by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
People ask me sometimes what rabbinic school was like. My short answer is “amazing — really hard — and one of the best things I’ve ever done.” But maybe a longer answer would be interesting to those who read this blog.
Disclaimer: this may not be characteristic of everyone’s experience; I was a rabbinic student, so I can’t speak to the experience of students in ALEPH’s other programs; and of course the program continues to evolve, so students today may have some different experiences than I had. That said…
The ALEPH rabbinic ordination program is low-residency, which means that students and faculty live all over the world and come together a few times a year for intensive “residency” periods. In between those in-person gatherings, we learned together in other ways. (When I first started the program, half of my classes were held via conference call; by the time I finished, we were using videoconferencing instead.) Years before coming to rabbinic school I got an MFA in writing and literature at Bennington, and that’s a low-residency program too, as many creative writing MFA programs are. It was great preparation for the ALEPH learning experience.
Each ALEPH student works with a Director of Studies (a member of the ALEPH ordination programs va’ad) to establish a committee of mentors who will help her or him navigate the program’s requirements.
A minimum of sixty graduate-level classes is required in order to be a candidate for rabbinic smicha, and when I was a student, ALEPH offered about 60% of those classes. For the other classes I needed, I pursued learning at other institutions; entered into small-group learning with ALEPH-approved teachers (I have fond memories of translating and interpreting the Me’or Eynayim with two friends and with Rabbi Bob Freedman); and also often engaged in structured one-on-one tutorial learning with a local rabbi friend (once that learning had been approved by my Director of Studies — which generally required a syllabus and at least one major paper.) Most semesters, I took two ALEPH classes and two classes elsewhere, or three ALEPH classes and one elsewhere. But the majority of my learning was done in an ALEPH context.
It’s also worth mentioning that the 60-course minimum is just that — a minimum. Often the va’ad imposes additional requirements tailored to the learning trajectory of the student. (Which makes sense; we all come to this with strong suits and weak suits, and they aren’t all the same.) Our dean, Rabbi Marcia Prager, likes to say that the va’ad isn’t merely graduating students — they’re developing colleagues.
The ALEPH ordination programs don’t operate on a set timeline. This is not like college, where one enters with a given class of people and stays with them the whole way through. I had the luxury of being a fulltime student, so my learning took just short of six years. Others with whom I was ordained didn’t have that luxury, and took much longer to complete the program’s requirements. I had friends who took ten years to finish. And I also had friends who completed the required coursework quickly (one by virtue of already having a PhD in Judaic studies, which exempted him from a lot of classes) — and were asked by the va’ad to spend another few years in the program anyway, in order to wholly integrate the learning and to finish the process of spiritual formation, even though the academic requirements had been met.
Much of the material we were expected to achieve proficiency in is, I think, common to any rabbinic program: Tanakh, exegesis (various forms of scriptural interpretation), history (Biblical, Rabbinic, medieval, modern), philosophy / ethics / theology / Jewish thought, halakhic literature (including Mishna, Gemara, and Codes), Kabbalah and Hasidut, liturgy, pastoral care and counseling, and so on. Of course, we approached these subjects through Jewish Renewal lens, with courses like “Torah as a mirror for spiritual development” and “Integral halakha.” I also did a nine-month unit of Clinical Pastoral Education in a hospital, as do most modern seminary students.
Some of our learning was unique to ALEPH. For instance, learning about the history and Hasidic roots of Jewish Renewal; mastering new cosmology material; classes in deep ecumenism; learning in at least one other religious tradition; integrating central Jewish Renewal teachings, such as paradigm shift, into our learning across the board. I suspect that our neo-Hasidic heritage caused us to delve deeper into kabbalah and Hasidut than most other programs do. Every ALEPH student is required to work with a mashpi’a(h) (spiritual director) the whole way through, and to integrate that personal learning into her/his formation. And then there are multi-year retreat-based programs, like the Davenen Leadership Training Program, which is open to non-ALEPH folks but is required for all ALEPH students.
In ALEPH we talk a lot about the four worlds, and one of the ways that idea manifests is in the expectations around our learning. Some of our learning is physical and practical in nature. Much is intellectual. But in addition to those, we’re also always expected to be engaged in emotional learning and spiritual learning, too. Jewish Renewal tends to be experiential, and it’s our task to discern how to draw on the rich well of tradition in order to bring awareness of God, prayerful consciousness, and meaningful Jewish life to those we serve. It’s not enough to merely learn the history of our liturgy, for instance, or to learn how to recite its words fluently: the real question is, can I lead a service which uses the classical matbe’ah tefillah in a way which opens a channel for people to feel connected with God?
And speaking of leading services — we’re expected to be able to lead proficiently, in a way which breathes life into the liturgy, using any major denominational version of the liturgy. That’s part of the fun of being transdenominational. (And yes, it really is fun! Which is probably a sign that I’m in the right line of work.)
In order to apply for senior status, I put together the requisite binder of materials: nearly 250 pages of syllabi, transcripts, sample papers in each category of learning, samples of my unique ritual and liturgical work, and so on. Once a subcommittee of the va’ad agreed that my learning thus far was up to snuff, I became a senior, a status which usually lasts about a year and a half. Everyone with senior status takes one final halakha class together, and each of us writes a teshuvah, a rabbinic-legal responsum, in response to a real question which is live for us or for someone we serve. That teshuvah has to demonstrate both mastery of classical materials, and the ability to appropriately integrate those materials into creative thinking which fits the era in which we live.
I think back with gratitude on my rabbinic school learning all the time. When I seek to care for my community through a funeral and shiva, I think of the lifecycles learning I did with Rabbi Marcia Prager. When I go to translate a Hasidic text in order to have good juicy material for a d’var Torah or a study session, I think of the amazing Hasidic learning I did with Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg. When one of my students asks me a question about Jewish history, I think back on my semesters with Rabbi Leila Gal Berner. When I teach liturgy, or offer brief pearls of context during a service, I think of things I learned from Rabbi Sami Barth. And on, and on, and on.
Is the ALEPH program for everyone? Probably not. You have to be a fairly self-directed and disciplined learner. You have to be comfortable navigating the ratzo v’shov (ebb and flow) of intensive community life followed by dispersal followed by intensive community life again. And, of course, you have to be aligned with Jewish Renewal thinking and ideals. For me, the most central of those ideals are post-triumphalism (the sense that ours is not the only legitimate path to God); deep ecumenism (commitment to engaging meaningfully with other religious traditions); a feminism and egalitarianism which presume that we are all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, made in the divine image; and commitment to imbuing Jewish life with God-connection and with joy.
When I came home from my first week-long retreat with the ALEPH community, I said to Ethan that I had found my teachers, and that I wanted someday to be a rabbi as they are rabbis. I’m grateful to have had the chance to learn with them, and I hope that in my rabbinate, I honor theirs.
This post first appeared at Velveteen Rabbi.