This is a reprint of my blog entry: http://jewishhorizons.com/2010/12/02/how-rabbinical-schools-close-t...
When I was a kid, there was a pretty strong correlation between active Jewish identity and Hebrew skills. This pattern no longer exists, yet rabbinical schools have the same, if not higher bars for admission to their programs. We at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College are as guilty as any other major rabbinical seminary in the non-Orthodox world. Hebrew school education may be good for a lot of things, but not for learning Hebrew. Even among Jewish day school graduates, it is surprising how many cannot hold a sustained conversation in Hebrew.
So who knows Hebrew in the American Jewish community? There are exceptions to the following, but essentially, young Jewish adults who have spent significant time in Israel and those who have gone toa Jewish day school. There are a handful of students who might move past a beginner’s level of Hebrew after four semesters of college Hebrew classes.
This population of American Hebrew speakers represents a very specific and narrow Jewish profile.
Now what are the options for learning Hebrew as an adult? If you happen to live in a large urban setting with a huge Jewish population, you may have access to Jewish community based Hebrew classes or you may be able to study through a synagogue. This weekly format for study generally gets students reading prayerbook Hebrew, but it does not prepare students for rabbinical school. Jews who don’t live on the East or West coast may have no local options. Of course, there is always travel to Israel for a year to study (that takes the privilege of money) or to one of the few effective language schools like Middlebury College.
The sad truth is that kids who were raised in more traditional Jewish homes or who spent significant time in Israel are the most likely to be admitted into rabbinical school (assuming they meet other criteria for admissions). Think about all the talented and committed Jews who have taken up leadership positions on their college campuses or who have been serving as synagogue leaders or who have even spent years as a Torah reader for their community. These individuals may have the integrity, love for Judaism and commitment to service that are so important for rabbinic life. And we collectively say “No place for you here right now!” “Why don’t you go to Israel or find a place to study Hebrew before applying?” But, there are no real options for these folks.
We all keep saying to prospective students: “You should learn Hebrew.” But perhaps its time that we say “We will teach you Hebrew.”
It is our responsibility to help prepare the next generation’s Jewish community to thrive by enabling a more diverse group of Jews to enter into spiritual leadership. I’ll be the first to admit that this is a tall order for seminaries. The challenges are complex. However, I think that it is our problem and not their problem. It is time to re-examine how we train rabbis and what our responsibilities should entail.
The Jewish world has changed radically in one generation and rabbinical schools have not yet caught up. Our standards allow us to look only into a small box of the Jewish community; meanwhile we’re missing so much potential. Time for us to catch up!
– Tamar Kamionkowski