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Campus Life 203: Jewish Passion, Jewish Profession

If you are dedicated to changing the world for the better and seek to serve people at critical times in their lives—moments of joy and sadness, illness and health, ease and challenge—is this a good time to consider a career in Jewish service? Yes, if you consider historical trends.

In times of national crisis, enrollment in Jewish seminaries generally increases. During the two world wars, for example, the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), experienced an upturn in students—some in pursuit of service to their country through military chaplaincy, others looking for significant ways to help on the home front. During the Vietnam War, HUC-JIR saw record enrollment—due in no small part to the search for moral leadership amidst the anti-war fervor gripping the United States and (in some cases) a strong desire for religious draft exemptions. More recently, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, admissions spiked again, as applicants opted for careers of meaning and service to the Jewish people.

Similarly, during times of high unemployment, many students seize the opportunity to enter graduate programs that prepare them for future professional careers. True, in today’s bad economic climate, desirable jobs in congregations and other Jewish organizations appear scarce. Some congregations and organizations are downsizing. New positions have been put on hold. Complicating the situation, employed Jewish professionals are currently reluctant to leave safe, steady positions in pursuit of new opportunities that involve even a modicum of risk; and older professionals who have seen their pension funds depleted by poor market returns are also deferring retirement.

What, then, should you do if you wish to follow your dream of serving the Jewish people professionally?

1. Be patient. Even if you’re a college senior, the current situation is likely to improve by the time you’d graduate from a rabbinical, cantorial, Jewish education, or communal service program. While no one can predict with precision when the economy will improve, when the rebound does eventually occur, the job market will likely heat up as employers initiate new programs.

2. Be flexible. Bad economic times demand flexibility in Jewish professional career choices. During the 2009 placement year, for example, when the number of congregational positions decreased because of the economy, HUC-JIR encouraged students to “think outside the box” and look for positions in Hillels and university settings; community and educational organizations; Jewish camping, military, and hospital chaplaincies; and a myriad of other Jewish leadership pursuits.

3. Examine new paths. Many of our students who committed early on to becoming a congregational rabbi or cantor, or desired work at a camp or school, have changed their direction over the course of their studies. After meaningful experiences in student pulpits, chaplaincy work, internships, and/or conversations with faculty members, they have often found new pathways to even greater career satisfaction. So can you.

If you’re considering a life of Jewish service, there is no better time than now to take the next step.

—Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., vice president of HUC-JIR


Union for Reform Judaism.