The greening of the rabbinate

In Israel, locales with high concentrations of Anglo immigrants such as Beit Shemesh, Efrat and Ra’anana have led the way in establishing community synagogues that employ their own rabbis.

June 12, 2013 21:37
4 minute read.
Bayit Yehudi MK Eli Ben-Dahan

Bayit Yehudi MK Eli Ben-Dahan 370. (photo credit: Courtesy Bayit Yehudi)

The high-decibel campaign for the position of chief rabbi made it difficult to hear the still, small voice of real, remarkable change in the Israeli rabbinate recently at the grassroots level. On May 30, the Religious Services Ministry announced in a brief filed with the Supreme Court that it intends to eventually replace the antiquated system of neighborhood rabbis with a community model. The new system includes an explicit declaration that funds will be made available to all communities, irrespective of their denomination.

The first voices to applaud this historic decision by Acting Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan were spokespersons for the Reform and Conservative movements. And with good reason; this was the second encouraging development in recent weeks, following on the heels of the Sharansky plan to allocate space at the Western Wall for “egalitarian” prayers. Both decisions suggest that a new, pragmatic era of conciliation and co-existence between Israel and the Diaspora may be taking shape.

Moreover, a closer look at the new policy reveals that the Reform and Conservative movements are not the only winners. The essence of the community model, in which members of the community choose their rabbi, and participate in his (or her) salary, will be a boon for every sector of Israeli society interested in managing their own communal affairs without political interference.

This includes the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and modern-Orthodox movements as well.

The era in which the ruling political party viewed the rabbinate as a rich lode of patronage appointments is hopefully at its end.

Diaspora Jewry should take special pride in this turn of events. After all, the community synagogue, led by a professionally trained rabbi, is an institution born and bred in the Diaspora.

Here in Israel, locales with high concentrations of Anglo immigrants such as Beit Shemesh, Efrat and Ra’anana have led the way in establishing community synagogues that employ their own rabbis. The emerging “blue and white” version of a vibrant community synagogue has great potential to enrich the intellectual, spiritual and cultural life of Israeli society.

In his brief, the state attorney indicated that the committee charged with promulgating the necessary regulations for the new initiative will complete its work within six months.

Let’s hope so. In the meantime, public-spirited citizens and organizations should speak their minds. Our nonprofit organization, “Likrat Shlichut” undertook a pilot program during the years 2007-12 in collaboration with the Machon Ha’Gavoah Le’Torah at Bar- Ilan University, in which 17 communities were provided with challenge grants in order to employ community rabbis. Based on our success in seeding these communities with “start-up” funds, we respectfully offer the following suggestions to the decision-makers who are now toiling to reshape the Israeli rabbinate: 1. The community must shoulder the lion’s share of the rabbi’s salary. Government funding alone is an invitation to abuse. The community is the employer of record, not the local religious council, and it will be responsible for hiring the rabbi, defining his duties in a written contract, and when necessary, terminating the relationship. In our view, these responsibilities mandate that members of the community pay at least 60 percent of the rabbi’s salary from their own pockets.

2. Community rabbis require professional training, beyond their ordination. Certainly, rabbinic semicha, ordination, is the fundamental license to practice. But the rabbi who chooses to specialize in communal and pastoral work will need expanded training in order to succeed in his role. For example, every rabbi should be able to provide counseling and support to members of his or her community in times of crisis. Likewise, community rabbis should be versed in alternative dispute resolution.

3. Counseling and support for community leaders (Rome wasn’t built in a day). While Diaspora Jewry has accumulated many generations of experience in building and maintaining communities, here in Israel, the member-supported, independent synagogue is a relatively recent addition to the social scene. In our pilot program, we discovered again and again that lay leaders here require counseling, guidance and direction. The new state initiative should include provisions for funding and training “coaches” who can provide local leaders with needed organizational expertise.

All of these welcome innovations add up to a “greener” community rabbinate, more inclusive, more diverse and more influential in the shaping and strengthening of Jewish identity. Many of the parties who now stand to benefit from this new “win-win” approach have unfortunately found themselves in recent years in chronic conflict.

Hopefully, each denomination will now be able to devote itself to preparing the next generation of rabbinic leadership who will dedicate themselves to building their respective communities.

The writer is the executive director of Likrat Shlichut, an NGO that operates a training and placement program for community rabbis in conjunction with the Machon Ha’Gavoah Le’Torah at Bar-Ilan University.

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