RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Educating the Modern Rabbi: A Conversation with Michael Marmur

    Posted on August 29th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    The New Year is nearly upon us and this means that the new school year is also beginning. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting with Michael Marmur, Vice President from Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College to talk about educating the modern rabbi. -your editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Pictured from left to right: Tonya, trip translator; Sarah Fishman, HUC-JIR rabbinical student; Jaqui McCabe, HUC-JIR education student; Yael Rooks-Rapport, HUC-JIR rabbinical student; and Rabbi Misha Kapustin, leading Seder in Simferopol, in the Crimea region of the Ukraine.

    RAM: One of your main roles as Vice President for Academic Affairs is overseeing the training of rabbis. When the College opened in 1873, the goal was to train leaders for the realities of a new kind of Jewish community that was emerging in the United States. How does the College-Institute today envision the role it plays in educating rabbis?


    MM: The Rabbinical school curriculum is poised between different and sometimes competing desiderata. One, of course, is providing a basis of knowledge and the skills necessary to access the texts and concepts that a rabbi needs in every situation. These skills are essential to whatever a rabbi does and provide a critical foundation. Another element of the curriculum is the acquisition of practical tools that the rabbis need to survive and thrive. Yet another is the development of spiritual sensitivity and the inner life. From yet another angle, we want our rabbis to be engaged in the great moral and social issues of the day, and to be acquainted with the changing face of the Jewish community. Trying to balance these and other considerations is both complicated and exciting work.


    RAM: It is fair to say that we are currently experience a period of significant change in the Jewish world. Is this new reality changing the way the College-Institute educates its students?


    MM: First off, it is important to note that curriculum is always a few years behind the world it serves, and this is not accidental. If we were to teach our students just based on current trends or predictions it would be laughable. If we took a look at the predictions made over the years we know that many of them turned out to be quite wrong. That having been said, there is always a need for change. The days when you could assume (if it was ever right to assume)  that you would be ordained and start off as an assistant in a congregation, then graduate to become the senior rabbi in another larger congregations are over. It will be the story for some of our graduates but by no means for all of them. We can’t even assume that those who do get to the big pulpits will do so by following this path. Take Andy Bachman whose work with Brooklyn Jews and on campus was outside the congregation and now leads a congregation, or Rachael Bregman in Atlanta who works for The Temple but whose rabbinate is outside the walls of the Temple.


    RAM: So how is the College-Institute helping address this shift?


    MM: We are trying to educate ourselves about the changes which are taking place “out there” on the field.  We are in conversations with Hillel, for example, about what needs to happen in the consciousness and expectations of our students which will make them the kind of Hillel rabbis that they want to be. We are looking at changes taking place within the traditional congregations where the majority of our alumni still serve, and outside those traditional frameworks too. While continuing to fulfill our traditional role, we want to broaden our self-understanding. Our job is to serve Jews where they are while building models of where they yet might be.


    RAM: Does this mean changing the curriculum?

    Dr. Michael Marmur Vice President for Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

    MM: Yes and no. We are now offering classes in areas which were not prominent in our curriculum – there are good examples to be found on each of our campuses. If you look at new possibilities in service learning, spirituality, management and leadership training at the College-Institute happening right now, I think you will be surprised and impressed.Our students spend time reflecting on their roles as leaders and grappling with issues such as intermarriage,  so that they have given the issue significant thought before they are faced with real decisions to be made. More and more students are given the opportunity to integrate their learning with the lives waiting for them “out there”. But at the same time, the more uncertain the scene the prospects becomes the greater the need to shore up core competencies. The where and why people want a rabbi might be changing a great deal but they still need the rabbi to know Jewish texts, to be a tradent of Jewish tradition. Without real knowledge and understanding of that core material the rabbi is ill equipped to be flexible as the settings demand. Folks need rabbis who are equipped with timely tools, but also rabbis who relate to timeless truths. And the very finest examples of people involved in congregational transformation and community engagement model this blend of capacities and passions.


    RAM: Are there limits to what can and should be taught?


    MM: Of course. There is a strong core of knowledge that one needs to become a rabbi but there are things that just need to be learned in the field and one only knows what those are going to be when you encounter them. For example, we want every graduate to know how to hold a balance sheet and read a budget but a specific course in new trends in bookkeeping is only going to be of use to a certain subset of experienced professionals.


    There has always been a range of opinions in the school about the personal and spiritual dimensions of being a rabbi. The founders of the school may have wondered if we are willing and able to tackle these aspects. Many of us now are aware that we cannot ignore them. There are interesting initiatives in the College-Institute which relate to these dimensions too.


    We have recently generated an interesting document listing the learning outcomes our faculty is looking for in our students. It is a challenging and stimulating list, and yet I am sure we have left many of the intangible things off the list. If our students come away with a sense of privilege at the opportunity to spend a life of service and Torah, and a wish to use and improve the tools they have been provided with, our work has not been in vain.


    RAM: Any final words going into the new school year?


    MM: To all our students, faculty, staff and of course our alumni, may it be a year of learning and growth. Shannah Tovah.



  • What’s in a Relationship? Some Summer Must Reads

    Posted on June 4th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE has some wonderful suggestions for summer reading to strengthen and better understand how we connect with those around us. – ed. Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Summer is here! It’s that time of year we send our children and congregants off to summer camp or pack our own bags to spend time on faculty at one of our URJ summer camps.  The summer camp experience is one in which – young or old – we have the potential to build deep and lasting relationships with peers and mentors.  Much like our youth, I find myself counting the days till our return to URJ Camp Newman, an invaluable time for connection, reflection and fun with dear friends and colleagues.


    “Relationships” is a buzzword in the Jewish world right now. We are asking questions. How do we build relationships?  What does a community founded on deep relationships look like? What role do relationships play in strengthening one’s connection to Judaism?

    Author Rabbi Laura Novak Winer RJE

    The quintessential Jewish model of a meaningful, one could even say sacred, relationship is Martin Buber’s model of the “I-Thou” relationship, when we accept another person for who s/he is. We see the person as a whole being.  Buber differentiates this from the “I-It” relationship in which we perceive another person as an object to be either manipulated or used for our own self-gratification.


    There are a growing number of books that address these questions about relationships.  In recent months I have expanded my Kindle and paper libraries with variety of disciplinary approaches to these questions about relationships. So, in between other more causal summer reads, I might suggest you dip into some of these as well:


    • Community: The Structure of Belonging (Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008) – A look at what it takes to build a community in which people feel a sense of ownership and investment in its well-being.
    • The Courage to Teach (Parker Palmer, Jossey-Bass, 1998) – From the educator’s perspective, a challenge to look inward and realize what we bring to our relationships with our students and constituents.
    • MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend (Rachel Bertsche, Ballantine Books, 2011) – A humorous look at what it means to be a “best friend” and how we build friendships.
    • Never Eat Alone – And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time (Keith Ferrazzi. Doubleday, 2005) – From the ultimate business schmoozer-networker-connector perspective, this book provides insight into how we can use relationships to create win-win situations for everyone.
    • Relationships Unfiltered (Andrew Root, Zondervan, 2009) – A Christian youth ministry book about how we create authentic relationships with our youth in a religious/spiritual context



    Each of these authors addresses the same question: What are we trying to accomplish, if anything, in our relationships?  Whether it is our own relationships or those we are trying to help our youth and congregants build, we need to be sure we are clear on our answer to this question.


    Often times, as seen in “I-It” relationships, we are trying to influence someone to act, believe, or behave, as we would like them to.  Come to this youth group event.  Go to religious school. Do this mitzvah. Why? Because everyone else is going. Because I said so. Because it’s our tradition. Rather than a goal of influence, Andrew Root shifts the paradigm back to Buber, suggesting that our relationships should be based on the goal of simply being present.  In a true “I-Thou” relationship, we are present with each other, to see each other for who we are, accept each other for who we are, support and accompany each other on our journeys.  Root writes, “the fullness of a person (her dreams, joys, pains, fears)” should be more important to us than “her ability to know, admit, believe, and commit.”


    In an almost opposite approach, Keith Ferrazzi, a marketing and sales consultant, teaches that “relationships are like muscles – the more you work them, the stronger they become.”  Much of his self-help approach to success through networking focuses how relationships can open doors, create opportunities, and lead to greater influence on others. He takes the position that people are loyal to their peers, their networks and those with whom they have relationships.  It makes me wonder, though, how could we do a better job of building relationships in our communities so that we build stronger more lasting allegiances and connections to Reform Judaism and Jewish community?


    Parker Palmer, from his Quaker background, reminds us that relationships have a sacred quality to them. That which makes the Jewish relationship sacred is the presence of God, Torah and Judaism.  When we build Jewish relationships of meaning, Judaism and all that is part of it, is in the middle.  Palmer reminds us of verses from Robert Frost: “We dance round a ring and suppose,/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” In response to this couplet, Palmer invites us to consider that when we bring that Secret – in our case Judaism – into the center of our relationships, we can have conversations with Judaism and with each other that helps us each find meaning and answers that bring us wholeness.


    My family and I will be back at URJ Camp Newman in just days.  While there with friends and colleagues, while interacting with young Jews eager to learn, grow and connect, I will carry the challenge of strengthening our relationship with each other.  While sometimes we might be circled around a campfire, a guitar and a siddur, or a bottle of Napa Valley p’ri hagafen, each moment will be made sacred with God’s presence.


  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 5

    Posted on January 27th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs.  Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    As we close in on Shabbat, we offer two different rabbinic perspectives

    by Rabbi Judith Abrams of Maqom

    The instructions are always the same: figure out what God wants you to do, then go do it.  If you’re still alive after completing your mission, God will give you another one.  And don’t be afraid of not making enough money.  God will always make it possible for you to make a living while you’re doing your mission.  You may not live in a mansion, but you’ll be ok.  How do you know what God wants you to do?  Find your bliss….that’s where the mission is.

    Author Judith Abrams

    What happens when you finish a mission?  You have to learn to let go of the trapeze bar you’re on and fly through the air to catch the next trapeze bar.  The next bar always appears.  And if you insist on hanging to your present bar, you’re not just messing up your own life, you’re clogging the works for everyone else.  The bar you’ve outgrown is the perfect bar for someone else.  They can’t move forward until you let go. And if you insist on holding on to that bar…woe betide you.  First God will gently tap your fingers.  If you don’t move, God will make the stimulus more painful and ever more painful as you persist in your stubbornness.  Finally, it will come to a choice of so much pain that it will kill you or you finally fly.  Once you finally fly, you’ll soar over that bit of space where you were stuck for so long.  And you’ll marvel that, instead of falling, you’re flying.

    The first time that you fly through that space between the two bars you might feel frightened but once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll actually enjoy that sensation of flying.

    And finally, never, ever believe your own press.  Nothing contaminates spirituality, art and your mission more than ego-contamination.

    by Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman

    Know your strengths and weaknesses — and I don’t mean “what you’re good at” and “what you’re bad at.” Marcus Buckingham, author of the outstanding book “Go Put Your Strengths to Work,” defines a strength as “something that energizes you” and a weakness as “something that drains you.” In other words, a strength is something that makes you feel strong, and a weakness is something that makes you feel weak.

    Author Geoffrey Mitelman

    So as you explore your strengths, think about these questions: What are your natural talents? What gets you passionate? What are the kinds of things that would be enjoyable challenges for you? What are the kinds of things you’d be excited to learn more about?

    And as you explore your weaknesses, think about these questions: What are the kinds of things that, if you never had to do them again, it would be too soon? What activities do you find putting off because you don’t want to do them? What do you find emotionally exhausting?

    Your goal should be finding a job that allows you to maximize your time using your strengths, and minimize your time using your weaknesses. Since the rabbinate is not a typical job, if you can find a position where you can frequently say, “I can’t wait to do this!” and infrequently have to say, “Ugh, I have to do this?!”, then you will find tremendous energy, fulfillment, and joy in your work.

  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 3

    Posted on January 25th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs. Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    by Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz, The Community Synagogue, Port Washington, NY

    A few days before I started ulpan at HUC in Jerusalem I went to visit Rabbi Hank Skirball, who I had never met before (or since for that matter!). Our visit, however, was memorable because he gave me three sage pieces of advice about the rabbinate:

    - First, loving Judaism … that’s the easy part.  It’s loving the Jews that’s the hard work – and what matters the most. 

    Author Irwin Zeplowitz






    - Second, always take what you do seriously; just don’t take yourself too seriously.

    - Third, you are never as bad as they will tell you are, and you are never a good as they will tell you are, either.

    His words ring true over the decades – and are wise reminders about loving others, being passionate about the work we do, yet always being humble.  His wise counsel, it seems to me, is not just for rabbis, but for any graduate of HUC-JIR dedicated to a life of Jewish service

  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 2

    Posted on January 24th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs.  Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    by Andi Milens, Vice President at Jewish Council for Public Affairs

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was something my grandfather told my father when my father went to work for him. He said: “Always remember that the people who work for you depend on you for their livelihood.”

    Here’s my attempt to contribute to the canon:

    1.      Follow your passions.

    2.      Give 100% but save some for yourself. No matter how much you love your chosen field, no matter how much you love being immersed in the Jewish community, find something outside the Jewish community that you enjoy. Everyone needs to take a break every now and then.

    3.      Find mentors and confidantes – people close enough to understand your circumstances but removed enough that they can offer you objective guidance. And be a mentor to others; serve the Jewish community by fostering the next generation of Jewish professionals.

    Author Andi Milens

    4.      Establishing good working relationships is key to your success. Develop strategies to work with all kinds of people.

    5.      Diversify. Remember that there are a lot of pieces that make up the Jewish community puzzle. Shimon the Righteous said that the world stands on three things: Torah, the service of Gd, and deeds of kindness. So too, the Jewish community stands on many professions and institutions – each is necessary but none alone are sufficient.

    6.      There is always something more to learn. When you think you’ve learned it all, it’s time to think about your next career step. Take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills. Find people to learn from, inside your institution and outside. And remember that you can learn something from everyone – even if it’s an example you don’t want to follow.

    7.      Trust your subordinates to do their jobs. Give them an appropriate amount of guidance, then give them the resources and the autonomy to carry out their responsibilities. Back them up publicly, teach them privately. If you don’t trust them, find new subordinates.

    8.      Most of the time, it’s not life and death. Sometimes it is. But most of the time, it can wait until tomorrow. And remember that everyone thinks that what they’re doing is the most important thing.

    9.      Know how to accept, admit and apologize when you are wrong. And sometimes even when you’re not. It’s more important to be effective than it is to be right.

    10.  They say that knowledge is power. But sharing knowledge builds trust, which is more powerful than knowledge.

    And always keep a copy of Pirkei Avot handy…whatever you’re looking for, you can probably find it there.

  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 1

    Posted on January 23rd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs. Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami

    How We Create Boundaries and Maintain Perspective

    1.      Da Lifnei Mi Ata Omeid (Know before whom you stand). Remember that most issues are not really about you.

    2.    Encourage your congregation to call you before setting funeral times. Be actively in touch with families of those about to die to give them your contact numbers and to ask/instruct them to make you the second call after death.  If Rabbi (not the family) calls mortuary to set time, you have more control over your schedule and your life.

    3.      If you have a partner/spouse, involve your spouse/partner in setting times of funerals and baby namings, and of whether to accept weddings. (Honey, I have a funeral for Sunday and 11 am or 3 pm are available; what’s best for our family?)

    Author Paul Kipnes

    4.      Use your partner/spouse/trusted friend as a “boundary keeper” to strengthen you when you weaken.  When you are considering relaxing your boundaries, check by him/her for a “reality check.”

    5.     Tell your children/spouse/partner whenever you skip a meeting for them.  Skip meetings for them.  Schedule in kids games/events, sometimes in your calendar under assumed names.

    6.      Get thyself a therapist.  Who else is NOT nogei-ah b’davar (not touched by the issue)?  A therapist can help you think through the challenging issues that will arise.

    7.      Make it a policy not to attend any B’nai Mitzvah or Wedding receptions. Explain it to every family with whom you meet.  (“I cannot choose one family over the other; nor can I attend all receptions and still see my family.”)

    8.      Don’t waste time getting bitter.  Do what you have to do, and teach your congregation before next problem.  Every situation is an opportunity for education.

    9. Train your lay leaders to protect your vacations and conferences. Set up a clear process for handling synagogue needs when you are away. Send a detailed coverage plans email to staff/leadership whenever you will be away.