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Do synagogue members have a right to know their rabbi's salary?

Rabbi, I have a problem

    Question: Like many synagogues, we have had to tighten our belts because of the financial situation. But the board of management says that issues like the rabbi's salary and expenses are appropriate only to be discussed by the board and not at an open meeting of members. Are they right?

    Rabbi Naftali Brawer

    Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

    It seems deeply unfair, in a community where no one else is forced to disclose their salary, to single out the rabbi in this way.

    Yet as much as I recoil from publicising a rabbi’s salary, logically I think it is the better option, for the following reasons.

    First, it is simply impractical to assume that such delicious information will remain in the shul boardroom. As anyone who is remotely involved in shul business knows, what goes on in the boardroom rarely remains in the boardroom. Indiscretions that would be unthinkable in a corporate or professional environment are frequently overlooked in a shul context. There are of course exceptions, and your shul might be one, but I think it is safer to assume that nothing in a close-knit Jewish community will remain secret for long.

    Second, concealing the rabbi’s salary figure only reinforces the notion that there is something to hide. Honorary officers and shul boards, even when they do pay their rabbi well, still feel uncomfortable justifying it to their members. There is a widespread assumption that a rabbi should not be too well paid. And since his salary comes from public funds, it is inappropriate for him to earn more than some of his congregants. But this logic is inherently flawed. While no one would

    suggest embarking on a rabbinic career to become rich, there is no reason that the job should not offer a comfortable salary in line with other demanding professions that require years of training.

    Rabbinical careers have moved on from the days when a rabbi sat studying Torah, occasionally to be interrupted to answer halachic questions. The professional spec for a 21st-century rabbi is considerable. He is expected to be a knowledgeable teacher, an adept administrator, a riveting public speaker, a sensitive pastor, an effective fundraiser and an astute politician. And he is on call 24/7. An individual who possesses even some of these skills could easily earn the higher end of a professional salary in the wider workplace and it is baffling that communities expect to hire and retain such talent on the cheap.

    Instead of seeking to hide the rabbi’s salary the honorary officers should boldly and unapologetically make the case as to why the rabbi is worth what he earns. Rather than it being a source of embarrassment, it ought to be a source of pride that the congregation is willing and able to pay handsomely to retain top talent.

    Rabbi Jonathan Romain

    Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

    Your question highlights the strange (and sometimes strained) position of the modern rabbi — simultaneously a leader of the flock and expected to tell them off when they err, yet also their employee and in danger of being sacked if he/she upsets them.

    As Israel Salanter said in pre-gender equality days: if a congregation does not want to run its rabbi out of town, he is no rabbi; and if it succeeds, he is no man.

    Of course, the clever rabbi finds a way of both giving fearless leadership and earning the respect of the congregation. Originally, though, the rabbinate was not a paid position; the incumbent had a trade of his own and was financially self-sufficient but also served the community freely in a spare-time capacity.

    It was in the Middle Ages that the role began to be professionalised because the time element became more demanding. Still, as studying is the duty of all Jews and should be done voluntarily, the formula was that rabbis were paid not for that but for their time, which they could otherwise have used for remunerated work.

    As for salary levels, the same mix of common-sense and sensitivity should apply as with any other employed person — the amount should be transparent but the details should not be decided in an open forum. Instead it is the responsibility of the board (or delegated to a financial sub-committee).

    In an effort to avoid difficult negotiating sessions, the Reform and Liberal rabbinate have a centrally set salary scale, which reflects the size of the congregation and the years the rabbi has served. It is subject to local circumstances but is a very useful template.

    Still, if there is a much wider issue that affects the community as a whole, such as the hiring or firing of a rabbi, then although the board would be expected to make a recommendation, the decision should be that of a general meeting at which all members can have their say and cast their vote.

    Financial problems cannot be ignored, and if a rabbi is lazy or incompetent, there is no reason why they should not be sacked (also in prosperous times!); but a community that fires a good rabbi to make savings often finds that the subsequent lack of leadership means ever-spiralling decline.

    Rabbis need to earn their keep, but shuls may be better off keeping a good rabbi.

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