An Interview with Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg
Note to readers: Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg has served as the director of the Morris and Gertrude Bienenfeld Department of Jewish Career Development and Placement for Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future since 2005. After serving as associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Rabbi Schwarzberg then became rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, NJ. He has served as co-chair of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Middlesex County and as chair of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the United Jewish Communities from 2005 to 2007.[i]
What do you love most about your position?
I am really one of the luckiest people in the world because I’ve had two great careers: first as a pulpit rabbi, and now I’m able to take twenty-five years of rabbinic experience and share it with my colleagues. If you drive 49.7 miles each way to work, and over the George Washington Bridge, you have to love what you are doing. I think that helping rabbis find jobs, which is my primary responsibility, is probably one of the most gratifying things that I do, but I also help them with their contracts and when there are issues in congregations between the lay leadership and the rabbi, and being able to help in those situations is equally gratifying. Our office doesn’t take a side when we get involved; we mediate. If we represented only the rabbi, the communities would say that we are biased towards the rabbis. If we were to take the side of the communities, obviously our rabbis would not feel like they have a voice. So we make it very clear to both sides that, when there is an issue, we mediate. We don’t represent.
In the process of setting up young leaders for positions in avodat ha-kodesh, do you usually deal with institutions and communities that already trust YU, or do you need to cultivate relationships as well?
I think it’s really a combination of both. YU has had different eras, and people have treated this office differently both externally and internally. I can’t really speak to the past, but I’d rather speak to what we do now. What we do now is a very open, transparent process. There are no favorite sons and no favorite positions. Everything is completely open to all rabbis, and everybody can apply to any position that they are interested in. The communities would like us to screen, and we do screen, meaning that we do have conversations with all the rabbis we send out, and try to make them understand whether this is going to be a good date or a bad date, and try to discourage people from going on bad dates. However, when a rabbi tells us that he is interested even though we don’t think it’s the best shiddukh in the world, we send a résumé, and we follow our process of being open and transparent.
But in general, placement is about trust. And one of the things we try to do is visit every community that we are working with, because you can’t really develop trust over a phone. Trust is eyeball to eyeball. And when you sit with a search committee and they get to see who our office staff is, and they can put a face to it, then when you have subsequent conversations with them, it just makes everything fall into place. So you build relationships by shaking hands and sitting for a few hours in a shul with a search committee and by getting to know the people. And when you go to meet a search committee at night, I can spend the day going to the day schools and the other institutions that are in that community in order to get a feel for the community. This enables us to understand better what they’re looking for, and to understand the larger community with a much better perspective.
How has your previous experience as a pulpit rabbi affected your approach to this assignment?
That’s an excellent question. I think it would be very difficult to place people if you weren’t coming from the background of the pulpit, because I understand the job. I understand what it takes to be a pulpit rabbi: the challenges, the inspirational parts, the deflating parts. Like in any job, there are wonderful parts of it and there are some difficult parts. Sitting down with a candidate and making them understand that it’s not all about paskening Halakhah and giving shi’urim, and that there are very challenging human problems. People are people, and they get into all kinds of human entanglements during the course of life, and their first defense is the rabbi. So I think I understand what these rabbis are going to be dealing with and what they do deal with. That, also, by the way, goes back to our conversation about trust. The very fact that the community who’s dealing with me knows that I was a pulpit rabbi gives them some trust that I understand what I’m bringing to them.
Are the CJF and RIETS (under both of which Rabbi Schwarzberg’s position is listed) on the same page about priorities in rabbinic placement?
Not only are they on the same page, but we discuss this all the time. One of the most recent conversations that we’ve been having between my office, which is located here at the CJF, and with Rabbi Reiss, Rabbi Penner, and Rabbi Bronstein at RIETS, is about what more we can do to help prepare our musmakhim to present themselves in the best possible light. I’m sure you realize that being a pulpit rabbi today is not just about how much Gemara you know, and how well you can teach, and how well you can pasken; many of the congregations out there are looking for a CFO; they are looking for a very presentable person who can articulate a vision, carry out that vision, and relate to a much larger and broader world — and we want to make sure that we are keeping up with the times. We want to make sure that our rabbis that we are putting out of our semikhah program can speak to modernity and speak to current issues in the best possible way. And RIETS is very receptive to that. Our semikhah students, have very, very busy academic lives and lives in general, and it’s very hard to continue to squeeze more and more into their lives, but we have to keep doing it.
Have there been changes in rabbinic training over the years based on the developing needs of communities?
Yes. I think the previous answer spoke to that a lot. But I think the answer to that is, when we wake up tomorrow morning, the world is different than it was when we went to sleep. That’s how fast the world changes today because of technology. Keeping up with that pace is hard for us as individuals, whether you are going into law, medicine, accounting practices, or finance, and I think the same is true of the rabbinate. The world keeps changing, and if we don’t deal with that, our rabbis will not be in the best position because they won’t be able to converse about what the current generation is thinking about. Remember: this office doesn’t just deal with musmakhim coming out of school, but also with our musmakhim that are in the field already. So we have a continuing rabbinic education program as well. We have to talk about issues that are confronting our society.
A second example is the Odyssey generation. When I grew up, we went from adolescence to adulthood. Today, people are on an odyssey, on a journey that can take them five, ten, fifteen, twenty years before they “have to be an adult,” and decide who they want to be, how they want to live their life, and what they want to do for a living. Again, a rabbi has to be able to deal with this generation. He has to understand why those things are, how we got to this point, and how we should deal with this current generation. So we have to continuously bring in people like Dr. Pelcovitz and other speakers for our semikhah students in order to expose them to trends in our generation.
Do you find that there are differences between the needs of Jewish communities in the Northeast and those in the South, Midwest, and West?
In general geographic terms, no. I think what people are looking for in Denver, CO is pretty much what people are looking for in Highland Park, NJ or East Brunswick, NJ, but what I would say is, if you are looking at specific towns or cities, there may be particular needs. There are some cities where you have to be a much more serious talmid hakham than in others. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t always produce talmidei hakhamim; that is very important. Sometimes you have a group of people who care very much about maintaining their Orthodox synagogue but sophistication of learning and knowledge may not be what it is in another place. So I wouldn’t say it’s geographical. I would say it’s more location to location.
What should a pulpit rabbi’s attitude be towards his community? And by that I mean, what should his balance be between advocating for change when he sees a need for change, and accepting the community where it is?
A rabbi first has to build trust in his community before he can make any changes. When a rabbi builds trust between himself and the congregation, and establishes a relationship, then he can begin to elevate his community in ways that he feels are appropriate to his community. I think that all of us who are bright, thinking people do not believe we should remain stagnant; we have to continue to grow. And that’s what a rabbi’s job is – to inspire growth, not force it, not demand it. Whenever you force or demand it you’re going to get rejected, you’re going to get pushback. The rabbi needs to live a life where he, through his own behavior and actions and family life, is inspiring, and collaboratively builds his institution in an inspirational way that will make people want to grow.
[i] Adapted, with modification, from the Center for the Jewish Future’s website: www.yu.edu/cjf.