Context Matters: Forming American Rabbinic Identity in Israel


Source: Boston University


Context Matters: Forming American Rabbinic Identity in Israel is an ethnographic investigation of thirty-eight American Reform and Conservative rabbinical students as they experience the Israel Year of rabbinic education, a defining feature of their training that distinguishes it from that of American seminarians of other faith traditions.

This study analyzes rabbinic identity formation through the students’ interactions with six contexts: their own identity journeys, educational institutions, Israel as a place, Jewish time, civil time, and the people they encounter. The students engage with these contexts in the student role and as someone who is both an insider and an outsider.

Each context is a plausibility structure for Jewish living, but their influence lies in their convergence. The experiences, interpersonal networks, and relationships with the contexts, become social and religious capital, valued for and by Jewish laypeople, and deemed essential for an American rabbi.

This research calls upon literature from the Sociology of Religion, Sociology of Organizations, Sociology of Education, and various subfields within Jewish Studies. Symbolic Interactionism, narrative constructions of identity, and experiential education provide the theoretical frameworks. Previous research (Carroll, Wheeler, Aleshire, and Marler 1997) has identified stages in the clergy identity formation process—encounter, evaluation, struggle, and resolution/ internalization. These guide the analysis of how students engage, process their experiences, and consider personal and professional implications. Reflecting the nature of identity formation, the stages are fluid and non-linear.

The rabbinical students make sense of their own experiences through constructing identity narratives. They progress toward rabbinic formation as they gain knowledge, skills, habits, and a sense of self as rabbinic -- identity outcomes of clergy education identified by Foster, Dahill, Goleman, and Toletino (2006).

This research expands the conversation on clergy education to include rabbinical students, and it introduces particular Jewish vocabularies for learning to the literature on professional socialization. It also contributes an analysis of Israel-based experiences as they shape those who lead Jewish communities in the U.S. Rabbinic identity is complex; locating the process of formation in Jerusalem for an academic year challenges and enriches the students on their paths to the rabbinate.

Updated: Mar. 07, 2019