Grapevine: Retraining rabbis

A round-up of news from around Israel.

(photo credit: REUTERS)
After making aliya around a decade ago, after having served as a pulpit rabbi in Milwaukee and Kansas, Rabbi David Fine was both surprised and dismayed to discover that in Israel, with the exception of synagogues populated mainly by congregants from English-speaking countries, there was no sense of community as he had known it in the US.
He thought that this was a terrible lacuna and looked for a like-minded rabbi who would join him in setting up a facility to train community rabbis.
In Modi’in, he came across Rabbi Shlomo Sobol, a 10th-generation Jerusalemite who was the head of the Sha’arei Yonah Menachem Congregation and who for four years had headed the Torah Mitzion Kollel in Detroit, where he had absorbed the concept of the synagogue as a community center.
For 16 months the two went around Israel looking at rabbinic training facilities, and although they found that rabbis who were trained to serve abroad were given the tools for community counseling in addition to spiritual leadership, this was not the case for rabbis trained to serve in Israel.
So they set up Barkai, a Hebrew acronym for Beit Midrash Rabbanei Kehilla Eretz Israel (School for Community Rabbis in the Land of Israel). They advertised on fliers distributed in synagogues and expected to get maybe a handful of applications. In fact, they received a hundred, but wanted to limit the classes to only 20.
So they asked each of the applicants a question. If they were to win the lottery, and could choose whatever they wanted to do with their lives, would they still opt to be practicing rabbis? As it happened, 20 said that they would, and they became the founding nucleus of Barkai. All had been ordained through the Israeli rabbinate, and all belonged in one way or another to the national-religious camp. Most of them also had a secular education.
That was six years ago, and Barkai has proved to be more successful than either Fine or Sobol ever imagined.
One of the rabbis in the first group was Rabbi Yehuda Sahala, who is the chief rabbi to some 600 Ethiopian Jewish families in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and also the official registrar for marriage of members of the Ethiopian community. He is the rabbi appointed to verify their Jewish identity.
Sahala joined Fine and Sobol at an evening held last week at the home of Rabbi Emanuel and Rena Quint in Jerusalem. The Quints, who are extremely hospitable and often give their home to different organizations for functions, had no idea how many people were coming. It turned out that more than 70 people crowded into their living room – all of them people who grew up with community rabbis and the synagogue as more than just a place of prayer.
Sahal, who had been a community activist in Ethiopia, said that he had learned so much from attending Barkai – not only from his teachers but also from his fellow students, who had also become his friends.
Fine explained that because rabbis in Israel generally earn low salaries and often have to hold down a second and a third job to provide for their families, Barkai charges no tuition fees.
Lessons in public speaking, practical Halacha, bioethics, chaplaincy, public relations, marketing, social work, psychology and a host of other subjects that are necessary for a community rabbi are taught. The rabbis are encouraged to cultivate professionals in these areas, so that when a congregant requires professional guidance, the rabbi will know whom to call.
The courses are once a week over a two-year period, because that is basically all the time that any of the students can spare.
The honorary president of Barkai is Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who was the chief rabbi of Israel, and whose son David, the current chief rabbi of Israel and former chief rabbi of Modi’in, also supports Barkai.
Fine said that the meeting at the Quints was by way of closing a circle, because Rena Quint, a child Holocaust survivor, was born in Piotrków in Poland, where Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s father, who perished in the Holocaust, was chief rabbi.
■ IN 1968 an aspiring medical student by the name of Zeev Rotstein applied to be admitted to Hadasssah- University Hospital, and was rejected. On completing his military service, he traveled to Italy and began his medical studies at the University of Bologna.
Back in Israel in 1973, he continued his studies at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. He specialized in cardiology but decided that it wouldn’t hurt to do a course in management of health systems, and graduated cum laude from TAU’s Faculty of Management; the Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration and the Kovens Health System Management Center.
Over the years he dovetailed his medical career with his managerial career, working in the US and England, in addition to holding various posts in Israel, mainly at Sheba Medical Center, where he started out as an intern in 1977, then became a resident in the department of internal medicine, then an instructor at the Sackler School of Medicine. In the years that followed, he moved deftly between the medical and managerial positions, until he became director-general of Sheba, a position that he held for more than 13 years.
In the final analysis, the institution that had not accepted Rotstein as a student got Prof. Rotstein as a director-general. Interviewed last week on Israel Radio, Rotstein, who was highly respected at Sheba, was asked why on earth he had come to Hadassah with its huge budgetary problems and its militant staff. Rotstein said that he is often asked that question, and the answer is that he loves a challenge.
■ FATHERS OFTEN think that no man is good enough to marry their daughter(s). But Prof. Mel Alexenberg, former professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and head of Emunah College School of the Arts, can’t speak highly enough of his new son-in-law, Yehiel Lasry, who happens to be the mayor of Ashdod.
Lasry married New York-born Iyrit Alexenberg in a Friday wedding at the Dan Hotel Tel Aviv, just over a week ago. The bride came to Israel with her parents and brothers in 1969. The groom came from Morocco in 1963.
“My wife, Miriam, and I feel so blessed to have Yehiel as our daughter Iyrit’s husband,” says the father of the bride. “Our sensitive, caring, spiritual son-in-law is an amazing person. He is a physician who currently serves as mayor of Ashdod and was member of Knesset. He completed medical studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. During military service he filled a variety of medical positions in the Israel Navy, until becoming the surgeon-general of the navy with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He served as deputy director of the department of internal medicine at Kaplan Hospital.
“In addition to his professional achievements, he was a founder and director of the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra, honored by the Israel Prize.”
It would really be difficult to find fault with someone with all those attributes. Prior to the wedding, the bride was coaching couples and students at Bar-Ilan University, but she now intends to open a practice in Ashdod.
■ THE HERZL Museum on Mount Herzl now has a recently established board of governors, whose chairman happens to be a London Jewish businessman and philanthropist, Dr. Nissim Levy, who was named to the position by Avraham Duvdevani, chairman of the World Zionist Organization.
Levy and his wife, Rina, will be hosting the Annual Gala Dinner of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, due to take place in London on Sunday, March 19, with Israel’s former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon as the keynote speaker.
■ JEWISH HOLIDAYS are sometimes tinged with nostalgia because the way we celebrated as children somehow seems to have a tighter emotional grip on us than holiday celebrations as adults. For those who may be yearning for an old-fashioned, traditional Purim spiel, one of the best places to find it will be at Yung Yidish on the fifth floor of the artists compound (studio 5008) at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station on Thursday, March 9.
Patrons will warm up with a lechaim, which is part and parcel of the Yung Yidish feel-at-home ambience.
There will be a partial Megila reading in different styles, and lots of Klezmer, Balkan, Gypsy, Russian and East European dance music. Master of ceremonies and star performer will be Yung Yidish founder Mendy Cahan.
For a great night out, it’s very inexpensive at NIS 36, and it’s also a very convenient location.