HUC and Rabbinic Leadership Beyond the Pulpit

Nine years into my rabbinate, I find myself as the dean and rabbi of Auburn Seminary in New York. We equip leaders for faith-rooted social justice work. Without degrees, students, or faculty, we raise and spend $7 million a year to train and support thousands of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and anyone else who is bringing a faith perspective to today’s movements for justice.

The leaders we equip engage many issues: racial justice, poverty, immigration, environment, immigration, reproductive justice, LGBT equality, guns, money in politics, voting rights, and more. Our digital organizing platform, Groundswell, is over 225,000 users strong, growing by 5,000 a month. Auburn’s media and storytelling trainings are regularly sought out by top leaders who are doing the hard work of trying to break through the chatter.

We consult with clergy who are upgrading their congregation’s approach to social justice. Our senior fellows include the Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, evangelical Christian writer Brian McLaren, Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK, the Catholic group leading the Nuns on the Bus tours, Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, previously at Just Congregations, now at Central Synagogue, and Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles. We work closely with the social justice leadership of almost every religious group in America.

I went to HUC-JIR to become a congregational rabbi. Inspired by a mentor, Rabbi Sam Karff from Houston, I equated rabbinic leadership with pulpit leadership. But when I was ordained, there wasn’t one Reform congregational opening anywhere in New Jersey where I was rooted. (My wife, Rabbi Julie Roth, directs Princeton Hillel.) When Auburn reached out, I anxiously gave it a try and quickly fell in love with my colleagues and our work.

Living into public religious leadership as a rabbi completely outside of pulpit settings has, somewhat to my surprise, been extremely meaningful and joyous. More than once in recent years, I have shared with a clergy colleague that I don’t know any congregational rabbi who feels as inspired and fulfilled in their rabbinic work as I feel in the role of dean of Auburn Seminary.

I have the deepest respect for rabbinic leadership in congregational settings. Synagogues remain a critical element of the Jewish landscape in America. Yet, after years of practicing rabbinic leadership outside of a congregational setting, including deep reflection on the role of rabbis in contemporary American society, I have no doubt that rabbinic leadership cannot and should not be limited to congregational settings if we wish to serve the Jewish people effectively and fulfill our larger Jewish mission in the world.

As HUC-JIR continues its commitment to exploring rabbinic leadership in contexts outside of synagogues, one opportunity and challenge will be to reflect on the meaning of denominational allegiances in non-pulpit settings. My own Jewish leadership and family life has evolved and flourished primarily in pluralistic settings. For example, we daven at a Conservative shul (where I also lead the alternative high holy day services), we attend family events in Orthodox shuls, and I speak and teach at Reconstructionist conferences and seminary classrooms. My own leadership has benefited from pluralistic programs run by Wexner (graduate fellowship), the Shalom Hartman Institute (Rabbinic Leadership Initiative), and CLAL (Rabbis Without Borders), all of which brought rabbis from multiple movements together for learning and growth. Outside of denominational structures, rabbinic leadership beyond the pulpit generally operates in significantly pluralistic and/or multifaith contexts.

I loved my years of study at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York. Did HUC prepare me for my rabbinic career outside the pulpit? Absolutely. Could those HUC experiences have been much more friendly toward the possibility of rabbinic leadership in non-pulpit settings? Absolutely. It is exciting to know that as HUC looks to the future of training rabbis, the seminary’s leadership will be reflecting on how rabbis serve the Jewish people and beyond from perches far away from pulpits.

Rabbi Justus Baird is dean of Auburn Seminary in New York

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