Communal Youth Rabbis – A Proposal

Over the past 30+ years, I’ve listened to North American Jewish teens (and some international ones, as well). Like their adult counterparts, they kvetch about their rabbis and synagogues. But their gripes are different, and worth some attention (which isn’t to say that adults’ grips aren’t). Here’s some of what I’ve heard over the years, from my youth director days, my congregational rabbinate and education era, my camp and experiential educator gigs and my time in Jewish educational organizations:

“My rabbi doesn’t really care about teens. He’s all about the adults who pay dues.”

“My synagogue wants the kids in the building, but on its terms.”

“My congregation gives financial assistance for teens to participate in Israel programs, but only those of its movements’ youth group.”

“I love the tunes that I learned in camp, but the rabbi and cantor refuse to introduce them into services.”

“The rabbi seems more concerned about keeping the synagogue in business than about my Jewish growth.”

“I don’t find the rabbi easy to approach.”

“I feel ostracized because I belong to a community-wide Jewish youth group, rather than the synagogue’s youth group.”


This is just a short list of what I’ve heard from teens. And to be honest, more than one of the above statements were true of me and of synagogues that I led early in my career. The rabbis’ and synagogues’ concern for institutional survival is understood. And, as my friend and colleague David Bryfman has pointed out, teens (unlike younger kids) don’t add money (or membership) t0 synagogues. If anything, they cost synagogues money, when they invest resources in youth.

Forget for a moment the current debate as to whether the American synagogue is in trouble. It is certainly in flux, as Hayim Herring and others have pointed out. And for a moment also, let’s agree that the expectations placed on synagogues and on rabbis are too broad. It is unreasonable to expect that any individual rabbi can be everything: a scholar, a spiritual leader, a fundraiser, a community builder, a great speaker, a relationship manager, a teacher, a marital counselor, a spokesperson for the Jewish people, an expert on Israel, and, on top of those, a talented youth worker.

More important to me personally is not the state of the synagogue and rabbinate, but the state of Jewish youth, who often state that they do not “fit in” to the synagogue they grew up in, or find it difficult to connect with their rabbi in a meaningful way. And what is also important is that teens, like most of us, want to have meaning in their lives and, on the whole, welcome adults (yes, including rabbis) who are capable and prepared to meet them in the teens’ place of comfort (physical as well as emotional safe space).  What’s a Jewish community to do? Here’s my idea:

Let’s create the field of a Youth-Oriented Rabbinate. A small number of synagogues have such positions, as do some day schools with “rav bet sefer” positions, but often the colleagues who occupy them use them as stepping stones to “bigger and better things.” I’m recommending that we don’t build a field merely on the “young rabbi” who works with “young people” for a few years right after rabbinical school. I’m proposing a true career track.


The second part of my proposal is to locate community youth rabbis on neutral turf, funded and housed outside synagogue walls. JCC’s, Federations, summer camps and community youth organizations are a few places that these rabbis could work within. Moving them out of the synagogues assures that their roles will not be to “sell” the synagogue’s or movement’s particular programs.

The third part of my proposal is to train these Youth-Oriented rabbis. There is much to be learned from youth ministries that function in Christian denominations, as well as from a few successful synagogue, JCC, summer camp and youth group models. Training has to include the obvious skills: counseling, coaching, education, technologies, arts, music, human development. It also has to include what every youth professional needs to know: pop music, sports, the latest TV shows, social media and anything else that is a part of youth’s lives.

I’m ready to walk the walk. I challenge any foundation or organization to create a Community Youth Rabbi position and to invite me to apply. Can’t scare me…I have 30+ years of working with Jewish teens under my belt, and can readily name others who’ve done the same. Unfortunately, because of the lack of a serious career track, much of our work with teens has been incidental to our “day jobs”.  Let’s get serious about our Jewish youth.

Who’s in?



8 responses

  1. While you make sense, I do not believe the American Jewish community or even individual communities have what it takes to make this happen. The territorial nature of congregations does not yet allow for this positive interaction. And still we have to try to make this happen.

    The bigger question to me, how would teens begin to find a youth rabbi and how would we keep them engaged while honoring the family unit and the teens themselves. Outreach is an amazing possibility, but finding the support financially and within the communities themselves could be a challenge. Although, I do believe it is absolutely possible.

    I have a model, I can share of how youth oriented rabbis were utilized at a University (not Hillel) level. It was amazing. I would also look an organization like, Jewish Youth for Community Action located in the Bay area. I bet you that you can learn from these organizations to make it happen.

    I think you need to have a conversation with the PJlL CEO, James Hyman.


  2. I agree. The church I am familiar with has youth pastors. The senior pastor is very involved but the youth pastors bridge the gap and are there for the kids and involved in kid-oriented activities.

    That said, synagogues need to keep up with the times. A majority of people work and cannot attend women’s club meetings.
    I have had bad experiences where the well-respected adult/parent’s group leader was totally bashing Christianity and Christmas and brought Christmas cards to make fun of. I have also had a prayer book grabbed from me as if I was trying to steal it when I was only looking around to see where it went back to. As a young, single parent I was sent to collections over $300 when I tried to put my kids in Hebrew school and the office person was giddy over what a great collections agency they had.

    As a child and teen in Sunday school and Confirmation, I never felt a connection.

    You are on to something. When I go to the non-denominational church I feel filled with the contemporary worship music rather than all slow hymns.

    Blaze that trail…you are truly needed!


  3. Great idea Arnold! I agree with the comment above about territoriality but the other reality is that we are stuck with a down economy that requires cooperation on unprecedented levels for all of us including in youth work. Here in Pittsburgh the local Reform congregations are experimenting with a part-time coordinator for their various youth groups and advisors in order to create a more streamlined service provision for their kids. It is a step in the right direction and in the right city, your idea could work.


  4. I commend my colleague and fellow member Rabbi Samlan on this post. I agree with this idea and I think it would do a lot of good.

    Now, for the bad part: why this idea will never happen.

    As someone who spent a lot of time as a spectator of the Christian Hardcore community in Arizona and Georgia (look that term up if you don’t know what I’m talking about), I can tell you that the Christian community has so many built in advantages that allow for youth pastors to exist, whereas the Jewish world would never pull it off. I’m going to highlight one of them.

    Pastors in the non-denominational Christian world (the fastest growing movement) are not ordained in the same way that rabbis are. It is not an uncommon phenomenon that a young, hip person who is great at organizing young people and has a passion for the Bible will receive ordination directly from the church. What does this mean? It means that unlike the rabbi who goes to school for 4 years for a BA, then another 5 years for rabbinical school, the youth pastor, his colleague, may not even have a 4 year degree. Imagine if your local Temple Beth Blah Blah Blah was giving smicha to Hillel directors?! That’s about how it works.

    Now, many youth pastors do have degrees from Bible colleges. These are four year degrees. That means that a youth pastor, is, well, still a youth!!!! A youth rabbi would probably be 27 at the youngest, and given the horrible shape that shuls are in, he/she would more likely be 30+. Honestly, a 30 year old cannot relate to a 15 year old. A 23 year old? Well, that’s a different story.

    In order for a youth rabbi to exist, there needs to be a career path for it, with smicha, that gets these communal leaders in place by age 23 or 24. Here’s the funny part: if there was a smicha program that would get you rabbinic credentials by age 24, then no one would bother going for full smicha. They would just get their junior smicha and work their butts off until they got a job as an associate rabbi, then senior rabbi.

    No movement in Judaism is prepared to see this happen, and no educational institution would be willing to let this happen, because it means less money in their pockets. So long as rabbinical schools know they can shoulder you with $200,000 in debt over five years, they will do it.

    Finally, while I agree with neutral territory, I don’t think that such a thing exists. Rabbis are a unique bunch. We’re given dominion over the shul, over certain aspects of education, and whatever entrepreneurial project we get our hands on. But the idea of a spiritual leader in “secular” Jewish life? Forget it. Who wants some jerk making you feel guilty about eating bacon while you plan your Jewish Singles Events? Ah, the taste of Jewish Continuity Hypocrisy is like a warm cup of coffee in the morning.

    Again, brilliant idea about youth rabbis. Sign me up! But first, we have to destroy the system…or at least reform it to the point that it no longer looks like what it does now.


  5. While I agree with the premise of this article and the need for better Jewish youth education and involvement, there is one major flaw in the argument; this whole idea is based on the incorrect emphasis in the Reform/Reconstructionist/Conservative movements that you need a Rabbi to have a congregation. The idea of having a youth leader, maybe with a 4 year degree as Patrick compares to the Christian movements, is great only if those movements can move away from the obsessive need to have a smicha ordained rabbi in the first place. Our synagogues have become nothing more than churches in this way, with the congregants listening (or not) to a rabbi drone on and even following prescribed responsive reading, a very church-like custom. The very idea of relying on a rabbi for everything takes away from the fact that our community as a whole is supposed to be a community of learners and lay leaders. A “2 Jews, 3 opinions” all around kind of thing.


    1. I agree completely. I was at an indie minyan Shabbat service last Friday, and there were more people there, with no paid leadership, than the shul I often go to with two full time rabbis. I would love to see a financial breakdown of how much Jewish life costs, per event/activity/service when performed in a shul versus performed in a lay community. I have tried to collect that data, but no one will share their financial info.


  6. Micol Zimmerman Burkeman | Reply

    Bravo Arnie! I think your proposal is fascinating. A paradigm shift is in order in which we begin to truly take seriously the engagement of our youth and the role of the Rabbi in this endeavor. It is also time to take the Rabbi’s role with youth seriously. As long as it is considered a “first step” in a career or a job for the young and inexperienced Rabbi, it won’t be seen as a true career track. That being said, I also think there are ways to work within the current system to involve the clergy more into the youth programs and without that, I don’t know how far youth engagement can go. As you said, “Let’s get serious about our Jewish youth.” The Rabbi of the synagogue typically sets the culture and the priorities. What would that mean if they were seriously and sincerely engaged in our Jewish youth?
    As I said on FB, I also think there is room to include non-Clergy in this communal role as well, but I understand your focus on the Rabbi. There is already a version of this through Next Dor for young adults…trying to get them back once they’re gone and we’ve already failed them once. What if your model enables us to succeed with the youth so that they don’t wander off in the first place? Connection to the Rabbi is a connection to Judaism and I’ve seen many young Jews stay engaged because of their relationships with their Rabbis in their youth.
    In response to Patrick’s comments about the age of the Rabbi, I cite one of your points: “I’m recommending that we don’t build a field merely on the “young rabbi” who works with “young people” for a few years right after rabbinical school. I’m proposing a true career track.” I see Patrick’s point and understand where he’s coming from, but I also think the age of the Rabbi is not the determining factor in either the success or failure of a youth program or relationship. I have seen older Rabbis connect masterfully with teens and I’ve seen younger Rabbis do it pitifully (and vice versa). You make a great point, Arnie, when emphasizing the training, and I will also add the individual’s investment in youth – the Rabbi needs to choose youth work – it can’t be a consolation prize or merely a stepping stone to “greater” things – their heart and passion needs to be in it. There needs to be intentionality. Yasher koach friend. Can’t wait to see what other comments and ideas come out of this.


  7. Notorious R.A.V.,
    This sounds an awful lot like the position that I currently (and for the past 2.75 years) inhabit with Southern California Jewish Student Services, where I am independently hired and made available to young Jews in the area, whether that means working with the Hillels in my area (none of whom have rabbis), Moishe Houses, BBYO, or other organizations or individuals (I am doing bar mitzvah tutoring and have done pre-marital counseling). I am glad you made a public “call” for more positions such as the one in which I currently serve, as it is unique, but certainly in demand as many [young] people do not want to go to a synagogue to seek out a rabbi.


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