Reb Nachman on holy disagreement
Another mother poem: for readwritepoem prompt #118

ALEPH rabbinic program Q and A

I get emails pretty often from people who want to talk with me about the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program. I love talking about ALEPH! But I've noticed that the same questions tend to be asked each time. And especially now that there's a baby in my life, I don't always have time for lengthy conversations. So I decided to write down my answers, on the theory that this way, I can point people to them, and if we have a conversation afterward it can be a more in-depth one from the get-go.

I want to stress upfront that I'm making this post as an individual, not as a representative of ALEPH! These are the questions I'm most frequently asked, and this is how I answer them. If you asked these questions of other ALEPH students, you might get different responses -- and if this is a path you're considering, I encourage you to do just that.

Why did you choose ALEPH?

I went on my first retreat at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish Renewal retreat center, in the summer of 2002. (It was then an independent retreat center in the Catskills; it's now the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality at Isabella Freedman.) When I came home from that week, I told Ethan that I'd met the teachers I'd been looking for all my life -- that someday I wanted to be a rabbi like these people were rabbis.

That was my first experience with Jewish Renewal, and it was amazing. Corny as this sounds, that week of learning and prayer opened my heart and my soul in ways I had only dreamed of. I want to be a Jewish Renewal rabbi because Reb Zalman's teachings about paradigm shift speak to me, because I value Renewal's ecumenism, and most of all because I want to be a part of the movement that reinvigorated my relationship with God and with Jewish tradition.

What's the program like? How does it work?

Each student works with a committee of mentors, including a Director of Studies (who has to be a member of the ALEPH rabbinic va'ad) and a Mashpia(h) (Spiritual Director), to navigate the program's requirements. A minimum of sixty credits is required for ordination, and most courses only confer a single credit; the program takes a minimum of five years of full-time study to complete. (Most ALEPH students aren't in the program full-time, so for most people the timeline is substantially longer than that.) And completing those sixty credits is a prerequisite for smicha (ordination) but it isn't the whole of the process.

There's a comprehensive grid which outlines the program's various requirements. We're required to do learning in a variety of areas, among them Tanakh, halakha, philosophy/ethics, history, exegesis, Hasidut, liturgy, and practical rabbinics, among others. We're each expected to do a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) -- I did a nine-month extended unit in 2005-2006, and you can find posts about my experiences (written within appropriate limits of confidentiality) in the pastoral care category of this blog. ALEPH offers a handful of courses each semester (via conference call and webconferencing), and we're generally required to take those; we're also each expected to find other courses wherever we live which fulfill program's the requirements of graduate-level study.

ALEPH also offers a fair amount of retreat-based learning. We gather twice a year for intensive learning experiences; each summer there are two weeks of retreat-based learning, and each January we gather for a student Shabbaton and for Ohalah, the annual gathering of Jewish Renewal clergy. (In this, the ALEPH program is not unlike the low-residency MFA program I did at Bennington.) There are other retreat-based learning experiences, too, like DLTI, the two-year liturgical leadership training program about which I blogged pretty extensively.

You can read about the rabbinic program at the ALEPH website here: ALEPH ordination programs - rabbinic path. There's more detailed information about the program of study here. (At that same website you can learn about the rabbinic pastor program, the hashpa'ah program, and the cantorial program.) And once you reach the stage of actually applying, you'll receive a ton of detailed information about the program in the "purple packet" which contains the application.

How might I know if this is the right program for me?

Would you describe yourself as self-motivated? Do you think you'd be comfortable transitioning repeatedly from the intensive retreat experience to learning in the context of your own ordinary life? Are you happy in transdenominational environments -- do you think you would enjoy learning in a community where your classmates, and teachers, come from across the Jewish spectrum? And do the principles of Jewish Renewal resonate for you? (It should go without saying that if you're not familiar with Jewish Renewal, you should become familiar with it before you apply. You can learn more about Renewal at the bottom of this About ALEPH page, but the best way to learn about Renewal is to experience it.)

If your answer to all of those questions is yes, then you might be a good fit for ALEPH. The best way to find out whether that's the case is to spend some time with us. Come on retreat or to Kallah; meet some Renewal teachers; befriend some students and ask us about our experiences. Learn with us, daven with us, and see what happens. While you're figuring out whether we're the right fit for you, the members of the va'ad will be figuring out whether you're the right fit for us. Generally speaking it's a mutual decision, and most people who flourish within ALEPH are already doing so by the time they formally begin learning within the program.

In my case, by the time I actually applied to the program, I'd been coming to Elat Chayyim for a few years, and I'd studied with several Jewish Renewal teachers including members of the va'ad. So by the time they got my application, they already knew me and had a sense for whether I was a good fit. It was a great way to enter the program... and meant I'd already earned a few credits by the time I officially began!

I have other questions.

In that case, feel free to drop a comment on this blog post and I'll do my best to answer you in a timely manner -- though please kindly remember that I'm a new parent, and cut me some slack if it takes me a while to get back to you. Thanks for asking, and I wish you all the best in discerning whether this is the right path for you!