For unaffiliated Jews unable or unwilling to join a synagogue, and for whom a justice of the peace or, for that matter, a minister in an Elvis jumpsuit at a Vegas wedding chapel will not do, David Segal has a suggestion: Why don't you just rent a rabbi?
"I've had lots of friends who cannot find a rabbi, or for some reason the rabbi is either too busy or not interested in marrying them. That doesn't really fit right with me. Somebody should marry a Jewish person and not turn Jews off of Judaism. That's what's killing us," says Segal, a Phoenix-based technologist. "I realize that over 82 percent of American Jews are unaffiliated with a temple. I wonder if they're just not finding the right person, the right rabbi for their fit."
Segal's method for matching rabbis with Jews is a bit unorthodox -- though Orthodox rabbis are on his list. He established www.rabbirentals.com a year-and a-half ago, and has since amassed a stable of 54 rabbis nationwide willing to meet your wedding, funeral, b'nai mitzvah, baby-naming and bris needs.
So far, Segal has helped roughly 50 customers and generated nearly 100,000 hits -- meaning, unfortunately for him, that only one out of every 2,000 people who surf the site will hire a rabbi. Segal says he's more or less breaking even on the service (up from a few thousand in the hole last year), but is mainly running it in his spare time "as a mitzvah." And for his efforts, he has been both showered with compliments and chastised as "a bad Jew."
Criticisms of Segal are ill-founded according to Rabbi David Roller, who, along with his wife, Rabbi Shoshana Roller, are listed on the Web site. Unaffiliated Jews have been around since the beginning, he says, and the Internet is only the latest method people have used to find a rabbi for a special occasion. "In the pre-Internet world you went by word-of-mouth if you needed a rabbi for a wedding or a funeral. Or you went to a Jewish bookstore if you were unaffiliated and wanted to remain unaffiliated. You can call a funeral home and ask for a list of rabbis. If you go to a cemetery in New York you have Kaddish rabbis hanging around the front gate," says Roller, a Reform rabbi.
Rabbi Stephen Pearce doesn't make that claim, but he does feel that Internet rabbi listings debase the relationship between Jews and the clergy. Internet rabbi hunting "categorizes the relationship between Jews and their spiritual leaders as something that's for hire. For some people it probably is the perfect thing because they simply want a warm body up there to spout a bunch of sacred words and never have anything to do with that person again," says Pearce, spiritual leader at San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El, the largest synagogue in Northern California.
"It's a sad commentary that this service is available, and people want to take advantage of it. It's indicative of a rootlessness some people feel; they don't put down roots in a neighborhood anymore with a neighborhood synagogue and a neighborhood rabbi. It's just a commodity. You need a new car, look in the ads and get the best buy. You need a rabbi, go to the site and get the best buy."
Rabbi Jacob Traub of Orthodox Adath Israel sees things in a vastly different manner, however. He gets plenty of cold calls from strangers asking him to officiate a wedding or funeral, and how different is that than looking up a rabbi on the Internet? "These people who are not affiliated are looking for a rabbi to fulfill their needs for one or two events. So the Web is just another avenue of exploration. Originally, they would have asked somebody who belongs to a synagogue if they know a rabbi who could help them out. After that they had the Yellow Pages, and after that they had the Web. Who knows what will be next?" he says.
"The Web is not going to replace the synagogue, the emotional feeling one has in the synagogue, the attachment, roots and socialization one has in a synagogue. This is something for people who are unaffiliated and plan to remain unaffiliated and aren't going to set foot in synagogue anyway. Unfortunately, there are people like that, and you can rail against it all you want, but you're not going to change it."
As far as the claim that sites like rabbirentals.com will keep married couples from joining synagogues, Traub doesn't buy that either. "At the time they're getting married, the last thing a couple has in mind is joining a temple. They're more interested in buying a kitchen set," he says.
Pearce says he once visited an online rabbi site and discovered a rabbi listed who "had been disgraced." He did not recall the rabbi or the site, however. Segal says he runs strict background checks on all the rabbis named on his site.
Both Segal and Roller claim that a positive experience via the Web site might keep wavering Jews in the fold. "If you're looking for help, and your own community drives you away, it's like a kid touching a hot stove. You'll likely never go there again," says Roller.