4/11/2008

Ki Matta le-Hatam: Community Rabbis in Israel and the United States – Part I

[cross posted to The Muqata]

In the wake of the 'buzz' generated by the impending aliyah of Rabbi Shalom Rosner (click on the 'breaking news' WebAd link above for the story, or just go here), his family, and several members of his kehilla Jameel asked me to guest post about the differences between community rabbis in Israel and the United States.

First, though, a word about Rabbi Rosner’s aliyah. I know a number of successful pulpit rabbis who made aliyah at the height of their careers, but without the fanfare. What makes this so special?

The answer has to do with people other than Rabbi Rosner himself. I’m talking, of course, about Shelly Levine, the real estate agent who is selling the Nofei Ha-Shemesh project in Beit Shemesh (I actually bought my own home in Modiin through her). She’s selling the project as an American-style community with an American-style rabbi. Her husband, Charley, is a PR guru. They cooked up this plan to market this project, and then went and found the right rabbi. This does not take anything away from the sacrifices that the Rosner family is making in order to come on aliyah. It does, however, explain the inordinate amount of hype surrounding them.

Back to the issues at hand – the difference between American Orthodox community rabbis and their Israeli counterparts. The Israeli community rabbinate is a difficult cohort to wrap one’s brain around, because there are at least three distinct elements of it. There’s the official urban/ regional Rabbanut, which operates everywhere in the country, and whose rabbis are paid by the municipality/ regional council. There are the synagogue rabbis. Finally, there are rabbis of small towns (kibbutzim, yishuvim, moshavot, etc.), who are paid by the ‘local council’, but, ultimately, the locales are so small that they are essentially community-based. I will compare these four elements using the following graph:


Salary

Hired By

Contract Term

American

Full-time

Community

X years - Lifetime

Rabbanut

Full-time

Politicians

Lifetime

Israel – Shul

Part-time

Community

X Years

Small Yishuv

In between PT and FT

Community

X Years - Lifetime

This is obviously a bit of an oversimplification. There are plenty of part-time shul rabbis in the U.S., especially in shteiblach and the like, and there are plenty of others who need to hustle in order to make a few extra $$ - teaching in schools and what not – because they live in an expensive community or because the community simply cannot afford to pay the rabbi all that much. Nevertheless, the differences are clear, and it is also clear that the yishuv rabbinate is closest to the American rabbinate in terms of job description and expectations.

Readers may wonder why I have chosen to focus primarily on the economics of the rabbinate. A former teacher of mine, Prof. Shaul Stampfer of Hebrew U., opened my eyes to the economic pressures which guide the development of institutions. The economic (as well as political and social) circumstances in the U.S. and Israel dictate the make-up and function of their respective community rabbinates, as I hope to describe in Part II.

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