The Complex Dance Of Choosing A New Rabbi

My friend Raphael Silver recently completed a novel, “Congregation,” that will be published as an e-book later this year. It centers on a strong, charismatic rabbi of a large Reform congregation in Cleveland, who is diagnosed with ALS and must decide when to retire. Various sub-plots intertwine, one of them about the manipulations of the congregation’s president to have the assistant rabbi replace the senior one when he leaves. Ray Silver knows his subject well: he is the son of Abba Hillel Silver, the great Reform rabbi who led the American Zionist movement during Israel’s founding years and also served as the beloved rabbi of a large Cleveland temple. But like all good fiction, while the book draws on its author’s experiences, it is not autobiography. 

I have been especially interested in “Congregation,” because my Conservative congregation, Or Zarua, has just lived through a year of adjusting to our rabbi’s announced retirement and searching for a replacement. Blessedly, Harlan Wechsler is in good health, and our president does not have a manipulative bone in her body. But religious congregations share certain characteristics: a proprietary sense about their spiritual leaders, a concern for the future and a love of shul gossip. I could relate to all those things in Silver’s book.

Congregational rabbis have a unique job. On the one hand we, their congregants, look to them for enlightenment and guidance, on the other we hire them, pay them, and judge them. They have contracts that they negotiate with us, and we have boards — in many cases of wealthy and influential people — who expect to be obeyed. I once lectured at a suburban synagogue that had a lovely young rabbi. Before my lecture he and several board members took me to dinner, where everyone seemed in good spirits. After my lecture, he told me that the people with whom we had dined informed him that day that his contract would not be renewed. They liked his work, but they wanted someone better known to lead their growing congregation. For my sake he had acted at dinner as though nothing were wrong. But his heart was broken. As was mine, for him.

All this by way of prelude to our rabbi’s retirement and the search for another. Our history has been told before. A group of us founded Or Zarua on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1989, with Harlan Wechsler, formerly of Park Avenue Synagogue, as our rabbi. It was a different kind of Conservative synagogue, where congregants — female and male — lead all services and the rabbi functions to a great extent as a teacher. Rabbi Wechsler served brilliantly as a teacher while expertly performing all his other rabbinic duties, from comforting mourners to finding the best kosher caterers for synagogue functions. At the age of 69, he has retired to live in Israel part time and write several books.

How does a congregation replace such a rabbi? We will never find a perfect fit like him, we told each other sadly. Then again, we are no longer the homogeneous group that had started together. We have more than 300 member families with diverse needs, young families and older ones, singles and couples. More to the point then, how would we find the right rabbi for today and tomorrow, to juggle those needs? 

All the congregants were invited to submit their thoughts to the board on the qualifications they sought in a rabbi. A search committee representing the congregation’s diversity then reviewed more than a dozen applications and interviewed numbers of rabbis by phone and in person. After narrowing the field, the committee invited each of three candidates to run services and teach during a weekend. And here, again, the schizoid uniqueness of the rabbi-congregation relationship showed itself. Each of these men (for some reason that I don’t understand no women applied) had to impress us and prove why we should choose him. We were the bosses, the decision makers about someone who, if hired, had then to reverse roles and inspire our reverence. If retained, he would be the “mara d’atra,” the master of the place, our leader, yet we were calling the shots now and he had to win us over.

I felt deeply for all three candidates, because of how much they tried to please and how difficult it must have been to be in their shoes. I wished we could have taken them all. Based on feedback from the congregation, the search committee chose one, Scott Bolton, and the membership approved. So now we will have a new rabbi. He won’t be Harlan Wechsler, nor should he. In the strange dance between rabbis and their congregants we will have to find our way together between the sacred and mundane, the spiritual and practical, the moral and political. It could be exciting.

Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.