Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Case Against Rabbi Dumping

The Jewish Week, July 22, 2005

A number of years ago, a young rabbinic colleague new to his congregation
explained to me how he was approaching the task at hand.

"I've got to make them fall in love with me," he said.

Sure enough, he did. Within months, this rabbi and his congregants were like honeymooners, proudly showing off their new "catch" to the relatives, finishing each other's sentences, laughing even at the bad jokes and finding reasons to believe again. There was more hugging and kissing going on at the weekly kiddush than likely took place in the homes of the membership. His plan succeeded to perfection, and the congregation's dreams of becoming a loving, warm community seemed instantly attainable.

But my friend wasn't happy. Nor was he really in love with his congregants. He just knew that seduction was a prerequisite to success. A short time later, a better job offer came and he left them quite literally at the altar. The heartbroken congregation moved on, but subsequent rabbis – an extremely talented group -- didn't have a chance. Like any jilted lover, this congregation was not about to risk being burned again, so an atmosphere of mistrust prevailed.

The relationship between rabbis and congregations is best described as a marriage, filled with all the opportunities and pitfalls of matrimony. The selection process mirrors 21st century courtship. First we read the data from questionnaires that could easily be found on JDate. Then we do the obligatory Google check, followed by some good old- fashioned snooping, a phone interview and an intense, on-site mutual probing, often over dinner. Finally we take the most special candidates home to meet the folks for Shabbat.

If things work out, we bring in a phalanx of lawyers to draw up the pre-nups.

There's almost always a honeymoon, usually lasting a year, but sometimes not making it to the final shofar blast on Yom Kippur. As with a marriage, the big test comes during the second year, or the second contract, when all the warts are exposed and we discover whether the commitment is real on both sides. Usually that's when the power struggles commence.

"How can she take so many vacations?" the congregants might ask, forgetting that rabbis are almost always on call and almost never have weekends.

"Why are they more concerned with what I wear than what I say?" the rabbi thinks. "And why do they not give a hoot about the things I cherish most?"

Each party shudders at the sudden revelation that the other one is not perfect and that "happily ever after" has again been indefinitely delayed.

At that point, usually between years three and eight of the marriage, a major crisis ensues. Often masked as some other synagogue crisis, it always comes back to the relationship with the rabbi. If the parties are willing to forgive and accept the flaws in the other, they can grow from these conflicts and the partnership might be sustained for decades.

Almost without exception, synagogues flourish when this marriage is a good one. And almost without exception, they drift when it is not. While the American divorce rate is down for marriage, it appears to be rising in synagogue life. A generation ago, rabbis and congregations who made it beyond that rocky first decade would typically celebrate their
commitment with some form of tenure arrangement. Life contracts now are almost unheard of. While I'm not a great believer in life contracts, I am a believer in loyalty.

My older colleagues reminisce of the day when a handshake was all it took. Wherever contracts are being renegotiated now, the spirit of Donald Trump hovers over the table rather than the sanctity of a common quest. More and more I am seeing long-term rabbinic relationships dissolve in a disastrous instant. I've seen congregations chase away some of the finest rabbinic minds and kindest souls of this generation after many years of dedicated service, all because of one supposedly missed hospital visit or a principled stand that rubbed someone the wrong way, or merely the desire to bring in someone younger and cheaper.

Just as we need to discuss openly those rare and horrible cases when rabbis abuse congregants and betray a community's trust, we also need to be frank about this far more prevalent phenomenon of rabbi dumping. The cost to the Jewish community is incalculable. People leave congregations because of these messy breakups; many leave Judaism entirely.

Perhaps rabbis and congregants need to live together before getting married. Why invite the candidate for a single Shabbat when a yearlong tryout might be best? But implied in that prolonged engagement must be the realization that if the fit is right, the commitment must be real.

I've been lucky. Last week I completed my 18th year at my congregation. During that time the two other large congregations in my community have had a total of 10 senior rabbis. The only ones to remain have been the founder of a small chavurah, the Chabad rabbi and myself. For many Jews, seeing rabbis come and go makes their connection to God seem all the more elusive.

Marriage, kiddushin (holiness) in Hebrew, is the paradigm for all sacred relationships. The bond between a community and its spiritual leader can be no less.

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