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Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman

Klal Perspectives, Communal Leadership Infrastructure

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The Shul Rav and the Local Community

IN MANY ERAS AND IN MANY locations, the shul Rav played a prominent, if not the lead role in addressing community-wide issues. It is worthy to reassess whether the contemporary shul Rav should be expected to play that role. Since my experience with nation-wide issues and national organizations has been limited, I limit my observations to the role of the shul rabbi within the local community. Comments such as these, of course, are based upon my experiences which are necessarily limited in scope. I imagine that many rabbis and communities experience very different concerns.

The Reduced Role of the Local Rav in Communal Organizations

Growing up, I envisioned the local Rav as being totally immersed in every aspect of the community. In addition to wearing the varied hats that come with being a shul Rav, he also wore the principal’s hat, the hat of kashrus administrator, and the hat of leader of the local chessed organization.

While there may be certain communities where these multiple roles are still played by a single individual, it is certainly not the case in most communities.

We live in the age of specialization. Even in fields like law and medicine, we turn to specialists to address our needs. For example, we no longer turn to merely a single internist and surgeon, but rather seek out doctors with narrow specialties – one who treats only liver problems and another the pancreas. This trend toward specificity and specialization has spread to the Jewish community, as well. The local school principal is typically an expert in the field of Jewish education, while other community professionals are trained specifically in fund raising, social services or job placement. Consequently, the local rabbi often plays at best a secondary role in setting policies for the local educational and chessed institutions.

In addition to the advent of specialization within local community leadership, another factor that limits the role of the rabbi is his increasingly consuming responsibility to care for his congregants. Though the rabbinate has always been a demanding job, in my experience, it has become more intense over the last decade. Today, rabbis are more likely to be inundated with his congregants’ deep and agonizing personal issues, precluding him from being as actively involved in the activities of local organizations. Perhaps this is due to the complexity of contemporary life, perhaps because formerly not-discussed issues are no longer taboo. Perhaps part of this demand relates to the increase of recent-returnees to Orthodoxy. In any event, the rabbi often simply does not have the luxury of devoting as much time as he would wish to the affairs of communal organizations.

Alas, there is a third reason for the rabbi’s reduced role in communal institutions; that is, some local institutions do not perceive themselves as being communal institutions. Often, an organization (most typically an educational organization), is opened by former Yeshiva graduates at their own initiative and without prior broad-based community discussion. These founders often view their personal Rosh Yeshiva as their spiritual mentor and advisor, and thus see little reason to seek the input of the local rabbi. Indeed, the increased influence played by Roshei Yeshiva has often severely reduced (and occasionally eliminated) the need for the local rabbis’ involvement in communal affairs.

Finally, the former era of rabbinic organizations that included non-Orthodox rabbis may have created a culture of rabbinic distrust for broad-based communal efforts and coalitions. 

Consequences of the Rav’s Reduced Role

The reduced role of the shul Rav in local organizations is not necessarily a negative development. Indeed, in some ways the independence may benefit both sides, since it allows each party to express views freely, and criticize the other in (hopefully) positive ways. On the other hand, this diminishment of local rabbinic influence is sadly symptomatic of the further breakdown of the old-fashioned kehilla.

It is not the reduction of local rabbinic influence that is most troubling, but the trend toward organizations becoming individual monarchies rather than community establishments. Increasingly, a school or chessed organization will “belong” to a particular professional or askan. Dynasties are created, and a sense of proprietorship evolves.

But, this too is not all negative. I recall when a neighbor of mine decided to transfer his son from the local day school to the local cheider type school. He related that one of the day school’s lay board members criticized his decision by declaring, “Now that you are sending your son to Rabbi Ploni’s yeshiva, you will never again have any input in your son’s chinuch.” The fellow responded on the spot, “That may be true. However, now at least you won’t have any more say in my son’s chinuch.” Indeed, the involvement of unqualified lay leaders, whose sole credentials for involvement in Torah and chessed is their philanthropy, has caused a knee jerk reaction to reject ‘non-daas Torah’ input in decisions of certain organizations.

Since the rabbi is not the Rosh Yeshiva or ‘gadol’ of the institutional proprietor, he is often more closely associated with the lay leadership, or seen as an independent rather than a “daas Torah”, and is often excluded, as well.

Ultimately, I am not convinced that the reduction of the shul Rav’s influence is actually detrimental to the Jewish community. For the most part, those involved in Torah and chessed have rabbinic mentorship as their personal Torah guides. Moreover, Roshei Yeshiva are themselves increasingly better equipped to assess issues of this nature since they themselves, are not only talmedei chachomim, but frequently askanim, as well.

The greatest consequence of the reduction in demands on the local Rav is not a deprivation from the Rav’s perspective (who is typically overwhelmed with congregational issues and is more than happy to be relieved of communal responsibilities) but rather the loss of multiple perspectives that exist when an institution is a true, communal institution. When every yeshiva, organization and institution is a private fiefdom, there is little room for constructive criticism or creative contributions. The shul rabbi, by virtue of his being a non-aligned individual, could serve as a sounding board for new ideas and a critic of the insular and sometimes clannish oligarchic leadership of the independent organization. The reintroduction of this role, however, would require a minor (though likely resisted) change to organizational structures.

A Proposal

Although perhaps sounding somewhat regressive, true progress would be achieved through the re-introduction of boards of directors in community organizations that include both the leadership of the particular organization and local shul rabbis. By including such rabbinic representation in the governing body of the school and/or chessed organization, each organization would enjoy the benefit of a more unified and broadly respected community organization, as well as an ally and often invaluable assistant in the important and constant battle of fund-raising. The demand for the rabbi to play this role should not come from the rabbi, but rather from the organization. Rabbis, of course, will need to learn to use this newfound role judiciously, since it will inevitably be withdrawn if he uses his pulpit as a bully pulpit, rather than for fundraising appeals.

It is the rabbi’s duty to avoid being viewed as seeking to wrest control or authority over the existing communal organization; however, by establishing a more inclusive board or moetzes of community leaders, whose task will be to discuss and ultimately decide on the mission as well as the best path to fulfill that mission, we can help create a more unified and effective Jewish community.

And on the more esoteric level, inclusion of the shul rabbi in local organizational boards will advance that elusive, but much desired, feeling of achdus to which we all subscribe.

Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman has been the Rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel in Passaic for the last 16 years and has taught in many yeshivos and Bais Yakovs over the last 25 years.

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