Israel Needs Synagogue (“Community”) Rabbis

Seven years ago, Bill and Amy Lipsey, of Livingston, NJ, along their 12-year-old son, Josh, were privileged to spend a year in Raanana. As heavily engaged Conservative/Masorti Jews, they had easy initial entrée into the Masorti kehillah in nearby Kfar Saba. They also benefitted from gracious outreach on behalf Raanana’s Dati Leumi kehillot in walking distance of their home. The Lipseys had the unique opportunity to compare communities. In both Kfar Saba and in Raanana, they experienced a warm embrace. They also took note of tangible differences. Most of the disparities can be attributed to the absence or presence of a suitable “community rabbi.”

Akin to the majority of Israeli kehillot, the Kfar Saba Masorti community at that time did not have its own rabbi. In contrast, the Lipseys encountered several examples of Raanana’s community-based rabbinic leadership. The presence of an open and engaging rabbi was profound. It meant that the kehillah, albeit composed of existing social networks as in Kfar Saba, also remained wide open to newcomers. Seekers like the Lipseys were embraced, invited to Shabbat meals, and connected to like-minded folks. It meant that THE Rabbi was available to personalize life-cycle ceremonies, to offer pastoral counseling, to visit the sick, to provide general guidance about Jewish living. It meant that THE Rabbi would provide a vision to guide the growth of the kehillah. It meant that “your” Rabbi, with whom you had a rapport, was available to teach classes, to present Divre Torah, and to represent the kehillah within the community-at-large.

Why does Israel have a shortage of open and engaged community rabbis? Why do many of Israel’s most talented and Jewishly capable young people not aspire to become this type of community rabbi? In fact, the Lipseys encountered young folks with suitable skills and temperament who expressed great reluctance to consider the community rabbinate as a career. Why? Often being a community rabbi is not viable. Desirable positions are in short supply outside of very affluent areas. When they exist, compensation is inadequate. Those who do serve as community rabbis must seek additional employment outside the kehillah.

Why is this the case? Israelis pay very high rates of taxation. Tax payments are intended to include “religious services.” With rare exceptions, funding is not provided by the tax base for community rabbi positions. Instead, tax funds are invested primarily in the hierarchical structure of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. This is an inheritance of the Turkish Empire’s “millet system.” The Millet System served to control religious minorities under the office of a Chief cleric for each faith. In 1948, for the sake of convenience, Israel transferred this problematic practice into the new State. Chief Ashkenazic and Sephardic rabbis were designated. They were given the authority to appoint rabbis serving entire cities and towns, but not individual synagogues. Consequently, state rabbinic functionaries control weddings, funerals, and the like. Only more affluent “communities” garner adequate private funds to hire a rabbi, often on a part-time basis.

Why do existing synagogue rabbis often fail to serve in an open and engaging manner of the Raanana rabbinic exemplars encountered by the Lipseys? Standard Israeli rabbinic training focuses almost exclusively upon gaining competence in the study and application of sacred texts, not in leading community life. “Practical Rabbinics” skills for life cycles, for teaching and preaching, for outreach and community building, are expected to be acquired elsewhere, if at all.

An effort to address the gap in training is addressed in “Practical Rabbinics” courses during professionalized rabbinic training, e.g., at the Schechter Institute for Rabbinic Studies, the Hebrew Union College, the Hartman Institute and elsewhere. Sharing this “body of knowledge and expertise” is essential. Honey Foundation President Sarah Lipsey Brokman notes that via open and engaging rabbis of all streams, “we want to inspire Israelis to have the opportunity to live meaningful Jewish community life: more diversity, more options, more opportunities for Israelis to take part in this game that excluded them for so many years.”

To this end, a multi-steam and multi-facet solution toward this challenge is being developed by The Honey Foundation. It seeks to address both the supply of appropriate community rabbis as well as the need for in-service training in rabbinic community-building skills. As noted by Honey Foundation Co-Founder and Chair Bill Lipsey, the goal is “to build a countrywide network of diverse community spiritual leadership, to learn about new knowledge and to jointly discuss the needs, challenges, opportunities and main trends in the field of community spiritual leadership. To achieve this goal, the Honey Foundation seeks to “create a space for the meeting and networking of diverse Israeli Jewish leadership and to increase the motivation to engage in community spiritual leadership professionally and as a life mission.”

The Honey Foundation effort is growing in coalition building for this purpose. As pointed out by Limor Rubin, Israel Director of the Honey Foundation, “we already are a sponsor of Community Rabbis/Spiritual Leaders in several networks of communities: Masorti, Reform, Bina (Secular Judaism), KIAH (Sephardi Modern Orthodox), Hartman (Rabbanim Eretz Yisraeli), Dvash Misela (a program of the first cohort of Hartman rabbis).” Limor adds that the Honey Foundation’s plan is “to nurture rabbis in many ways (custom-made professional development): augmented compensation, personal mentoring and support, professionals networks, training and seminars, creating new knowledge, public awareness and more.”

On May 29, the Honey Foundation will convene its initial annual conference. Honey Foundation President Sarah Lipsey Brokman reports that the conference will engage “180 community rabbis and spiritual leaders and lay leaders from all the diverse streams, movements and colors of Judaism who lead (or aspire to lead) Jewish communities that are inclusive, open, inspiring, relevant and diverse, and to serve as agents of change in the field of Israeli Judaism.”

It is long overdue for Israel to join the other democracies in which Jews live with free choice in attracting, training and employing large numbers of community rabbis. As the Lipseys learned first-hand during their year in Raanana, open and engaging community rabbis are essential for guiding Jews of all walks of life into making Jewish choices within a “free marketplace” of Jewish expression. For further information, please contact Sarah@honeyfoundationforisrael.org.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.
Comments