The Human Spirit: Are you my rabbi
The Religious Services Ministry responded to a High Court of Justice petition
challenging the longtime practice of hiring Orthodox rabbis to serve as
Last week, the Religious Services Ministry
responded to a High Court of Justice petition challenging the longtime practice
of hiring Orthodox rabbis to serve as neighborhood authorities. In the future,
promised the ministry, neighborhood rabbis will no longer be appointed by
religious councils. Instead, communities will be able to choose their own
religious leaders and enjoy government financial support. This would widen the
swath of what can be deemed acceptable religious leadership and at the same time
get rid of problematic political appointments masquerading as a position of
Indeed, the state comptroller has bitterly criticized
the institution of neighborhood rabbis. Some of the so called neighborhoods
turned out to be no more than streets, and other rabbis lived far from their
But just as it’s about to be abolished, I’ve been thinking
of the possible positive benefits of a neighborhood rabbinate.
bad the system was abused. Imagine a neighborhood rabbi who followed the
ubiquitous death notices to every neighborhood house of mourning, who prayed
every week at a different neighborhood synagogue, who phoned the parents of
first graders to wish their children good luck in school, and who guided bar and
bat mitzva students in bringing meaning to their coming-of-age ceremonies. This
rabbi could bring together all the synagogues in the neighborhood on Simhat
Torah as a statement of unity. My imagined neighborhood rabbi would visit the
sick and cheer the sick-of-heart, no matter what their backgrounds are.
There are currently 157 state employed neighborhood rabbis.
doubtless, are some who fit the description above. More than a fifth of all the
rabbis – 33 in total – serve in Jerusalem, where I live.
No new rabbis
have been hired in the last decade, so any Jerusalem neighborhood rabbi must
have been serving for more than 10 years and had a long time to make an impact
on his neighborhood.
Here’s the paradox: Why is it that I haven’t ever
met my neighborhood rabbi? I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for nearly three
decades. My husband and I have brought up our children here, celebrated
life-cycle events, mourned our parents here. No rabbi ever approached us. Have I
passed him on the way to the corner store? I feel like the bird in the
children’s book Are You My Mother?. Are you my rabbi? Do I have a neighborhood
rabbi? The petition to the High Court charging discrimination in the appointment
of neighborhood rabbis was filed by the Reform and Masorti movements, whose
rabbis have been until now ineligible for these jobs whether or not a
neighborhood would feel more in line with their Jewish viewpoint. Rabbi Gilad
Kariv, the Reform Movement’s expert on this bill, praised the ministry’s greater
evenhandedness and its plans to restructure its support of clergy.
told him that I didn’t know who my neighborhood rabbi was, Rabbi Kariv said that
“That’s part of the problem. A secular person could lead
his whole life in a neighborhood and not meet the rabbi,” he said.
I’m not a secular person. I’m a synagogue-going, Shabbat-observing,
kosher-eating, Orthodox Jew. I like to consult rabbis. There have been those
straightforward questions: Can the kids eat the pancakes if they forgot to sift
the flour? Can you host a festive Purim meal in the year you’re in mourning? And
then there are questions which require long discussions: questions about
relationships, childrearing and caring for elderly parents.
and wise religious leaders with rich life experience are a treasured resource in
my Jewish life.
You’d have thought our paths would have crossed.
My husband, who goes to a daily prayer service in the neighborhood, doesn’t know
who the neighborhood rabbi is. Neither does his black-kippa wearing Talmud
teacher, a Sabra whose tenure in the neighborhood is far longer than ours.
Perhaps ours was a neighborhood without a rabbi. I phoned the Religious
Services Ministry, and without identifying myself as a journalist, asked if my
neighborhood had a rabbi. No one could give me an answer on the spot, but sure
enough, a young woman phoned me back and provided the name and local phone
number of a rabbi I could consult. I phoned the rabbi several times, ready to
introduce myself as a member of the neighborhood and to ask what services he
provided for the neighborhood that I’d missed all these years. I left a message
on his voicemail. So far, I haven’t heard back, but it’s only been a few days.
He might be away or be busy, or he might be among the hundred or so of the 157
neighborhood rabbis who have other paid positions in addition to their
SO FOR those of us Orthodox Jews who feel a little
nervous about giving up the monopoly on religious services, we have ourselves to
blame. For decades, Orthodox rabbis had the opportunity to bring enlightened,
warm-hearted religion to their neighbors without the burden that Chabad rabbis,
who often fill the void, have of raising funds for their activities. We have
allowed the system of sinecures to continue.
The proposed alternative
model to the neighborhood rabbis model is for congregations and communities to
choose their own spiritual leaders, who will then receive government support.
It’s hard to imagine how this will work. What will constitute a congregation?
Most Israelis don’t belong to synagogues – Orthodox, Masorti or Reform. That
doesn’t mean they’re not interested in religion. At the post denominational
reading of Lamentations on Tisha Be’av night outside Beit Yehudit, the community
center in the German Colony, hundreds of Israelis, many of them young, engaged
in the ancient words and the modern discussions about tolerance that follow the
reading. In so-called secular Tel Aviv, young friends tell me that the
synagogues have become major gathering places on Friday night. Had a
neighborhood rabbinate worked right, it could have been a catalyst for such
Instead, we had a vacuum.
Make yourself a rabbi, says
the mishnaic injunction.
Several Orthodox institutions are training women
in rabbinic studies.
Masorti and Reform rabbis often have extensive
training in pastoral counseling.
As communities seek leadership, there is
a large pool of candidates competing.
May the best rabbi win.