Author Stephen Fried's recent book, "The New Rabbi," published by Bantam Books, chronicles the four years he spent observing Har Zion's rabbinic search committee and interviewing Wolpe through his transition. Fried, author of several previous books and former editor of Philadelphia magazine, spoke to Beliefnet about why clergy are so important to religious congregations, how a clergy search affects a religious community, and current attacks on clergy in America.
What makes the subject of choosing clergy interesting to someone who's not going through it?
The changing of clergy is a big flashpoint in any religious community. You either make the right decision and cement the community's life for another 20 or 30 years, or you make the wrong decision and you spend the next five, ten, however many years simply trying to unmake the wrong decision.
Even when a synagogue is as big and powerful and wealthy as Har Zion, religious communities still have a basic fragility. The people still have to say, "Yes, I still want to belong here." There are often many other synagogues they can go to. Or they can leave their religion of choice and try another religion. So the choice of the clergy is very important. When the new person comes in, if he or she comes in and gives a great sermon and everyone thinks, "We picked the right person, this is somebody who is going to inspire me for a long time," it's an amazing thing. When the new person comes in and their first sermon isn't quite good enough, there's no end to the [complaining]. All of this is hard-wired into American religion.
Is this specific to religion in America because the process is so democratic in nature?
I think it's because what America has done to many religions that obviously didn't start here is that it's made them more democratic. Because of the size of America, a congregation really runs itself. It has an affiliation with a main office somewhere, but the country's too big. So I think in America, as opposed to Europe, simply because of geography, there is a little more autonomy in each congregation.
Part of what was fascinating in my research was looking at the Rabbinical Assembly, kind of the union for Conservative rabbis, which is like an employment service. They have all this material to try to teach the rabbis what it's like out there in the real world-how to use a good biblical quote, for example. Most clergy in America have their own professional organizations or unions. What they function as to a large degree is giving clergy colleagues in other cities to talk to. It's a difficult job, and the professional organizations are there to help keep the rabbis sane.
Now that so much of synagogue life is not just focused on religious services but everything else that goes on there, has the importance of the rabbi decreased?
The rabbi is still the spiritual CEO of the congregation. Even though there is lay leadership and there usually is a lay executive director, the truth is that the rabbi still sets the tone. It's a funny relationship, because as rabbi, you don't have the power to do whatever you want, but you're in the position to be blamed for whatever goes wrong. Being in the clergy is a tough job. And the bigger the congregation and the more demanding the congregation, the tougher the job.
More and more, people are coming back to religion in America, or at least reconsidering the place religion has in their lives. This has been happening since 9/11 but I think it's been happening for a while. I started paying more attention to it after my dad died in 1997 and I came back. When people come back, they can have all different kinds of experiences. I've talked to plenty of people who came back or tried to come back after the death of a parent and hated the rabbi. What people always say is, I want to come back to religion. But you don't come back to religion. You come back to one house of worship, and that house of worship either does it for you or it doesn't. If it doesn't, some people will look to another one, and other people will say, that's it. That's why the job of the rabbi is so important. The rabbi in many situations only has that little moment to connect.