR is the nation's oldest institution of higher Jewish education. In 1954, the school established its L.A. campus, eventually offering programs in communal service, education and Judaic studies.

Having an ordination process at the L.A. campus will also benefit synagogues in Southern California as well as the Bay Area by providing interns, assistants and fill-in rabbis to lead services.

This summer, five rabbinical students from the L.A. campus will be serving Bay Area Reform congregations.

The rabbinical students "serve between 250 and 300 synagogues in the movement in some way or another," Zimmerman said. "San Francisco [area] congregations will be able to call on HUC students to work in a myriad of areas."

Moreover, bringing in more scholars and building up school resources such as the library will create an academic environment that will pulsate its influence, Zimmerman believes.

"The impact will go well beyond just the students."

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Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.