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.
Everybody wants a clergy person who can do everything. Everybody wants a rabbi with charisma, and everybody wants a rabbi who can give a great inspiring sermon. People complain that rabbis that can do that are harder and harder to come by. They find rabbis that are better at the institutional life of a synagogue than the great sermonizers were, but maybe they aren't as good at the politics. So some of it really does come down to leadership. What do we want in a leader? And what are we willing to sacrifice in order to get the right person?
Has there been a decrease in the number of people interested in becoming pulpit rabbis?
Yes, and that's true in many religions. There's a slight up-tick in the number of people going to become ordained, and a downturn in the number of those who expect to be on pulpits. They can get better jobs with better hours and not be at the whims of the leadership of a congregation or a wealthy person who didn't like the eulogy they gave for her mother. There are more rabbis who are targeting to get jobs as headmasters of day schools, hospitals, or to go into academia.
How many churches or synagogues are going through a clergy search at one time?
Out of the 4,000 synagogues and 230,000 churches, a large number are, but I don't think anybody knows how many. But I have to say that from the phone calls and emails I'm getting about this book-a lot. [laughs] The lifespan of a job at a church or synagogue is getting shorter. People are more likely to say, "We don't like this guy, we're not going to renew his first contract or her first contract. Whereas before, after 10 years maybe you wouldn't renew their fourth contract. So people are getting more picky. They know they're in a competitive marketplace. If you have a [so-so] rabbi, and the synagogue down the street has a great rabbi, people start leaving your synagogue.
This is happening all over the country, and not just to Jews. We are a consumer economy, and we are not tied, as our parents were, to the house of worship of our family. We're more likely to be tied to our religion, but we will shop within that religion.
So the ability of the rabbi to be, I hate to say it, a good salesman for God, becomes more and more important. It increases the pressure on the clergy and it increases the pressure on the people who are trying to pick new clergy to pick the right one. Important synagogues can actually cease to exist because of the battles that happen in the aftermath of a difficult clergy decision.
The synagogue you covered is a wealthy suburban congregation outside of Philadelphia. What is this synagogue's place in the American Jewish community?
Har Zion is one of the largest and most powerful synagogues in the country. This comes from the time when Philadelphia was really the center of Conservative Judaism. It has only had three rabbis. Its first rabbi, Simon Greenberg, became vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and was the founding president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Rabbi [David] Goldstein, who followed him, built many of the day camps and day schools and summer camps that became models for what American-style community Judaism would be around the country. It is also the place where the first synagogue scholar-in-residence program was, which included Chaim Potok, Nachum Sarna, and many other people who became very big deals.
Those are the reasons that Har Zion is known nationally and internationally. Also, its members have given a lot of money over the years. They've been very powerful supporters of Israel, supporters of Federation [the major Jewish communal organization], and supporters of the intellectual life of Judaism. Rabbi Wolpe, who was the rabbi there for 30 years, was one of the great post-war rabbinic orators. That he has two sons in the rabbinate, one of whom-[Beliefnet columnist] David [Wolpe]-is quite well known, cements the legacy of the synagogue and of the Wolpes.
This wasn't a book where I set out to find a rabbi search that was going to be difficult. I followed this congregation for a year before I pitched the book. In February of 1999, I thought that Har Zion had picked its rabbi. They picked a guy named David Ackerman who was a well-known rabbi at another synagogue here in town. He had quietly applied for the job, and they picked him. My expectation was that I was going to watch the synagogue for the next six months, during his transition. At that time, the young assistant rabbi was holding down the fort until the new rabbi came in. And everybody said it's Ackerman, it's done.
Then he changed his mind. And then the whole process fell apart. Not long after he changed his mind, a very young woman in the congregation who had 4 young kids in the school, one of the people who was very much the future of the synagogue, dropped dead at the age of 34, only a few weeks after this rabbi candidate pulled out. The combination of these two things created a panic within the leadership of the congregation. They made a number of decisions that they are still reconsidering today, having to do with encouraging their young rabbi to try to apply for the job, even though it was against the rules of the union.
All of a sudden, we were in another book. Instead of the congregation beginning the process of healing the wounds of losing a rabbi after 30 years, which is in itself a trauma, they were going into a whole other area of exploring the difficulties of holding together religious communities. I was fortunate enough to be covering it when all that happened. I think people revealed themselves in a way they never would have if the search had been very neat and tidy.
What is the future of the rabbinate in a community where small, independent prayer groups are becoming more prevalent? Are synagogues like Har Zion past their prime?
Rabbi Wolpe actually made a point about this in the book. The assumption in America is that it's going to be one or the other. The truth is that there will always be a place for the large synagogue and the large house of worship in America, because a large number of people want that.
The growth of the havurah movement and the growth of smaller, non-clergy-led groups is not going to kill off the congregations. It'll just mean that there will be more variety. People will understand that there are choices. Even in big congregations, you have more participation by lay people than you used to. I think the larger houses of worship, if they're going to survive, will have smaller groups that pray together in them, so those groups don't have to go somewhere else. The big houses of worship are going to have to be more like department stores of Judaism than just like a theater for the big Saturday morning service.
But having a big rabbinic presence will still be important?
Rabbi Wolpe's point is that there's always going to be a large percentage of America that wants to worship in a large congregation, and want to be led by a big charismatic leader.
[When a synagogue is hiring clergy,] it's not like the denominations have these set laws. You pick a rabbi based on what he or she is going to do in your community. This is why I find this stuff so fascinating-because it's so dramatic to people's lives. It's such a big change. And it can be a change for good or bad or both. But it's so much about whether these communities will stick it out.
Every other aspect of community in this country, to me, has eroded. The religious communities are the only kind of communities left that look like the America that I grew up in during the 60s. So I think there's an awful lot at stake. And as these choices get made, it will also affect who goes into the clergy.
There's an attack on the clergy right now, driven by the Catholic Church attacks. But it filters down to everybody. This is an uneasy time for the clergy. But people need the clergy. They always forget it until somebody dies, somebody needs to get married, somebody needs to be confirmed, and then all of a sudden, they want to say "I want to love my rabbi, I want to love my priest," because they want their rite of passage to be a successful one.