In the early 1980s, Rabbi Dena Feingold was ending her time at the Jewish community of Galesburg, Ill., when she had an unexpected exchange with a little girl.
Feingold – then a rabbinical student at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion – had been visiting Galesburg for two years to be their rabbinic authority and learn the ropes of pulpit leadership. But now, she was moving on, with the congregation slated to have a new student come from Cincinnati.
The biggest surprise to this Jewish girl about the switch? The new student “was a guy,” Feingold said. “And the little girl said, ‘boy rabbis?’ Because I was the only rabbi she ever…remembered.”
Other women rabbis who were students at the time have similar stories. In a way, the exchanges are remarkable, given that the first female rabbi in North America, Sally Priesand, was ordained only a decade earlier in 1972 at HUC Cincinnati. Even by the 1980s, very few synagogues had experienced a woman rabbi.
But many congregations in the Midwest and South of the U.S. were ahead of the times. Too small or isolated to hire a full or part-time rabbi, they contracted with HUC Cincinnati to serve as student pulpits, receiving rabbinic leadership in exchange for training the Reform Movement’s new rabbis.
The congregations didn’t get to choose who served them – so when female rabbinical students showed up from Cincinnati, they rolled with it, becoming the first synagogues in the country with female rabbinic leadership.
“They were the ones who first gave us opportunities,” said Feingold, now the senior rabbi at Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha, Wis. “People in the bigger centers of Jewish life, they’d never seen female rabbis. But in the smaller communities, they’d had women rabbis for quite some time because HUC, to their credit, said that we’re going to send the women out there.”
This is just one part of the legacy of student pulpits served by HUC Cincinnati – a legacy ending in 2026, when the rabbinical school here will close. Facing a future with no students, on top of decades of other struggles, student pulpit communities are full of pride at having contributed so much to the Reform Movement, while also reckoning with their ongoing decline and the feeling of being left behind by HUC-JIR.
Some of these congregations have been training grounds for dozens of rabbis, like the Oheb Shalom Congregation in Sandusky, Ohio, that hosted nearly 60 students over the years. For rabbis, these communities shaped the kinds of leaders they are today, and how they understand everything from community building to dealing with antisemitism.
In turn, Cincinnati students left their mark on Jewish life across the Midwest and South (and as far north as Alaska and Ontario), helping to invigorate Judaism in regions that often feel overlooked as flyover country by Jews on the coasts.
“Student rabbis have brought new ideas and new styles of worship to small congregations – things as small as introducing a new melody to Shabbat services or as serious as addressing issues of Black civil rights from the pulpit,” said Josh Parshall, director of history at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, in an email.
He noted that the Southern Jewish community in Hattiesburg, Miss., was one of the very first in North America with a female rabbinic figure: Its student pulpit was helmed in 1969-70 by Rabbi Sally Priesand.
While HUC-JIR rabbinical students in Los Angeles and New York also have student pulpits, the opportunities there are mostly with internships at big city synagogues that already have a rabbi. Most of the pulpits served by Cincinnati are unique – once there, students are the only rabbinic authority for miles and miles.
“My colleagues in New York, a lot of them, it was like a pathway to a job,” Feingold said. “They’d be the intern, and then they would get offered the job. And we didn’t have that pathway in Cincinnati.”
But it’s a different experience, she said, “of just being the rabbi…there’s just no other thing that quite compares to it.”
Lifelong lessons from small towns
In 2001, Rabbi David Locketz, senior rabbi at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka, Minn., got a lucky break as a student at HUC Cincinnati with a “Saturday Night Special.”
Student pulpits are served on weekends, with students usually going to communities twice a month. Many of the synagogues have programming from Friday through Sunday, with a tough journey back to Cincinnati on Sunday or Monday morning (depending on the drive or flight time) with little time to prepare for that week’s classes.
But HUC Cincinnati’s lottery system matched Locketz with a congregation within driving distance in Mattoon, Ill., that was done with programming by Saturday afternoon. Saturday evening, Locketz and his wife would drive back to Cincinnati, with Sunday still open for study or leisure – hence, “Saturday Night Special.”
The congregation was tiny, made up of about 13 families meeting in a residential house that served as a synagogue. But they were devoted to Jewish life.
“There was 100% participation,” Locketz said. “They literally [needed] everybody to show up…for there to be a sense of community.”
For Locketz, that was a lesson in community co-creation often lost in top-down urban Jewish life.
“Our synagogues are much more service oriented,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have a staff that, if something needs to get done, and we don’t have the volunteers to do it, we’re going to get it done.”
But in a small community, everything depends on lay leaders. If members “don’t band together and make [something] happen, well, then it’s not going to happen,” Locketz said. “I think about that a lot: The idea of, at its core, a community is really responsible for itself.”
Another lesson came from the resilience of Mattoon’s Jews in the face of antisemitism. Locketz saw firsthand that, in a time when the American Jewish community largely felt more secure, antisemitism was still prevalent.
On Locketz’s second visit to Mattoon, for Rosh Hashanah, a white supremacist church put up wanted posters around town with his face on them. The congregants told Locketz not to be concerned, and that services would go on as planned.
One community member kept repeating, “rabbi, I don’t want you to worry about a thing.” The man showed Locketz the butt of a revolver in his jacket pocket, then pulled up a chair to face the front door of the synagogue with crossed arms – despite police camped outside to guard services.
“You got to really see inside a community that probably felt like they were hanging on by a thread,” Locketz said.
In the window of the synagogue was a large neon Star of David light, an embodiment of the debate over how to face antisemitism. Every time the community gathered, one member pointedly plugged in and turned on the neon light. Another would pointedly unplug it. The would-be comedy routine was an existential conversation that, years later, Jews across the country are regularly having.
With antisemitism, white supremacy, and violent attacks on the rise, “Do you just sort of quietly gather? Or do you proudly and loudly gather?” Locketz said. “And there was no one answer in that community.”
Being in the rural Midwest and South also meant somewhat of a culture clash for rabbinical students. For some, the learning curve was experiencing small towns for the first time, and relating to Jews with very different life experiences.
But at a more basic level, student pulpits were a humbling way to figure out how to be a rabbi, away from the classrooms, professors, and any other rabbis.
“We were experts on, you know, medieval Jewish theology and philosophy and so on,” Locketz said. “And I had classmates who were losing their minds over the fact that their congregation said baruk, instead of baruch.” (Baruch is a transliteration of the Hebrew word “blessed,” which is the first word in many Jewish blessings. Some Jews pronounce the word with a hard K sound.)
HUC Cincinnati professors were split on how to help students. Some offered 10-step guides to correcting Hebrew pronunciation.
But Locketz recalled other professors saying, “your job isn’t to go [to these communities] to make them be more authentic Jews. Your job is to go there to be the spiritual leader of a congregation that was there long before you ever showed up, and will be there, God willing, long after you’re done being their student rabbi.”
The choice helped forge students’ rabbinic identities.
For some, “being a rabbi means moving your flock on a trajectory,” Locketz said. “And for others, it’s meeting [Jews] where they are.”
Lifeblood for congregations
For the United Hebrew Congregation in Joplin, Mo., contracting with Cincinnati to serve as a student pulpit has been the best case scenario since the 1960s, when the synagogue’s last full-time rabbi retired.
“For a congregation our size, there simply wouldn’t have been enough to do for a full time rabbi,” said Paul Teverow, a lay leader of the congregation. The synagogue has about 30 families now, down from 60-70 in the 1980s, and Teverow says the closest full-time rabbi is 100 miles away in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Many of HUC Cincinnati’s student pulpit communities face the same struggles: Bolstered with Jewish populations in the mid-20th century due to various industries booming (in Joplin, it was lead and zinc mining), their membership has since stagnated and aged, leaving small cohorts of older Jews relatively isolated.
But training rabbis has kept rural synagogues fresh, with new practices to incorporate from the students while patiently coaching them in congregational leadership.
“There are certain things about the practicalities of being a rabbi that they can only learn through the hands-on experience we provided,” Teverow said. “How to work with a board…not only leading services, but education, pastoral counseling, being in some respects the voice of the Jewish community.”
In return, the student rabbis were wind in the sails of these congregations.
“The importance was the constant energy that a relatively young person who’s at the early stages of their career can bring to a congregation,” said Susan Pocotte, a lay leader at the Oheb Shalom Congregation in Sandusky, Ohio.
In some sense, rural Jewish communities came together around student rabbis, with some families marking the visiting dates on their calendar so they could make sure to come to synagogue.
“When you know a rabbi is coming that Shabbat, you try to make yourself available…it held the community together in that way,” said Rabbi Rosie Haim, an HUC Cincinnati graduate who now works in Cleveland, Ohio. Haim grew up at the student pulpit synagogue in Galesburg, Ill., was inspired to be a rabbi by Rabbi Dena Feingold’s visits as a student, and was the first female rabbi to serve Oheb Shalom as a student.
Student pulpit communities were also on the leading edge of the Reform Movement’s evolution. Pocotte recalled the “sparse traditions” of the early 20th century Reform Movement, where women didn’t wear head coverings and services lacked Hebrew.
As HUC students and professors experimented with new ways of doing things, that filtered down to the congregations.
“The kippahs came on,” Pocotte said. “Things got a little bit more ritualistic. So it was fun to see that evolution and be part of that.”
But over the past few years, as enrollment has dropped at HUC-JIR, student pulpit congregations have seen fewer students, sometimes only once a month instead of twice, or going a year or two without a student entirely. HUC Cincinnati has filled those gaps for the most important times, like High Holidays, by recruiting former students and other Cincinnati-area rabbis.
At the same time, these small congregations have felt more acute issues. Old buildings are hard to manage as numbers dwindle, and the same handful of lay leaders play musical chairs with board positions, burning out leadership.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to gather, and continues to affect older members who are worried for their health, or simply getting too inconvenienced by driving a distance to get to synagogue.
Seeing the writing on the wall, both Pocotte and Teverow’s communities have been working with the Jewish Community Legacy Project, an organization that coaches small synagogues through strategic planning – in many cases, preparing for decline, and for Pocotte’s synagogue, selling their building.
The decision to close HUC Cincinnati’s rabbinical program was a final tipping point for some of these congregations to downsize. Without students, even more pressure will be put on lay leaders, including for leading services year-round.
“The same people that are the board presidents, vice presidents, taking care of the building, a couple of us that have the confidence to do a lay-led service,” Pocotte said. “But I’m like, wait a minute, this is getting overboard.”
With that reality, Oheb Shalom moved forward with the plan to sell their building and use the proceeds to create an endowment for the Jewish cemetery in Sandusky. The synagogue will give the endowment money and cemetery deed to the Commission on Cemetery Preservation, a supporting foundation of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, to manage the land.
Other small town synagogues have also sold their buildings, though it doesn’t mean they are disbanding. Oheb Shalom will continue to meet virtually and in-person, with remaining funds from the building sale going to affiliate memberships at a relatively nearby synagogue in Elyria, Ohio.
Oheb Shalom made the right decision given the circumstances, Pocotte said. But she is proud of the synagogue’s part in training Reform rabbis, and sad that its legacy has ended this way.
“Student rabbis could give sermons that would bring people to tears, they were that good,” Pocotte said. “We were very grateful for that experience…and then [the student rabbis], in turn, were grateful for our feedback and helping them grow.”
An uncertain future
In 2026, there will be no more student rabbis at HUC Cincinnati to come to pulpit communities. The challenge now – both for the congregations and for the Reform Movement – is to figure out how to keep serving these rural Jews.
“It’s our responsibility right now to keep Jewish life in Joplin as vital as possible,” Teverow said.
To make up for the lack of students, the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) put together the Small Congregations Clergy Collaborative to match willing clergy across the country with any synagogues that have 75 families or less.
Using a private website, congregations can see the resumes and personal statements of rabbis and cantors, and reach out to work on a visitation schedule. Thirty-eight clergy have signed up so far, with eight matches made with congregations, said Rabbi Leora Kaye, the CCAR director of rabbinic career services.
The clergy may be retired, or simply looking to serve a different kind of congregation while on sabbatical. But there are upsides to later-career clergy coming to rural synagogues, Kaye said, with much to gain from mature professionals and their life experience.
“It is potentially a longer relationship than what might have been with a Cincinnati student, because this could go on for five or seven years as opposed to the two or three years when the students were there,” she said.
So far, compensation has not been an issue in the matching program. Clergy are aware that rural synagogues don’t have the means to pay them a city-level salary, while synagogues are using funding they had already budgeted for bringing out a student. But this initiative is experimental, Kaye said, and the CCAR might pursue funding from Jewish foundations or granting programs if cost does become a problem.
“We’re going to see how it goes, we’re going to hear what’s needed…we’re going to try and put the right pieces in place,” Kaye said. “And, as long as it’s working, we’re going to keep moving forward.”
Still, this isn’t a solution for all synagogues. In Joplin, Teverow’s United Hebrew Congregation is concerned about poor transportation in the area. As a result, they’ve chosen, at least for the next year, to bring in a retired rabbi from the Kansas City area instead of finding clergy across the country.
Kaye also said that the CCAR, Union for Reform Judaism, and HUC-JIR are “in lots of deep conversation” to bring more students from the Los Angeles or New York campuses to serve these student pulpits. It’s another tough sell for some.
“You can well imagine the expense it would take, if there were even student rabbis available, to fly them in from either the L.A. or New York school,” Pocotte said. The Oheb Shalom Congregation doesn’t have that kind of money, though others might.
“We had the luxury to be a congregation served by HUC that the student could drive up,” Pocotte said. Other small congregations paid for airfare from Cincinnati, like in South Dakota, “but we didn’t have the resources for that.”
For congregations and rabbis alike, HUC Cincinnati rabbinical students no longer serving Midwest and Southern pulpit communities will be a loss to the entire Reform movement.
“It’s very hard to imagine that it’s going to be the same as it was,” said Rabbi Dena Feingold in Wisconsin. “I hope the URJ is right that they can figure out a way to serve these congregations, but I am skeptical at best.”
For Rabbi David Locketz, in Minnetonka, Minnesota, not having the unique experience available in small towns will cut off an important aspect of HUC-JIR’s rabbinic education.
“It’s a laboratory that’s being lost, and it’s clearly been undervalued or not understood for the value that it brings,” he said. “The opportunity for all the students to go out and be the rabbi, and learn and…have those tools added to their toolbox because of it. That’s a major loss.”
Several people interviewed for this story noted that without the rabbinical program in Cincinnati, Reform institutions will become even more entrenched on the coasts, and lose the perspective of small town Jewry and the middle of the country. Meanwhile, the perhaps inevitable end for many of these student pulpit congregations will come even sooner.
“There are probably a number of congregations that were sort of on the brink, that…shutting down the [rabbinical] program in Cincinnati will probably push them over the brink,” Teverow said. “Or will probably mean that something that was coming a decade or so away – it’s going to come a lot sooner.”
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