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Shedding Light on Rabbinic Compensation and Benefits

First-of-Its-Kind Study From Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future Provides Key Insights Into Strengthening Rabbinate    

On one hand, the annual salaries for Orthodox rabbis across North America are pretty good; in fact, the median 2017 compensation is $90,000, putting rabbis squarely in the middle class. On the other hand, their benefits could use improvement, with the majority of Orthodox rabbis not receiving health, life, or disability insurance or retirement benefits or housing from their synagogues. So, nearly six in 10 rabbis supplement their income with additional employment.

This is a key finding of the 2017 Compensation and Benefits Survey for Orthodox Rabbis in the U.S. and Canada commissioned by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF). The first-of-its-kind study, supervised by Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, director of the Morris and Gertrude Bienenfeld Department of Jewish Career Development and Placement at the CJF, aimed to identify if rabbis are currently compensated with any type of consistency, based on parameters such as age, experience, synagogue size and geographic location.

The survey was distributed to some 1,000 rabbis across North America, including those who serve as teachers, chaplains, campus rabbis, and are retired, in addition to those with a current pulpit. A total of 265 rabbis responded, representing a cross-section of Orthodox rabbis across the U.S. and Canada.

“The primary purpose was to enhance the ability of the Jewish Career Development and Placement office to advise both rabbis and lay leaders regarding contractual provisions and terms,” explained Rabbi Schwarzberg. “Secondarily, we now have statistics regarding staffing levels of rabbis and office employees for synagogues, which should be very useful to lay leaders.”

In fact, the survey found that the average synagogue in the study employs close to two rabbis, with large synagogues, defined as those with 500 or more member units, employing almost three. And the average synagogue employs the equivalent of about 1.6 full-time office employees.

But it is the elements of the survey relating to compensation that are the most interesting and informative:

• The median 2017 compensation for all rabbis in the survey is $90,000. For senior rabbis, the median is $100,000; associate rabbis $85,000; assistant rabbis $65,000; and campus rabbis $77,000.

• Pay varies significantly by the size of the synagogue. The median compensation for senior rabbis at large synagogues is $200,000, medium size synagogues (200-499 member units) $150,000, and small synagogues is $70,000.

• More than half (52 percent) of the surveyed rabbis do not receive health benefits, although a significant portion of them are covered under their wife’s plan.

• Nearly seven out of 10 rabbis do not receive any life or disability insurance from their synagogue, and only slightly more than 50 percent receive retirement benefits.

• Only about 20 percent live in a synagogue-owned home or apartment, or have a joint arrangement. The vast majority own or rent the residence in which they live.

• Vacation benefits are generous, however, with half of the rabbis receiving four-to-five weeks annually, and 20 percent entitled to six or more weeks.

• About 58 percent have additional employment, with the most common secondary position as a Judaic studies faculty member. Nevertheless, Rabbi Schwarzberg notes that this does not mean that they are part-time rabbis. “In the rabbinate,” he said, “there is no such thing as a part-time rabbi, just a part-time salary.”

• Rabbis also supplement their income with rabbinic-related activities, such as officiating at lifestyle events, although it is typically a minimal amount; two-thirds make less than $2,500 a year doing so.

• They also typically get reimbursed for certain job-related expenses, such as conferences and professional development, entertaining guests on Shabbat and holidays and cell phone usage.

“Contrary to some thought, becoming an Orthodox rabbi doesn’t mean one has to live as frugally as possible,” said Rabbi Schwarzberg. “Rabbinic compensation has improved over the past few years. This is largely due to supply and demand—there is a greater demand but a limited supply of well-trained rabbis. Going forward, though, communities will need to take a greater look at benefits packages, and in particular, the rising cost of medical insurance. And consistency in benefits across the rabbinic field would make a significant difference.”