2016-06-30
Stephen Fried's book "The New Rabbi" captures one synagogue, Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pa., at a pivotal moment in its history. Its longtime rabbi, the well-known Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, has announced his retirement, and the synagouge begins a tumultuous search for his replacement. Fried's book chronicles this process, as well as his own reconnection with Judaism. Excerpted from "The New Rabbi" with permission of the author and Bantam books.

"Congregations all want to hire the same rabbi," [Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, of the Rabbinical Assembly] says with a chuckle. "They all want..." and he reaches across his desk to grab a page with "The Perfect Rabbi" printed across the top, "...someone who attends every meeting and is at his desk working until midnight, someone who is twenty-eight years old but has preached for thirty years, someone who has a burning desire to work with teenagers but spends all his time with senior citizens, basically someone who does everything well and will stay with the congregation forever.

"We try to tell them, You're not looking for the best rabbi. You're looking for the best match, the best fit. And that's a hard thing for people to adjust to, the idea that the best rabbi may not be the best rabbi for them."

I ask him where the Har Zion rabbi search fits into the international placement picture. How would he handicap the upcoming season for Conservative rabbis?

"Har Zion is one of the great plums," he explains. "It's one of the top ten congregations in the country-if there is such a list. It has only had wonderful rabbis, it has only done wonderful things and it has made major contributions to Philadelphia, to the Seminary and to the country. Still, not everybody wants to be rabbi of a congregation of that size and that magnitude."

[.] The first step in the process, he explains, is that the congregation fills out a questionnaire evaluating itself and its needs. Har Zion's pulpit will not be open for another year, and rabbi-hunting season generally runs from January to April, with the new rabbi showing up in the summer and making the first big splash on the High Holidays in the early fall. This means that Har Zion really shouldn't even bother sending in its questionnaire for another year. But the overachievers have already finished their homework, and they want to know from Schoenberg how soon they can post their vacancy on the "Yellow Sheets," the placement list that is the bible of job-searching rabbis.

Congregations are not allowed to advertise vacancies. They aren't even supposed to call rabbis to assess or solicit their interest in changing jobs-although these calls are made all the time. All they can do, officially, is list the opening on the Yellow Sheets, which are updated every month. And then any rabbi who is eligible can apply, through the RA, to be considered by the congregation.

The last time Har Zion hired a rabbi, the process worked differently. The RA and the Joint Commission were more dictatorial back in the sixties: they decided themselves which rabbis should be seen by which congregations, and doled out a handful of resumes. Only if all candidates from the initial panel were interviewed and rejected could the synagogue get more. In 1989, the rules were changed after rabbis complained that the process should be more democratic, the RA's whims less powerful. A rabbi can now apply for any pulpit, as long as certain eligibility standards are met.

"Rabbis don't have free agency," Schoenberg says. "It is a controlled and hierarchical process." They can't break a long-term contract with their current synagogue to pursue a better job. And they have to meet certain requirements of experience depending on the size of the synagogue: the larger the congregation, the more experience necessary. This system is meant to protect older rabbis from being forced out by younger rabbis, and to protect younger rabbis from getting in over their heads.

[.] As we talk, I am reminded of the peculiar experiences of rabbis-all clergy, really-in the sheer volume of emotionally charged situations, assaults on the human condition, that they must witness and process. These are referred to as "life-cycle events" in the retail business of religion. And after a while, rabbis see and oversee enough of them that they are able to compare and contrast trends and patterns. In any give week, a pulpit rabbi in a large congregation might give two or three eulogies, and might visit three times as many people struggling with life-threatening medical conditions. That's more death and destruction than most war veterans will ever have to process, and for the clergy, there's never a lull in the battle. Then there are the bar and bat mitzvahs, the baby namings, the weddings and the private pastoral counseling sessions, where the weights of various worlds are placed on the rabbi's shoulders. It's enough to create post-traumatic stress disorder by proxy.

I am fascinated by people who have learned things most of us don't imagine can (or should) be known. I remember the hospice nurse who treated my father, and her incomprehensible expertise in the mechanics of death. One night we were sitting up with him when his lungs made a scary, gurgling sound and she matter-of-factly noted, "Oh, that's the death rattle,' but explained that, unlike in the movies, it can come and go for days. Two nights later, my brother and I were huddled around Dad, watching for hours on end in case the next breath was his last. At 6 a.m., the nurse got up and turned on the TV to a cable channel with streaming weather and news, muting the audio. When he died fifteen minutes later, we realized why: she knew she would soon be needing to record an exact time of death. She had a specific genius.

Schoenberg is that way with rabbi placements. No matter how unique the circumstances seem, he always knows how it will go. And he knows Har Zion is overanxious. They started too soon and they shouldn't be pushing to have their vacancy listed already.

"I told them they could list it now, but I wouldn't recommend it," he explains. "No one's going to apply because the pulpit isn't open for twenty months. So the congregation won't get resumes for the next ten months. And six months from now people will say 'Why hasn't anybody applied? Doesn't anybody want Har Zion?' Which won't be the case at all, but psychologically it will feel that way to the search committee."

I tell Schoenberg I hope to be able to check in with him periodically. He says he'd be happy to help, the rabbi-placement process is an open one, and maybe what I'm writing will help more people understand its importance and delicacy. We agree to talk again when there is something to talk about. Because regardless of what the search committee at Har Zion thinks, nothing is really going to happen for a while.

Not long after I return from the RA, I get a call from Lou Fryman [chairman of the Har Zion rabbi search committee]. It's my second turndown. [Fried had asked the committee to observe them during the search process.] The rabbi search committee does, however, wish me good luck in writing about whatever I'm going to write about without their help.

Then I call Rabbi Schoenberg again, to make sure I can count on him and input from the RA. He says, actually, well, he's not sure he wants to be involved either. Wonderful.

So I go back to see Wolpe. He seems both unsurprised and unconcerned. Patience, he says. He and I still have plenty to talk about.

Still, I pump him for what he knows about the rabbi search. Very little, he insists. He's doing everything he can to stay out of it.

He has heard one thing, however. In an early meeting, a controversy apparently erupted about whether the next rabbi of Har Zion would be someone they could address by first name. Congregants at Har Zion never call Rabbi Gerald Wolpe "Jerry" to his face. It's just not done. Even Ralph Snyder, one of his closest friends, won't do it. He calls him "Rabbi," or "MTR," which is short for mein teirer rebbi, Yiddish for "my dear rabbi." Like all Har Zionites, he refers to the Wolpes as "Rabbi and Elaine."

Some on the committee, however, would really prefer a rabbi they can call Jerry. One of the younger members-and, in Jewish institutional life, "younger" generally means close to middle-aged-was particularly adamant. She made a case for a new rabbi who would be more informal, more personal, a leader for a more modern synagogue that is less, as Har Zion is sometimes described, "High Church." Her insistence set off a hailstorm of discussion, a debate reminiscent of the one Woody Allen has with himself when he realizes his girlfriend calls her therapist "Donny," while he reverently refers to his as "Dr. Chomsky."

The debate, of course, is about more than the rabbi's name. It is about the future of Judaism, the future of all American religions, really. Most public prayer in twentieth-century American has been in institutions that are fairly "High Church." We have, in general, preferred a good show to full congregational participation, and charismatic leaders have been valued more highly than patient teachers and scholars because they fill seats. The question is whether baby boomers and the generations after them want their clergy to be as dress-casual as the rest of their lives, or whether the significant return to religion in the 1990s is made up of people who will ultimately desire more formality.

American Judaism in general is leaning toward the right. While fewer Jews affiliate with synagogues than in previous generations, those who do tend to be more closely and actively affiliated. So many young people are becoming observant Conservative Jews, or Modern Orthodox, or something in between (often referred to as "Conservadox") that my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, once known as one of the nation's great havens for assimilated Jewish princes and princesses, now has its own kosher dining hall to handle the needs of a burgeoning observant population.

And the Reform movement, which was once the most churchlike of the denominations and had the least number of required or even suggested observances, is now slouching toward more tradition and ritual. Reform Judaism still has certain liberal policies: some of its rabbis will perform interfaith marriages, its congregations will bar mitzvah children of non-Jewish mothers based on the modern concept of patrilineal descent (traditionally, biological Jewishness is passed on by the mother), the denomination allows low-commitment conversions, and many rabbis will recognize homosexual unions. But in some Reform synagogues they are also starting to add more Hebrew to the service and to wear kippahs and tallises during prayer-which they never used to do-and they're grappling with other rules jettisoned long ago.

But recognizing and anticipating trends in Jewish life does not necessarily make it easier to decide which way Har Zion should go. Part of the synagogue's appeal is that is has been ambitious while remaining old-fashioned. Across the nation, some younger congregants voice a desire for more participatory services and smaller congregations. But, still, many Americans prefer to be led in prayer-and everyone likes a good show. The surveys Har Zion did of its search committee and later its congregants both came back with the same result: their number one priority is that the new rabbi be a great sermonizer-or, as they say at the Seminary, a master a homiletics. But most dramatic homoleticists don't want to be called by their first names. It undercuts the drama.

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