Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Choosing a Rabbi for our Shul in Israel - Part 1

Yad Binyamin is a relatively young community from a number of vantage points. Most of the members are relatively young; few seniors have made a home here. But more significantly, the community itself -at least where we live - is quite new. Aside from the people we call the Vatikim (literally, the "seniors") - who have lived here for thirty years since the time that Yad Binyamin was essentially a yeshiva for boys and nothing else - no other resident has lived her longer than seven years, and most have been here for far less than that. Everyone here, from the people kicked out of their homes in Gush Katif, to the native Israelis who built homes here to the Olim, has moved here relatively recently.
About three years ago, a number of the members of our shul (which is called the Beit Knesset Mercazi) raised the issue of hiring a rabbi for our shul. While in America the vast majority of shuls have a rabbi and the need for such a position is relatively self-evident, in Israel that is simply not the case. A lot of the ambivalence about shul rabbis has to do with a difference in culture, the nature of the people who comprise the membership, and the different role of rabbi, as perceived by the membership. In Israel, the model of community rabbi does not really exist on a large scale. Smaller yishuvim are served by a single rabbi for the entire yishuv, hired through the municipality. In the larger cities, while a number of Anglo community shuls have a rabbi, Israeli shuls by and large do not. The local city rabbi had the authority over what went on in the shul (and exerted his authority sometimes against the wishes of the membership), without developing the personal relationships that are the heart of the American-style, pastoral rabbinate.
In recent years, a number of different organizations have tried to import this community-oriented rabbinate to Israel. Tzohar boasted that it would install hundreds of rabbis in shuls across Israel. Over a  period of years it installed perhaps two dozen, and disbanded the program in frustration. Sure there were rabbis looking for training. But there weren't that many shuls looking to hire the rabbis. Another organization called Likrat Shlichut trains rabbis to serve in communities through a program with Bar Ilan University. They do give training, but still have trouble placing rabbis. If they place three rabbis in a year, they consider the year a success. Finally, two good friends of mine are starting yet another rabbinic training program that they've called Barkai, focusing on young rabbis living in communities without established shuls, hoping that well-trained rabbis will succeed in starting communities around them. It's a good strategy, and I think it has a better chance of working. But they'll need serious funding to make their program a success.
All of this points to the clear fact that the Israeli public does at all see a shul rabbi as a necessity, by any means. For this reason, when the topic was raised in our shul it was incendiary: while some members strongly pushed for the hiring of a rabbi, others pushed back, hard, against the idea. After all, they argued, our shul is blessed with many learned, capable members who can and do give any number of weekly shiurim. Why then do we need to bring in an authority figure to tell us what to do? (From that very formulation, it was easy to understand (a) how some people perceived the role of the community rabbi and (b) why they would be against hiring one. And they're not incorrect: in Israel, many rabbis do see their role as telling the membership what to do.)
On the other hand, how do you explain to someone who hasn't experienced a good community rabbi the benefit that such a figure can bring to a community? Great rabbis do many things. But the total effect of a rabbi if far greater than the sum of the tasks that he fulfills. He's a pastor, advisor, posek, teacher, speaker - and yes, most of those tasks can and are filled by members in our shul and yishuv. But when those roles are combined together, they enhance one-another. A good rabbi bonds with his shul, and uses the myriad roles that he fulfills to propel the community to grow in different ways. But if you haven't seen that happen, it's difficult to envision.
Because of this discord, there really wasn't a strong groundswell to hire a rabbi. So the process essentially languished. Search committees were formed. They met...but never really got anywhere. Things were at a standstill. Rabbinic proponents felt stymied, and that the process would never move forward, and the opponents to hiring a rabbi felt quite comfortable with the situation. Let the community gel, they felt, and then we can revisit the issue when we have a better sense of ourselves.
Finally, last year, the shul board took a vote: Do we, as a community, want to continue the process and seek a rabbi or not. The vote was held, and the initiative passed, kind of.
Out of a membership of approximately 140 families (with both  parents eligible to vote - so the total voting pool was somewhere near 280 people), the initiative passed by about a vote of 35 to 20. A sizable majority, yes, but not a resounding endorsement.
The proponents were happy. They had their mandate. The community had voted in favor. But the detractors were equally happy. They figured that with such an anemic level of support, there was really not enough backing from the membership to move forward and hire a rabbi.
They were both right. And, the outgoing board disbanded (they had served their one-year term), and a new board was installed. Everyone figured that the issue would languish for yet another year.
They figured wrong.