A friend who is a leadership consultant recently told me that the Jewish community in the United States is in crisis. “The Jewish community is far too fragmented and there is little leadership amongst it rabbis to pull it together,” he complained to me.
He has a point. In by gone times rabbis used to lead their congregations—they would be involved in every level of communal affairs. Nowadays rabbis act as agents of the communities rather than as leaders of them. Having been a congregational rabbi and also having met with synagogue rabbis to discuss issues affecting the wider Jewish community I can attest to this.
It is rare that a rabbi can make a decision on his own. There is always the caveat that he must first discuss it with the board of management or more accurately with his boss. Often the rabbi’s ideas will then be overruled by the management and nothing will get done. Most seasoned rabbis know not to act on anything of consequence without prior approval of their employers.
On occasion one finds a congregational rabbi who actually takes his own initiative and leads. Unfortunately the fallout can be devastating for the rabbi. This is evidenced by a recent event that took place at Britain’s Oldest Synagogue Bevis Marks.
UK synagogue affairAbout a year and a half ago Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest in the UK, hired a young new rabbi named Natan Asmoucha, who they hoped would breathe life into their old and failing synagogue. Rabbi Asmoucha brought new vibrancy and was successful at increasing synagogue attendance.
About three weeks ago, however, Rabbi Asmoucha took part in an interfaith effort to lobby the Royal Bank of Scotland to reduce their interest rates on credit cards to a minimum of 10%. As part of this effort he invited a Muslim Imam and his supporters into the synagogue without first getting permission from the synagogue’s board of directors. As a result the board of directors called him to a disciplinary meeting and temporarily suspended him from his duties.
According to London’s Jewish Chronicle, in a letter circulated last week to the members of the Board of Elders, the governing body of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, their president Alfred Magnus explained the disciplinary action. Alfred Magnus noted that Rabbi Asmoucha “gave all the demonstrators access to the inside of the synagogue, in order to be addressed by him, as well as its hall and courtyard, without any security checks first taking place.
“He then accompanied and assisted the demonstrators with their goal of delivering a political message to the chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, that had not been authorized by his employer.”
According to the letter, “the mahamad (board of management) are summoning Rabbi Asmoucha to a second disciplinary hearing on Monday August 17 for gross misconduct, because of his alleged serious breaches of confidentiality and for making seriously derogatory public statements about the mahamad and Rabbi Levy (the senior spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation of the UK), the outcome of which could lead to termination of the rabbi’s employment, either summarily or otherwise.”
Impossible to lead with shackles
So there we have it. If a Rabbi dares to invite an Imam into his synagogue without prior permission from his bosses he is guilty of “gross misconduct.” And then if he has the audacity to complain about being treated unfairly he is guilty of “breaches of confidentiality” and “derogatory public statements.”
This extreme case is representative of how rabbis are seen by the communities that hire them in the UK and in the Diaspora in general. They are expected to toe the line of their employers and not to do anything dynamic without full consultation with the board of management.
As a congregational rabbi for four years in the UK this is how I worked. But it meant that many of my ideas never came to fruition either because they were overruled by my employers or because by the time the synagogue board of management agreed to them they were no longer relevant. Clearly synagogues are mainly led by the lay leadership and for the most part rabbis are simple employees who have paid to do the functionary roles reading from the Torah, preaching and teaching some classes.
With shackles like these it is impossible for rabbis to actually lead. So indeed there is a crisis of leadership within our Diaspora Jewish communities. This may just explain why Anglo Jewry and congregations in the USA can’t seem to revive their stagnating and dwindling synagogue memberships. Simply put: without real leaders there won’t be any followers.
The solution is simple: We need communities that are rabbi run and led. One of the most successful synagogues here in the Metro Denver area, Aish Ahavas Yisroel, was founded and is led in all of its aspects by its rabbi, Yaakov Meyer. This may also explain the success of Chabad in the United States. Each Chabad center is founded, led and run by the rabbi. We live in a generation that is looking for real leadership and as long as conventional synagogues don’t offer it they will continue to bleed members to the new models of rabbi led synagogues offered by Chabad and Aish.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts