7/13/2009

On Tzohar Rabbis Accepting Pay for Services

There was a news report today that Tzohar rabbis will now be allowed to accept payment for providing religious services such as officiating at weddings. This is ostensibly a response to the financial reality, but it's probably more complicated than that. I have no doubt that Tzohar is suffering financially; their original sugar daddy, Avi Chai, is slowly cutting off funding (they fund organizations for a fixed amount of time and then gradually phase out their funding, expecting the organization to stand on its own two feet), and donations are not coming in like they used to. Tzohar has a hard time fundraising in general, since they are not perceived to be addressing an urgent concern in the same way that, say, MADA and ZAKA are, they don't have big buildings or programs that one would be likely to contribute to in memoriam, and, frankly, the people they serve are not usually what you would call 'needy'. We're talking about average Israelis - perhaps even above average when you consider that Israel's poorest sectors - the Arab and Haredi sectors - have little or no use for Tzohar.

That being the case, why did Tzohar make themselves 'free' in the first place? The answer is, basically, to distance themselves from the status quo. If the official rabbis were taking money under the table, then Tzohar made it a policy to take no money for services. The other elements of their commitment - to be on time and to meet with the bride and groom beforehand - have the same objective.

In truth however, it is the official rabbis who should not be charging to officiate and the Tzohar rabbis who should; the official rabbis make a very nice living and their job description is to provide religious services to those in their jurisdiction. Demanding money under the table is nothing short of corruption. For the average Tzohar rabbi, however, the situation is reversed (and I know this first hand, from friends and acquaintances who perform weddings for Tzohar). He usually is not terribly well paid doing whatever it is he does (part time rabbinic position + teaching + hustling around and doing whatever); furthermore, given the commitments that the Tzohar rabbi must make when officiating, there is often a significant time commitment (let's say, including travel, up to half a day). He is permitted to be reimbursed for travel expenses, but that's it. As the old saying goes, altruism is nice, but you can't eat it for dinner. It makes perfect sense for a Tzohar rabbi to be able to charge for his services as long as it is not part of his regular job (for example, if he is the rabbi of a synagogue and a constituent is getting married).

I think, then, that the voices within Tzohar that were advocating allowing rabbis to accept payment have been growing, and the 'financial crisis' rationale is convenient excuse but not the whole truth. Consider that Tzohar does not pay its rabbis; how is Tzohar saving money by allowing the rabbis to accept payments?

Alternatively, it is possible that Tzohar will begin charging membership dues, and this is one of the benefits that would accrue to members. If they do that, I would hope that they publish - far and wide - a standard rate for officiating at a wedding, so that this will not turn sour like the system it strives to replace.
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