March 16, 2013

'Online rabbis' source of debate for U.S. Jews

Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Some rabbis hired by long-established congregations are struggling to gain acceptance among their fellow clergy because they got their ordinations in 21st-century style: online.

Rabbis with non-traditional credentials have long been part of South Florida's Jewish scene. They often created their own congregations, separate from American Judaism's traditional denominations.

But at least three Conservative synagogues in Palm Beach and Broward counties are now led by rabbis who got their degrees from a correspondence course based in New York designed for "the mature Jewish adult" who already has experience serving the Jewish community.

The hirings are stinging some leaders of the Jewish establishment, who say these rabbis' educations cannot provide the intensive instruction and training offered by the traditional seminaries of the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements, where graduate degrees can take five years of full-time study.

Rabbi Eli Kavon, of Boca Raton, Fla., took a correspondence course and was ordained in 2011 after working for years as a Jewish educator. He got his degree from the Rabbinical Academy of Woodmere, N.Y., which offers off-campus rabbinic and cantorial training. Kavon, 48, has been leading Beth Ami Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Boca Raton, for the past year.

"To be labeled an 'online rabbi' is a cheap shot," said Kavon, who spent two years completing the course.

Fred Greenspahn, eminent scholar in Judaic studies at Florida Atlantic University, credits several trends for Jewish congregations' increasing openness to the new degrees. The factors, he said, include declining membership rates and the resulting drowp in revenues.


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