Special panel
Special panelArutz Sheva

Does a community always need a rabbi? This was one of the questions we posed to a panel comprising Rabbi Yehuda Altshuler, Rabbi Motte Deshe, and Adi Samson.

This panel was part of a three-day online conference produced by the World Organization of Orthodox Communities and Synagogues, which concludes on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, with panels featuring rabbis from the Diaspora speaking in English.

Rabbi Altshuler is the head of the The Community Rabbinic training program that trains community rabbis; Adi Samson is the director of the program; and Rabbi Deshe is the rabbi of the Kfar Saba communities. Each of them answered the question in a different way, with each response revealing the evolving role of a community rabbi and the special significance of the position.

“A community rabbi is not the same as a rabbi to whom one poses questions in Jewish Law,” Rabbi Altshuler says. “A community rabbi is active within his community, and bonds with both individuals and families, often accompanying them throughout their lives, and especially at significant life cycle events.”

“People often want to have a spiritual figure to look up to and to emulate,” points out Rabbi Deshe. “That’s why it’s so essential that rabbis remember why they became rabbis in the first place. They are people who make the Torah beloved, on the one hand, and who can also deliver words of reproof if necessary. They have to be able to attain this fine balance in such a way that people are willing to listen – because, unfortunately, in today’s times, people are not always ready to listen.”

And even when they are prepared to listen, people’s expectations of their rabbis – and their wives – are sometimes not entirely realistic, which is also where The Community Rabbinic training program comes in.

“Finding ‘exactly’ the right person is actually impossible,” Samson stresses. “We work together with communities to help them to delineate their needs and clearly define what they’re looking for. Then we set out to find someone suitable, which is a mutual process – it’s not just a community ‘auditioning’ a rabbi, but also the rabbi (and his spouse) checking out the community, to see if they’re a good match. It’s especially important, I’ve found, to make sure that the rabbi’s wife is prepared to take on the role the community expects of her. Sometimes, they want someone who is learned herself, and obviously not all wives of rabbis are able to fit into that role. In recent years, in fact, we have created a special year-long program to train both members of the couple, to prepare them for the rigors and demands of the job.”

“This is why our sifting process is so important,” Rabbi Altshuler adds. “It’s so painful if a community realizes, at any stage, that their rabbi is not compatible with their needs, and they have to part. We aim to avoid that happening.”

If in the old days, the role of a community rabbi was more clearly defined, that is no longer the case, as Rabbi Deshe notes – just as teachers today are expected to take a broad interest in the lives of their students and not just focus on learning.

“A rabbi needs to be someone who opens doors,” he says. “He needs to be able to deal with a wide range of issues, and make it clear that he can do that, so that people will turn to him for help with those issues. But it even goes further – because rabbis don’t just answer their community’s needs. They also discover and uncover the needs their communities weren’t even aware of.”

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