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  • Educating the Modern Rabbi: A Conversation with Michael Marmur

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

     

     

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