Chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau 521.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week, the Religious Services Ministry responded to a High Court of Justice
petition challenging the longtime practice of hiring Orthodox rabbis to serve as
neighborhood authorities. In the future, promised the ministry, neighborhood
rabbis will no longer be appointed by religious councils. Instead, communities
will be able to choose their own religious leaders and enjoy government
financial support. This would widen the swath of what can be deemed acceptable
religious leadership and at the same time get rid of problematic political
appointments masquerading as a position of spiritual guidance.
the state comptroller has bitterly criticized the institution of neighborhood
rabbis. Some of the socalled neighborhoods turned out to be no more than
streets, and other rabbis lived far from their neighborhoods.
But just as
it’s about to be abolished, I’ve been thinking of the possible positive benefits
of a neighborhood rabbinate.
It’s too bad the system was abused. Imagine
a neighborhood rabbi who followed the ubiquitous death notices to every
neighborhood house of mourning, who prayed every week at a different
neighborhood synagogue, who phoned the parents of first graders to wish their
children good luck in school, and who guided bar and bat mitzva students in
bringing meaning to their coming-of-age ceremonies. This rabbi could bring
together all the synagogues in the neighborhood on Simhat Torah as a statement
of unity. My imagined neighborhood rabbi would visit the sick and cheer the
sick-of-heart, no matter what their backgrounds are.
There are currently
157 stateemployed neighborhood rabbis.
Among them, doubtless, are some
who fit the description above. More than a fifth of all the rabbis – 33 in total
– serve in Jerusalem, where I live.
No new rabbis have been hired in the
last decade, so any Jerusalem neighborhood rabbi must have been serving for more
than 10 years and had a long time to make an impact on his
Here’s the paradox: Why is it that I haven’t ever met my
neighborhood rabbi? I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for nearly three
decades. My husband and I have brought up our children here, celebrated
life-cycle events, mourned our parents here. No rabbi ever approached us. Have I
passed him on the way to the corner store? I feel like the bird in the
children’s book Are You My Mother?. Are you my rabbi? Do I have a neighborhood
rabbi? The petition to the High Court charging discrimination in the appointment
of neighborhood rabbis was filed by the Reform and Masorti movements, whose
rabbis have been until now ineligible for these jobs whether or not a
neighborhood would feel more in line with their Jewish viewpoint. Rabbi Gilad
Kariv, the Reform Movement’s expert on this bill, praised the ministry’s greater
evenhandedness and its plans to restructure its support of clergy.
told him that I didn’t know who my neighborhood rabbi was, Rabbi Kariv said that
“That’s part of the problem. A secular person could lead
his whole life in a neighborhood and not meet the rabbi,” he said.
I’m not a secular person. I’m a synagogue-going, Shabbat-observing,
kosher-eating, Orthodox Jew. I like to consult rabbis. There have been those
straightforward questions: Can the kids eat the pancakes if they forgot to sift
the flour? Can you host a festive Purim meal in the year you’re in mourning? And
then there are questions which require long discussions: questions about
relationships, childrearing and caring for elderly parents.
and wise religious leaders with rich life experience are a treasured resource in
my Jewish life.
You’d have thought our paths would have
My husband, who goes to a daily prayer service in the
neighborhood, doesn’t know who the neighborhood rabbi is. Neither does his
black-kippawearing Talmud teacher, a Sabra whose tenure in the neighborhood is
far longer than ours.
Perhaps ours was a neighborhood without a rabbi. I
phoned the Religious Services Ministry, and without identifying myself as a
journalist, asked if my neighborhood had a rabbi. No one could give me an answer
on the spot, but sure enough, a young woman phoned me back and provided the name
and local phone number of a rabbi I could consult. I phoned the rabbi several
times, ready to introduce myself as a member of the neighborhood and to ask what
services he provided for the neighborhood that I’d missed all these years. I
left a message on his voicemail. So far, I haven’t heard back, but it’s only
been a few days. He might be away or be busy, or he might be among the hundred
or so of the 157 neighborhood rabbis who have other paid positions in addition
to their neighborhood duties.
SO FOR those of us Orthodox Jews who feel a
little nervous about giving up the monopoly on religious services, we have
ourselves to blame. For decades, Orthodox rabbis had the opportunity to bring
enlightened, warm-hearted religion to their neighbors without the burden that
Chabad rabbis, who often fill the void, have of raising funds for their
activities. We have allowed the system of sinecures to continue.
proposed alternative model to the neighborhood rabbis model is for congregations
and communities to choose their own spiritual leaders, who will then receive
government support. It’s hard to imagine how this will work. What will
constitute a congregation? Most Israelis don’t belong to synagogues – Orthodox,
Masorti or Reform. That doesn’t mean they’re not interested in religion. At the
postdenominational reading of Lamentations on Tisha Be’av night outside Beit
Yehudit, the community center in the German Colony, hundreds of Israelis, many
of them young, engaged in the ancient words and the modern discussions about
tolerance that follow the reading. In so-called secular Tel Aviv, young friends
tell me that the synagogues have become major gathering places on Friday night.
Had a neighborhood rabbinate worked right, it could have been a catalyst for
Instead, we had a vacuum.
Make yourself a rabbi,
says the mishnaic injunction.
Several Orthodox institutions are training
women in rabbinic studies.
Masorti and Reform rabbis often have extensive
training in pastoral counseling.
As communities seek leadership, there is
a large pool of candidates competing.
May the best rabbi win. ■ The
author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern
Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the
Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.