Choosing a Rabbi

January 2, 2014
Rabbi Parking

(Photo credit: themarkpike)

In yesterday’s post about online conversion, I mentioned that I had more to say about choosing a rabbi. There was a time, not long ago, when I told people, “call around to your local synagogues” and felt like that was all I needed to say about the subject. Synagogues go through a very careful process in making a covenant with a rabbi; ideally, a committee not only reads resumes, but checks credentials and references. Rabbis are trusted with sensitive information about congregants’ lives. They are trusted to deal ethically with that information, with funds, and with congregants themselves. So synagogues are usually pretty careful in their hiring.

That said, many people these days don’t find rabbis through the synagogue. Moreover, there is nothing preventing a person from putting “Rabbi” in front of their name and simply setting up a website and some business cards. While there are laws against practicing medicine or law without a license, pretty much anyone can go online and get “ordained” for a fee. There’s also nothing preventing someone from setting up an online “rabbinical school” that requires little of their students.

You may be wondering, why does this matter? If you are looking for someone to stand up front for a ceremony and read a service, maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe then you’re just as well off asking a cousin or a friend – why worry about the title “rabbi” at all? If on the other hand, you want a real rabbi: someone qualified to do premarital counseling, or someone who can be a resource in making Jewish choices, or someone to guide you through a conversion process, then perhaps you will want  to choose more carefully.

Particularly where conversion is concerned, the rabbi’s credentials will determine not only how and where you are accepted as a Jew, but how your descendants will be accepted.  An ethical rabbi will be honest with you about exactly what conversion with them will mean to other Jews, and they will not charge money for the conversion.

So what is a layperson to do, especially one who is new to the Jewish community? Three things will tell you a lot about any rabbi: ask about their Education, Affiliation, and Experience.

Education. Where did this rabbi study? How many years of study were required? For comparison, I can tell you that Hebrew Union College (the Reform rabbinical school) as well as the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles (both Conservative rabbinical schools) require five years or more of graduate study (meaning, incoming students already have a B.A.).  All three require students to live for a year in Israel, studying texts and immersed in the Hebrew language. Their coursework includes not only Jewish text learning, but training in counseling, education, and professional ethics. The Orthodox world has a lot more variety, as does the nondenominational Jewish world, but the same question applies: how many years did you study before you got the title, Rabbi? Were you ordained by a single individual, or by a faculty of learned Jews?

This relates to more than just academics. What was this person willing to invest in becoming a rabbi? How many years, how much inconvenience? It is not only a question of money (although trust me, five years of grad school is expensive) but also a question about dedication to the Jewish People.

Affiliation. To what professional organizations does this rabbi belong? The reason you ask this question is that a rabbi who belongs to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) or the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) or the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) has agreed to maintain certain ethical standards, and is answerable to the association if there are questions about his or her behavior. You can ask if they are members of their local Board of Rabbis, or other professional organizations. The idea is, how connected is this rabbi to colleagues? To whom, if anyone, is this person answerable?

Rabbis who are connected to other rabbis also can tap a deep well of resources for you. As a CCAR member, I can ask a quick question by leaving a message online for other rabbis to chime in. If I am concerned about how best to handle a tricky situation, I can pick up the phone and call a mentor or a more experienced senior rabbi. I participate in continuing education, and my colleagues challenge me to do my best.

Experience. Have they ever served in a congregation? Been a Jewish chaplain? Lived in Israel? Worked with Jewish youth? Done prison chaplaincy? Served the Jewish community overseas? Of course, not every rabbi has done all those things, but by asking you will get a better idea of who this person is, and what depth of experience they will bring to you.

A rabbi who has solid credentials and experience will be glad to answer these questions and proud of the answers. Be wary of anyone who seems to want you to feel bad about asking.

No rabbi is perfect. No rabbi is knowledgeable about everything, and perfectly trained in every respect. We’re fallible human beings. But asking about Education, Affiliation, and Experience can give you a better idea of who this rabbi is than you can get from a nice website or a well written marketing blurb.


Choosing Synagogue Membership

December 22, 2013
A synagogue is not just a building.

A synagogue is not just a building.

I have to be honest about my bias on this topic.  One of the fixed items in our household budget is synagogue membership. Our children are grown. We don’t need religious school. No one is studying for a bar mitzvah. But to borrow a phrase from Moses – excuse me, Charlton Heston! – I’ll let go of my synagogue membership when they take it out of my cold, dead hands.

Why is synagogue membership important to me? Let me count the pros:

1. I have a rabbi (actually, two rabbis) on call should we need them. I like knowing that if I have a big decision to make, there’s someone grounded in the tradition with whom I can talk it through. I like knowing that if something bad happens, all members of my family will be free to call on the rabbi for support and guidance.  I don’t want to be looking for a rabbi at a crisis in my life.

2. I have a community. I don’t love everything about that community, or everyone in that community, but it is my community, people who know who I am and with whom I navigate life. If I am looking for a plumber, or a doctor, or a real estate agent, everyone has a recommendation. If I have something to celebrate, they will care. If something bad happens, they’ll care. I am not anonymous there.

3. I benefit from the Caring Community, or Committee, or whatever it is we’re calling it now. When my kids were still in school, and I fell and smashed my knee, someone picked up my kids from the bus, someone brought dinner, and someone was on the other end of the phone to help me figure out how I was going to deal with life while my leg was immobilized. As an aging woman with some disabilities, this is not a small thing.

4. I have somewhere to develop and use my talents as a volunteer. This goes for small stuff, like bringing food to potlucks, and to larger things as well. Currently I don’t work for a congregation, but I volunteer some of my professional skills for my congregation. If I had the time, I could sing in the choir (I wish I had the time.) I get appreciation for the things I do from time to time, and that’s nice too. I also learn about social justice action opportunities, and have a ready-made group of people with whom to pursue those.

5. I have a minyan with whom to pray. Jews engage in private prayer, but there are some kinds of prayer for which we need a minyan of at least ten Jewish adults.

6. I have people with whom to learn. There is no substitute for a community when doing Jewish learning: it just does not work alone. And even though I went to rabbinical school, I still have lots to learn: learning is a lifelong activity for a Jew.

7. When there is truly a crisis, I have a community and a rabbi. Much of my work is with unaffiliated Jews, and I have to tell you that that more than anything has convinced me of the benefits of belonging. I do my best for families who are grieving, but they’ve turned to me because someone gave them my name after disaster struck. I’m essentially a nice stranger with a set of skills they need. How much better it would be for them to have a rabbi they know, that they can call the minute trouble looms, and who already knows their story? That is what I want for myself and my family.

8. I know that by supporting this synagogue, I am contributing to the future of Judaism in my area. Even after my kids are grown, children will be learning about Judaism at that synagogue. Couples will get married. Funerals will be held. Celebrations will happen, holidays and fasts will be observed. By being a part of a synagogue, I keep Judaism going.

Now for the “cons” of synagogue membership:

1. Yes, it costs money. Having that rabbi on call, and a secretary and whatever else (a building, a janitor, teachers, etc) costs a lot of money. If money is tight, then you have two options: talk with the synagogue about reduced rates, or opt not to belong for now.

2. As I said above, not everyone at my congregation is my best friend. Sometimes there is conflict. There are some people who drive me a little nuts. I probably drive them a little nuts, too. Comes with the territory. As the old joke goes, sometimes it is easier to love Judaism than it is to love real live Jews.

3. Yes, they bug me to give and to do stuff. Linda and I get periodic appeals for financial and volunteer participation. I also feel free to say “no” when I really can’t or don’t want to do something.

4. I don’t agree with the way everything is done by the synagogue. Policy is up to the board, and they call those shots. I get to state my opinion, but I am not the boss. If it’s the only synagogue in town and the disagreement is about something serious, then maybe it isn’t worth it. For example, I am not sure I could be a happy member of a congregation that wanted me to be closeted, or that did not count women for a minyan.

5. Paying dues is just the beginning. To really get the benefits of synagogue membership, you have to invest time and heart.

Synagogue membership is not cheap. It costs money, time, and heart. Sometimes it is aggravating. But for me, it’s worth it.


The Jewish Consumer

December 21, 2013

If you are Jewish and not a member of a congregation it can be difficult to navigate milestones in Jewish life. I’m starting a new category of blog entry for such occasions, and I am going to make at least one post weekly on “Jewish Consumer” topics.

I will confess right up front to some mixed feelings about this. It seems very odd and borderline inappropriate to talk about “consumerism” and Judaism, but I am asked often enough about these matters that I think it is worth doing.

I have a rather strong bias, and I’m going to deal with it in my first post, “Choosing Synagogue Membership.”


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