Barbara Sofer

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The Human Spirit: Are you my rabbi


June 7, 2013


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.

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 spiritual guidance.

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 neighborhoods.

But just as it’s about to be abolished, I’ve been thinking of the possible positive benefits of a neighborhood rabbinate.

It’s too 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.

Among them, 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.

When I told him that I didn’t know who my neighborhood rabbi was, Rabbi Kariv said that was “typical.”

“That’s part of the problem. A secular person could lead his whole life in a neighborhood and not meet the rabbi,” he said.

But 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.

Compassionate 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 neighborhood duties.

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 activities.

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.




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