Monday, October 18, 2010

Ageism in the rabbinic search process

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

It’s been alleged that rabbinical bodies are guilty of impropriety for the way they control search processes. That's an interesting point, but I'd like to talk about a question of practice on the hiring side.

Off and on over the years, I’ve heard it claimed that congregations are “age-ist” in hiring rabbis, because they seek rabbis who are south of middle age. (And, of course, I wrote about my own aging process and concerns a couple of years ago, in Young and Dynamic and 124/78.)

My sense is that shuls are entitled to look for rabbis of a particular age or stage of life. This is not a case of age discrimination. Beyond prejudicial concerns for the appearance of vitality in the shul, and the question of how long the rabbinic candidate intends to stay or how much energy he intends to invest, I think there is a substantive issue of how well the older rabbi will relate to younger congregants.

Parents of young children tend to associate most with other parents of young children – people who are dealing with the same challenges, who meet at school events and birthday parties, whose children play together in homes and sports leagues. So it’s logical that a shul trying to attract those young families would seek a rabbi who would have those natural connections to that group.

Of course, that young rabbi may also have difficulty identifying with older congregants, and counseling people with mid-life crises, or people who are losing their ability to drive, their ability to hear, or their independence. But: Shuls are often more forgiving of youth than they are of seniority, possibly because the former tends to be cured by time, while the latter is rather difficult to reverse. And, I think shuls – rightly or wrongly – assume that older congregants are more likely to remain with the congregation despite having a junior rabbi, while younger congregants are more likely to jump ship in search of the young and dynaimic.

What do you think?


  1. I think the situation also works in reverse. The congregants at my shul are mostly middle aged or older, a few exceptions (such as myself) aside. Our rabbi is heading towards middle age himself, although he still has young children. Although we have had young rabbis in the past (and at one stage even had a dedicated youth rabbi), I suspect that our future rabbis will be middle aged, to fit in with the age of the congregation.

    Then again, the community where my mother grew up has an even older congregation than ours, but still has a young rabbi (with young children), so perhaps you are right after all.

  2. Of course there is also the possible explanation that younger Rabbis generally cost less? That older Rabbis automatically have to explain why they are moving and have a track record vs. younger ones upon whom a congregation can project its hopes (think Pres. Obama) or can catch a rising star.......
    Joel Rich
    BTW the kid thing can work in the opposite direction if the Rabbi is to the right (or left) of the community

    Joel Rich

  3. It's all Shlomo Riskin's fault. He was the young, dynamic rabbi who turned around Lincoln Square and convinced every other fading shul that what they need is a young, dynamic rabbi who will solve all of their problems.

    I am approaching middle age myself, and prefer a rabbi with enough years of experience not to make rookie mistakes. But I'm not on the search committee.

  4. Daniel-
    Yes, I think people really do skew young in their preferences. Time will tell, of course.

    1. Those certainly are factors, yes.
    2. Re: BTW - You bet.

    Sure; good job!

    Hmmm... someone sounds bitter...

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  6. in smaller communities, younger rabbis may be lost both to aliyah, or the desire to avail their families to more Jewish institutions, only available in larger cities.

  7. I think the last line of your post says it all.

    A shul needs to look for someone who appeals to both the current demographic. Finding someone who is inspiring is key (IMHO) and age isn't a real factor. If the majority of the shul leadership is under 45, then they will be attracted to someone who can relate to them.