Report calls for union protection for rabbis

By Leon Symons, November 27, 2008

An independent report has called for a new employment deal for rabbis to prevent their dismissal by small groups of disgruntled congregants.

The report, called "Shalom@Shul" has been sent to every synagogal body, and also calls for:

 Rabbis to be allowed to join the Unite trade union;

 Every synagogue movement to appoint an independent ombudsman to assess honorary officers' grounds for dismissing a rabbi;

 Better training for lay leaders.

The report has been produced by Rabbi David Soetendorp and his wife Ruth, of the Movement for Reform Judaism; and Jonathan Hoffman, a member of Woodside Park United Synagogue in North London, who led a campaign opposing the removal in 2007 of Rabbi Hershel Rader by Woodside Park's honorary officers at that time. The reasons why his removal was sought were kept secret, with the honorary officers and the rabbi's employer, the United Synagogue, citing confidentiality clauses preventing any disclosure.

Mr Hoffman contacted the Soetendorps after a letter from them appeared in the JC almost a year ago, saying that they had been approached by numerous rabbis whose jobs had been threatened by their congregations.

Mr Hoffman said: "This is meant to be a constructive report, not negative, and learning from past experiences. However, what happened to Rabbi Rader at Woodside Park must never be allowed to happen again.

"It was catastrophic for the rabbi and for the community and we hope that the US would not want a repeat.

"We want to eliminate a situation where the honorary officers can get rid of a rabbi without reference to anyone else. Our report should form a springboard for a deeper study led, ideally, by the Board of Deputies."

The trio took evidence from 20 rabbis, some of whom had been subject to what the report called "undemocratic dawn raids by a powerful faction of congregants which has planned the event in secret". They note that a rabbi's reputation could be severely tarnished, with a consequent effect on his or her chances of future employment.

Attempts to remove rabbis have cost communities financially, says the report, with one congregation having to meet a legal bill of £10,000.

A spokesman for the US said: "The US employs more than 1,000 people. Its HR department is professionally serviced in employment matters, which are not dealt with in public. The chief executive is very grateful for the suggestions. Our HR professionals will go through this document very carefully and reply at some stage."

Asked about rabbis' anxieties over job security, the spokesman said: "We are very proud of the Rabbinical Council of the US. Regular consultations take place with rabbis and all of these matters are openly discussed."

The full report is published today on

Last updated: 9:40am, November 28 2008