You know those people who make aliyah and tell you why Israel should be more like America?
The bureaucracy is smoother in America, the customer service is better, the food is cheaper, the toilet paper is uniformly 3-ply and paper towels more absorbent, and Israel should just learn from America.
I have no patience for such people. I’ve always felt that if you’re choosing to move to Israel, you can’t expect Israel to adapt to the way you see things. I’ve even sometimes compared such comments to the complaints the Jewish people made in the desert as they yearned for the fruits and fish of Egypt. You choose to live in Israel, so embrace the good and accept that Israel is not the place from whence you came.
With that said, the article that I’m going to pen right now is utterly hypocritical but unrelated to complaints such as the unavailability of strawberry mango salad here in Israel due to fruits being seasonal. I think it’s something important to note and share.
My husband and I, like an increasing number of rabbinic couples, made aliyah three years ago, after spending over a decade working in Jewish communities in the Diaspora. We entered the field with very different ideas than we had by the time we left – and we learned a tremendous amount in the process. While we may have initially chosen the fields of rabbi and Jewish educator because of our love of learning and teaching Torah, what we ultimately learned is that it is the pastoral aspect and connection that facilitates growth in individuals, as well as in communities.
The visits with a family as they were about to lose a loved one, the shiva calls to bereaved families experiencing a tragic loss, the hospital visits, the meetings with couples going through difficult times; the mikveh visits that I accompanied women on after a tragic miscarriage, during perimenopausal difficulties or during general difficulties of achieving shalom bayit (“peace in the home”) made people feel supported and showed them the beauty in Judaism in those difficult moments, by the sheer virtue of a rabbinic persona being there for them in their time of need.
What we learned upon our arrival in Israel is that things are different here. The role of the rabbi, or so it seems, is primarily to give speeches and classes. But to welcome a new person to a community, to offer pastoral care in times of need is not necessarily expected of a rabbi, nor from an involved rebbetzin. I do not blame the rabbis, as many are paid very low salaries, are juggling numerous jobs and these expectations are not presented by hiring committees. But after seeing the power of the rabbinic presence and care in a time of need, I cannot help but feel that this is sorely lacking here in Israel.
I realize that some communities have become aware of this and have adopted rabbinic models similar to what one might find outside Israel and that organizations to train rabbis in this model have begun to emerge, but with that said, finding a shul or community in Israel with such a pastoral figure is a rare exception.
Having seen the efficacy of having a strong rabbinic figure and rebbetzin in one’s life, I think individuals and communities are hurting from something they may not even realize they are missing.
I think this may even contribute to the many uninspired children, which is often due to not seeing the relevance and inspiration of Judaism in their lives (but that’s for a different article when I’m wearing my educator’s hat).
There are reasons for this disparity in the role of the rabbinic leader in Israel and outside Israel and among them are that shul rabbis are paid privately outside the Jewish state, whereas in Israel, the salary is often from an allocation from the municipality or Israeli government, which is much lower. This, plus many pastoral “needs” are theoretically already arranged in Israel so the need is assumed to be less.
While the perceived need may be less, all it takes is for one to witness a funeral being run by an impersonal cemetery rabbi at one of the most difficult times in one’s life, to realize the lack of a warm rabbinic figure who is close with the family and therefore shares one’s pain. The same is true for so many other life events.
How do we fix this issue?
Here are some suggestions for how to fix this: Firstly, it starts with being aware. A community needs to realize what they are missing in order to look for change. A community needs to realize that the American rabbinic model is not a privilege, but something that is necessary.
It is up to the community to make it clear to their rabbi what their needs and expectations are and then to have review meetings with the rabbi about such needs.
If a rabbi is not receiving adequate remuneration in the amount of money allocated by the municipality, a shul or community should make it a priority to either solicit donors or to take money from dues (or raise dues if necessary) to supply a rabbi with enough funds to be able to make time for attention to pastoral expectations.
A rabbi needs to be made aware – either via training or by a hiring committee – how important and effective pastoral care can be for an individual or community and for their religious growth. I believe the same is true for mikveh attendants. During their training, they should be made aware of how sensitivity to women during their interaction is integral.
I absolutely love living in Israel and this is truly my only criticism and one that I think is critically important. I am not one to complain without trying to make things better and I believe that if we all felt that religious embrace, it would lead to many more connected people.
The writer served as a rebbetzin and Judaic principal in the US before making aliyah with her family in 2020. She is the director of Ulpanat Orly in Beit Shemesh and writes about Jewish life, education, and Israeli politics.