We must stop the rabbinic brain drain

British Jewry could be short of suitable Orthodox rabbis if students continue to head overseas


By Dr Ben Elton, October 18, 2012
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The lure of New York, proving irresistible to prospective young rabbis from Britain

The lure of New York, proving irresistible to prospective young rabbis from Britain

British Jewry is currently enjoying the race for the chief rabbinate, but it should be more concerned about the foot soldiers of the rabbinate than the field marshal. The mainstream Orthodox community in Britain is haemorrhaging rabbinic talent and unless that trend is stopped, it will sap our religious vitality for decades to come.

Some British rabbis have always gone abroad, which is positive both for their own development and the prestige of the community, but it is also important for some of the best and brightest to stay at home. In the past few years we have lost Rabbi James Kennard to a leading educational job in Australia, Rabbi Shaul Robinson to the prestigious Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan and Rabbi Jeremy Rosen to projects in the United States and Europe. That is apart from those rabbis who have made aliyah.

The problem is getting worse. As the old Jews’ College declined, it was said that there were not enough young men who wanted to enter the rabbinate to justify a rabbinical course, and those who wanted semichah would go to Israel. The community seemed to be comfortable with that; rabbis trained in Israel tended to come back to the UK because there were few suitable rabbinical jobs in Israel. British Jewry had exported the burden of training its spiritual leaders. That was not responsible, but for a while, it worked.

There are a number of able modern Orthodox students from Britain in Israel at the moment, but the real challenge is now the opportunities presented by New York. When the Chief Rabbi came to New York a few months ago, he met with around a dozen British students at Yeshiva University, some of whom will go on to the rabbinate. There are another three British students (myself included) at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. We all follow recent British semichah graduates, such as Rabbi Daniel Coleman, Rabbi Gideon Black and Rabbi Dr Alexander Kaye who came to New York, found good jobs and stayed.

Marriage certainly has something to do with it. British rabbinical students in New York have almost all come unmarried, but as it the way with religious Jews in their 20s, they find wives fairly rapidly. With American spouses they are much less likely to come back to Britain. But there are other factors, which mean that newly minted British rabbis have little incentive to come home. The prospects for a young rabbi are so much greater in America. Whether as an assistant rabbi of a major synagogue or the sole rabbi of one of the hundreds of smaller but stable communities across the United States, a new graduate can build experience in very congenial surroundings.

He and his family will have access to kosher facilities, a school, a mikveh and probably an eruv wherever he ends up, from Nashville to New Jersey. And he will have a respectable salary too. In Britain a new rabbi has to exist on a pittance as an assistant, or go to be rabbi of a community with no Jewish infrastructure for a few difficult years, before he is allowed to lead his own synagogue in a major centre.

If British Jewry does not want to continue to lose successive generations of leading modern Orthodox rabbis, it needs to take action. There must be efforts on the part of both the central leadership of the community and individual synagogues.

The London School of Jewish Studies is currently joining with the Montefiore Kollel to run the semichah programme originally launched in 2006. The course is currently part-time and most students are not looking to enter the rabbinate or are on their second career. Money should be raised to make it a full-time course with a decent stipend for students so that training for the rabbinate at home becomes a viable option for a man in his early 20s. Some students will still want to go abroad, but they should be placed in golden handcuffs. The community should pay their tuition and give them a generous grant on the condition that they return to the UK to work for at least the same number of years as they have trained.

Synagogues have to create opportunities for rabbis-in-training. There is a very well developed system of paid rabbinic internships in America, in which rabbinical students give sermons, teach classes, officiate at life-cycle ceremonies (I recently attended two conversions). The rabbi of the community gets some assistance, the community gets variety and students get experience and some cash. It is good for all concerned, yet it is unknown in Britain.

When these students do graduate, rabbinic jobs in Britain need to be made more inviting. That is perhaps the greatest challenge, but unless it is addressed, the community will continue to rely on geographical and ideological imports. A good start would be to give rabbis greater autonomy. A rabbi in America really runs the religious affairs of his community, unlike Britain, where the halachic administration of the community is so centralised.

I am not sure how many of my peers at YCT and YU will return to Britain when they graduate, but knowing their quality and how much they could give, I know they would be a great loss. British Jewry needs to find a way to bring their potential back to the community in which they were raised.

Last updated: 10:39am, October 24 2012