Rabbis, we have a problem

By Michael Freedland, April 7, 2013
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Let's get one thing straight. I am inclined to like rabbis. I am stimulated sitting at the feet of the exceptional ones. A brilliant sermon has even been known to keep me awake.

That doesn't mean all is well in the rabbinical world - at least the part that considers itself "modern Orthodox". The problem is quite simple: Rabbis are supposed to be "spiritual leaders". I suspect it appears in the United Synagogue contracts. If that is so, most - a word I use advisedly - are in breach. Many are not particularly spiritual. A whole lot are anything but leaders.

The exceptions are obvious. The next Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, I am sure, has been appointed not least because of the leadership he has given to his flock at Kinloss. The big kin-loss - that which his friends in other pews lack - is simply that: leadership. Most rabbis have no idea what goes on in the administration of their communities. They are not consulted when new buildings are planned. Nobody asks them about staff. Many don't sit in on board meetings. They have no idea of finance. And, frankly, I don't think they care.

As long as they have a chance to study enough Gemorrah to get them through the next shiur or Shabbat sermon, they are happy. But they ought not to be - and nor should we.

For many, running a shul isn’t on the agenda

One of the problems - although I'm told there are moves to do something about it - is that since the closure of Jews' College, they have no proper training. They are not told how to give a sermon - does that surprise you? - let alone how to be real pastors to their flock. Yes, they teach barmitzvahs, take weddings and funerals and visit hospitals. But, for many, it's a few words to patients who would prefer somebody with a bunch of grapes.

Running a synagogue certainly isn't on the agenda.

Going hand-in-hand with leadership is a question of respect and status. There used to be a time - and it may still happen - when rabbis were given places of honour at the top tables of weddings and other functions. The toastmasters would majestically address the "Reverend Sir". Those gentlemen were constantly on the move - so much so that it seemed they were like long-playing records, revolving around at 33 1/3 revs a minute. Even the chief rabbi was known as the Very Rev.

A lot changed in 1967, when Immanuel Jakobovits arrived from New York. He was a very reverend sir (and later a Lord) indeed. He demanded two things. Better money and better respect for the men he called his colleagues, though he was head and shoulders above most of them. In the latter, he failed miserably. It was about this time I heard a thoroughly frustrated minister announcing it was going to be the last Yom Kippur in his pulpit - only to hear the president of the shul coming back with "Gezunta heit, I'll make you sandwiches." He actually wanted to be a leader, but the idea was laughed out of shul.

He had more influence over the money issue. Lord Jakobovits, whose first salary was an eye-watering £7,000 a year, once told me: "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys." Well, they don't get peanuts - rabbis from Orthodox to Reform now get from £30,000 to well above £100,000 a year - even better than in that rabbinical heaven across the Atlantic, where the same figures are preceded by a dollar sign. But in America they get both status and respect. Nothing is done in a shul without the rabbi's say-so. The charming Laura Janner-Klausner says it is the same in Reform shuls here. "They are loved, loved, loved," she tells me.

But not in the United Synagogue. Take Alan Plancey, now retired from Elstree and Borehamwood, which he virtually created in its present form. "Leadership? Forget it. They put up my picture and called me emeritus. It meant nothing." Certainly, it is something for the new chief rabbi to take out of his tallit bag and seriously consider when he takes office.

    Last updated: 2:45pm, April 7 2013