Rabbinic Leadership in the 21st Century

Since assuming the presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly almost two weeks ago, and for some weeks before then, people have been asking me exactly what it is that the Rabbinical Assembly does, and by extension, what the president does.

It is a fair question that merits a serious answer. At its most fundamental level, the responsibility of the Rabbinical Assembly is to represent the interests of the Conservative rabbinate, to be its voice on the issues of the day, and to bring the Torah of its members out to the widest possible audience. That is a large portfolio. The Assembly has some 1600 members worldwide. Its interests are diverse, and its Torah encompasses a broad and eclectic range of approaches and scholarship. Being a voice for a large group of rabbis that speaks with many voices can be a delicate assignment.

And that, of course, alludes to the political dimension of the work of the Rabbinical Assembly, both within and outside the Conservative movement.

All of the major Jewish denominations in the United States have academic, professional, and synagogue arms. Yeshiva University shares the governance of modern Orthodoxy with the Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America. In the Reform movement, HUC-JIR works alongside the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the URJ- the Union for Reform Judaism.

In the Conservative movement, the Rabbinical Assembly works within a similar constellation of sister organizations, each with its own unique areas of endeavor within the larger context of the movement. We have a number of academic centers that train our clergy and educate our laity: the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, and two others, in Jerusalem and Buenos Aires.

The United Synagogue represents the interests of the movement’s kehilot, its spiritual communities. And, of course, the RA, as it is popularly referred to, represents the interests of the rabbis (and there is a Cantors Assembly that does the same for the movement’s cantors). As one might imagine, there are more than a few instances where those spheres of activity and influence overlap, with the resulting “discussions” about whose turf is being intruded on and what the larger interests of the movement are. Some of those differing perceptions are easily overcome. Others are stubbornly resistant to resolution.

So there is, as one might imagine, an irreducibly political dimension to the presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly. As a voice of the Conservative rabbinate (one has to be careful to capitalize the word “Conservative,” to insure that people don’t associate the Assembly with conservative politics… we have both liberals and conservatives as members, and every possible permutation between them), learning to navigate the divergent opinions of its members along with the occasional internal issues within the movement is nothing if not a political assignment. Our organization is blessed with wonderful and talented professionals who work much more than full-time to accomplish our work. It is my privilege to work alongside them to promote the work of our movement, and protect the interests of our colleagues.

What became clear to me at our recent convention, however, is that the real focus of our rabbinate is not to be found in discussions about institutional self-interest. It’s not that those things are unimportant. In their proper context and proportion, they matter a lot. But when all is said and done, our most important and enduring work consists of tending to the spiritual lives of those we teach and lead. That sounds like a self-evident truth, but it’s not– not at all. We rabbis need to remind ourselves of that truth each and every day.

In a variety of contexts and ways, I listened to colleague after colleague at our convention share stories of personal struggle, and how that struggle was impacting his/her work. One spoke– with powerful eloquence– about how her children’s autism posed a daily challenge to her faith, and how she had to work hard to transcend that feeling. Many spoke of the inevitable strains and stresses that the rabbinic pulpit often places on family life, and how isolating it can be. Still others addressed the myriad challenges of building Jewish community where there is no existing infrastructure to support it, and I couldn’t help but think of how very fortunate I am to live and work in an area where there is an absolute embarrassment of Jewish support services…

I looked at my colleagues, and I saw my congregants. Real people, with real concerns, trying their hardest to live meaningful lives under circumstances that are often less than optimal. I think it’s fair to say that we rabbis do our best and most important work right there, in the intersection of the hand life deals us on the one hand, and the life we’d like to be living on the other. To the degree that we can apply the richness of Jewish tradition and wisdom to make those moments more bearable, we are doing our jobs well. That work is much harder than protecting institutional self-interest. Providing meaning in the face of great challenge can change a person’s life for the better. What can be more important than that?

Providing meaning in the face of great challenge… a daily desideratum for the rabbi, regardless of denominational affiliation. I’m proud to count myself among them.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.