Who Needs Rabbis?

The coronavirus has turned Jewish life upside down. Gone are daily minyanim in synagogue, shabbat sermons, aliyot to the Torah, classes in shul. We have learned to make minyanim with our neighbors, pray together as a family, and zoom into Torah classes. Bar Mitzvahs and even weddings are backyard affairs, long speeches may be a thing of the past.

With all of these changes, truly, it is possible to ask: “Who needs a rabbi?”

If a rabbi is solely a conductor of services, a giver of classes and speeches, perhaps we don’t really need them.

As a rabbi, I agree!

But are rabbis ONLY for speeches on Shabbat and Kashering questions before Pesach?

I asked myself this question when I made aliya 12 years ago and saw the paradigm of Israeli synagogues.

In the Diaspora, rabbis and rabbaniot are at once communal leaders and part of the community. They celebrate the joys of the community and share their pain. They are shoulders to cry on and pillars upon which the community is built.

But here, in Israel, the rabbi is at best a part time employee, sometimes involved in communal affairs, but oftentimes not. The rabbanit is never paid and does not normally have any duties at the shul.

What a tragedy.

The Diaspora model creates a cohesive community centered around a role model couple who is dedicated to its health and well-being – spiritually, emotionally, and Jewishly.

The standard Israeli model provides a place to pray and hear a class, but does not build a strong community.

“So what?” you may ask. Why do we need a strong community? The fact is that when people have a network on which to rely, a place to turn to, they are more mentally and emotionally stable, more resilient after loss and pain, and less likely to fall into depression or other mental anguish.

Parents who have support for their children, couples who can ask for help in resolving conflict, and neighbors who can take disagreements to a trusted authority simply do better.

While successfully passing halachic tests may a rabbi make, it does not qualify anyone to help resolve marital strife or detect a person in pain. These skills take training, professional guidance and empathy.

If anything has taught us this, it has been the past few months.

Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics, which trains rabbis in these skills and more, has provided more support, guidance and yes, life saving services, to our congregations across Israel since Corona began, than in the nine years of our existence.

What does that mean? It means that when we least thought we needed rabbis — when our synagogues were closed down — was exactly when we needed them the most.

“How can I bury my father when I am in quarantine?”

“How can I make sure someone is with my mother when she passes?”

“What do I do with my children at home all day? I feel like I’m breaking down.”

“My wife and I argue constantly since the lockdowns. I feel my anger getting out of control.”

“Is it safe to go to the mikvah? What if I don’t want to risk it?”

“I am alone and cannot leave the house. I have no food in the fridge.”

“My child is on medication for anxiety and the lockdowns are causing severe reactions. I’m afraid she is going to hurt herself.”

These questions, and so many more, came to us daily in the months of COVID lockdowns. Because of their training, and the professional network we provide, our rabbis and rabbaniot were able to answer the calls and provide further professional help when needed. We are proud of the work we have done and are more determined than ever to continue.

The question, “who needs a rabbi?” is one we ask ourselves daily. If the answer is anything other than “everyone!” then we are not doing our jobs.

About the Author
Rabbi David Fine is the Founder and Dean of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics in Modiin, Israel. He was a pulpit rabbi in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Overland Park, Kansas before making Aliyah in 2008.
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