The Rabbi and the Community – contemporary challenges - Opinion

What are the challenges that a rabbi facestoday?

 Rabbi Jaron Engelmayer (photo credit: The Jewish Community of Vienna)
Rabbi Jaron Engelmayer
(photo credit: The Jewish Community of Vienna)

“What does a rabbi do during the week besides working for ten minutes on Shabbat, delivering a speech?”

A young boy once asked his community rabbi. Rabbinic Judaism has been around for millennia, with rabbis playing a vital role in the transmission of Judaism through the ages for at least 2,500 years. They have a central task not only in the interpretation and analysis of the Halakha (Jewish law) and the living tradition, but also when it comes to the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people. Regarding both areas, the external circumstances change from generation to generation, and frequently from environment to environment.

What challenges does a rabbi face today? How have his tasks and his work changed?

For almost twenty years, I have officiated as a community rabbi in four very different communities, mainly in Central Europe. Before assuming my rabbinic positions, each community asked about my specific plans for their community. I did not answer the question directly in a concrete fashion, because I realized that each community has its own requirements. A smaller congregation does not have the same requirements and needs as a larger one, and the differences between congregations with predominantly religiously practicing members and those in which the vast majority of members live a secular-traditional life are even greater.

Still, there are areas that are within the rabbi’s remit in most communities.

The classic tasks of a rabbi still include the following:

  • Providing Halakhic oversight and oversight of prayer processes in the synagogue(s), kashrut in the congregation, oversight of the mikveh and the traditions and customs related to the Jewish holidays, and the cemetery.
  • Offering classes, lectures, and other forms of instruction and education and teaching, as well as supporting with theoretical and practical advice to enable religious practice. In the world of 2023, these classes are also provided via modern technological tools such as Zoom (especially during Corona) , YouTube, and Facebook, all of which increase the audience for these teachings.
  • Preparation and organization of a suitable framework of conditions for the conversion process, and last but not least,  the spiritual care of the community members around the life cycle and in difficult life situations.

Due to historical developments over the past decades and centuries, Western society has tended more and more to secularism, and accordingly, the predominant values have changed. This development has led to numerous other tasks and challenges for many rabbis across the Jewish communities in Europe. Assimilation remains one of the most significant challenges of our time. The possibility that a community might have to close its doors in the medium term because there may be little or no Jewish life left is a real scenario for many of these communities. In order to counteract this, one of the most important tasks of the rabbi, together with other officials and active members of the community, is to consolidate and strengthen the Jewish identity of the members, especially the younger generation, and to make community life as attractive as possible.

This requires some additional qualities and skills: openness, a proactive approach to people, understanding of the needs of members and the young generation, innovativeness (also known as “chashiva michutz lakufsa” - “thinking outside the box”), motivation to get involved with new ways of acting, cooperativeness, logistical thinking and being a source of inspiration.

It’s about outreach - reaching people where they are instead of expecting them to find their way to the community and the synagogue on their own. Meeting people in their life situation, as in universities, social events, or even in a disco, addressing them, engaging them in conversation, taking an interest in their lives, and offering to be addressed for any matter.

More than once, I have found myself lighting Chanukka candles at a student party in the center of the city, addressing some relevant and actual thoughts to the students, who stopped their dancing and followed the ceremony with a lot of interest, enthusiastically singing along with the first verse of Maoz Tzur. Afterward, many came to get in touch, ask questions and arrange a meeting to discuss their issue. Alexey, (names have been changed), for example, was the child of a Syrian Arab father and a Ukrainian Jewish mother and attended the shiur every Sunday, with a great deal of interest. Grisha’s girlfriend was not Jewish, so they decided that she would convert. But Grisha took it even further and was very serious, so we studied each morning “Amud Yomi”– one page of Talmud – as study partners.

The aim is to create offers that are attractive to the addressed group. Creating projects that combine different interests, e.g. attractions and trips combined with Jewish experiences, an educational support program for children in a Sunday school combined with Jewish content, Shabbat weekends for students in different cities combined with socializing and prospects of dating. And if, here and there, a wedding results, then everyone benefits.

Ilya and Katya were two students from a different city. Sometimes I met them at events. They became a couple and eventually married. They revealed that they first met at a student weekend, which was organized by rabbinic colleagues and me. Today they are a traditional Jewish family.

Normally a rabbi does not even know what impact he has made,  in direct and indirect ways. Sometimes he may learn later – much later –  or sometimes, not at all. Sometimes he may wield influence where he did not even think of it, or sometimes vice versa. It very seldom happens that he causes an immediate change.

This happened to me, surprisingly, when I – as a Zionist rabbi – gave a regular class about the meaning of Israel and the question about the Halakhic obligation to live there. A few days after that class,  Dinah, one of the attending students, called to inform me that because of what she had learned in the Shiur, she had decided to make Aliya and applied to the Jewish Agency. Today she lives happily in Jerusalem, is observant, and has a lovely family.

A great advantage is that we Jews are not only a religious community, but also have a nationality and relate to the State of  Israel. Many Jews define or experience their Jewish identity through personally or historically experienced antisemitism (e.g., the Shoah), or through their relation to Israel, by having visited, having relatives living there, or identifying with Israel on a broader level. All of these are connecting elements that are of great importance for accessibility and the feeling of belonging together.

We have not referred to the interreligious dialogue, the fight against antisemitism, lectures, and education about Judaism in a non-Jewish environment, intercultural activities, representative tasks, nor (which is of immense importance in Germany and Austria) dealing with the past and historical consciousness. But all of these areas concern the general environment, and this article is intended to be about a rabbi’s internal challenges within the community.

As far as this is concerned, it can finally be said, which is always true and of great importance: Empathy, an open ear, the willingness to help, and always being relevant are necessary. With God’s will, may it succeed.   

Rabbi Jaron Engelmayer is Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Vienna and a member of the Standing Committee of the CER (Conference of the European Rabbis)