A shabby shul magazine story

Harmful gossip has no place in a publication that exists to build a community spirit


Britain’s one-time oldest man, Harris Shoerats, died in 1984 aged 111. Explaining his longevity in a radio interview, he said: “First, I am a lifelong vegetarian. Second, I begin each day with a glass of whisky. And third, I never got involved with the politics of my local synagogue.”

This sensible advice came to mind last week as the Borehamwood shul magazine dropped through my letterbox, together with a letter from the shul chairman. The shul’s honorary officers and board, he wrote, “strongly disassociate themselves from the article on pages 20-21… We unreservedly apologise for any distress that this has caused the rabbi, his family and members of the shul office staff.”

Naturally, I turned immediately to pages 20-21. The offending article was written by journalist, JC writer and shul member Michael Freedland, in which, inter alia, he compares the performance of the rabbi, Naftali Brawer, with that of his predecessor, Alan Plancey, who still lives in the area and recently returned to the shul as emeritus rabbi. Mr Freedland speculates about their relationship; makes patronising remarks about the shul’s office staff and volunteers; and asks whether the rabbi really needs a secretary to manage his diary: “What does a rabbi record in that diary? A row with a member? Deciding to help his wife with the washing up?”

There is also a dig at the Chief Rabbi, who apparently no longer introduces himself to Mr Freedland as “Jonathan”, but rather, when he calls to chat, says, “the Chief Rabbi here…”

No matter where you stand on the range of issues raised by Mr Freedland, such an article does not belong in a synagogue’s own publication, which is there to build community, not to sow discord. There is certainly room to discuss community issues, but as an in-house magazine, not an independent newspaper, the journalistic rules are different. I do not expect to read personal criticism of the US Chief Rabbi or of the local shul rabbi in a US publication. Nor is it appropriate for a magazine belonging to a religious institution to spread gossip — let alone about its own staff.

In this modern age, our synagogues cannot be run like shtibls. They require the highest standards of governance, with a well thought out programme of management, accountability, transparency and professional decision-making.

This applies, first, at the level of individual shuls. One of the problems in this case was that the magazine editor was not answerable to anyone before the magazine went to print, and so his editorial judgment went unchecked. A shul publication needs clear guidelines and supervision by an editorial board.

Once printed, the synagogue board was clearly wrong in allowing the issue to be distributed — disclaimer notwithstanding — rather than pulping the entire print-run or cutting out the offending pages. Nowadays, lay leaders as well as professional staff must be trained, and be good enough, to make sensible decisions that protect the community they serve.

The question of good management applies, secondly, at the organisational level — in this case, the US. Behind Mr Freedland’s comments about Rabbis Brawer and Plancey lies a real problem that can, and has, affected most communities: that of a tense transition between rabbis. The reality is that a change in community leadership is always upsetting to one constituency or another.

The retirement of a long-serving rabbi, familiar with his contemporaries and the community he built, and the arrival of a new rabbi, who will relate to a different set of families, invariably disappoints some and delights others.

The US does run a training programme for rabbis moving to new communities, and another helping the lay leadership work with the new rabbi. But perhaps this should be broadened to deal with all transition issues — including helping the community prepare for and deal with change.

Of course, all these problems are considerably compounded and unnecessarily prolonged when the retirement of the previous rabbi is mismanaged — or, because the US does not currently have a retirement programme for its rabbis, not managed at all.

Borehamwood is not unique in having a retired rabbi remain in the community. But, no matter how distinguished and respected the retiring rabbi, a new rabbi cannot be expected to function with his predecessor watching from his front pew; and a congregation must be allowed to develop a relationship with a new spiritual leader without distractions.

The Church of England (which begins to prepare its clerics for retirement at 55) has a detailed retirement policy covering issues such as housing, financial planning and subsequent employment. One of its rulings is that clergy “are expected, and advised for their own sake, to move an appropriate distance from their last parish on retirement.”

Perhaps it is time for the US to follow suit.

    Last updated: 12:42pm, April 2 2009