Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Changing American Rabbinate: Is it a Good Thing?

The OU's recent cover story on the Changing American Rabbinate got me thinking. After all, I came from that world, and have a great deal of familiarity with it. The article hit many of the important points of the rabbinate: the twenty-four seven nature of the job; the crazy demands; the multifaceted aspects of rabbinic work; the challenges of raising a family under those conditions.
Truth be told, I found this specific issue tremendously daunting. In fact, the rabbi as CEO played a role in our decision to move to Israel.
For chinuch-related reasons, as our eldest son inched ever-closer to high school age, we began thinking about relocating to other communities. While we loved the Akiva community, I am not a proponent of coeducation, and would not consider sending my son hundreds of miles away for high school. (Ironically, in Detroit, there's no "normal" high school - not even a right-wing one run by Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. Looking back, I now realize that I should have tried to start one...)
When we started looking at available shuls that were a "step up" from my position, the only ones available were CEO-type positions of major, metropolitan shuls. Could I have done the job, and done it well? I believe that I could have. But did I want to? In truth, I did not.
I loved the rabbinate because I loved teaching. I loved it because I loved the personal interaction with community members. Of course mega-rabbis need to do those things. But there's also all of the management issues; running from minyan to minyan Shabbat morning, to the point that you don't ever really daven with your ba'alei batim; the endless meetings about administrative issues that are important, but have nothing to do with Torah or spiritual growth.
Finally, if we're being honest, we should also recognize that mega-shuls present certain spiritual challenges as well. Are they really the very best places for spiritual growth? Are minyanim which attract five hundred people more often uplifting - or noisy? The ones that seem to find that balance combining "b'rov am hadrat melech" and a yearning for spirituality seem few and far between.
I didn't apply for any position because we decided to move to Israel. But a large part of that decision was the realization that my skills and abilities matched the shul that I had; and not necessarily the one I would "move up" to.
Over the summer, I davened at my in-laws shul, Ohr Torah in Edison, NJ. While there are three minayanim on a Shabbat morning, it is by no means a mega-shul, and that's not a criticism. Rabbi Yaakov Luban, who has led the shul for decades, is not a "full time" rabbi in the official sense (he has another full-time job at the OU), and the shul does not boast a wide range of shul sponsored classes and programs. Sure, it has daf Yomi, a youth program, shiurim during the week and scholars in residence. But much of that programming comes from a learned lay leadership, and there are numerous other shiurim, programs and events offered by institutions and organizations throughout the Highland Park/Edison community.
Would the shul be a better shul if it produced a glossy full-color program, complete with numerous lunches, trips, scholars and programs? I'm not so sure that it would. It would be a different shul, but not necessarily a better one.
Finally, there's the all-important issue of dwindling community resources. It takes a great deal of money and staffing to offer all of these programs. The rabbi can't do it on his own. He needs an assistant, and an executive director, and support staff to make everything happen.
Does every shul need all that staff? What if we started thinking more creatively, and pooled our resources communally to share programming, but kept our shuls smaller, more modest, and intimate and spiritual places of worship?
In Toronto, Rabbi Jay Kelman runs a program called Torah in Motion, which offers a wide range of scholarly, Torah-oriented programming for his community. Wouldn't more communities benefit from this type of community-wide effort, freeing the shul rabbis to teach, tend to their members' needs, and do the work they always wanted to do?
With dwindling resources, shuls and rabbis should, to my mind, ask themselves honestly: what do we want to be? How big do we really want to grow? Rabbis should ask themselves the very same question: do I really want to be a CEO of a mega-shul? Or, can I work with the shul as I grow older to stay where I am, and augment my salary in other ways - by teaching in a local college, doing chaplaincy, kashrut, public speaking, or a myriad of other options open to the shul rabbi?
That way, when a rabbi feels the need to "grow", he won't first think of leaving a community he loves and a job that he excels at for a "bigger" shul. Rather, he and the shul can remain the "right" size, and grow not in numbers, but in substance.