How To Pick the Perfect Rabbi

Following One Shul's Three-Year Search for the 'New Rabbi'

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By Stephen Fried

Published March 22, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
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I once spent three years of my life following what was supposed to be a one-year search for a new rabbi at one of the country’s biggest synagogues. It was one of the most fascinating, shocking and challenging experiences of my life — as a Jew and as a writer. And it made me entirely sympathetic to everyone involved, even though, honestly, they weren’t always all that sympathetic to each other.

I am often asked by readers of the resulting book, “The New Rabbi,” what advice I would give to search committees, lay leaders, congregants and clergy (outgoing and incoming), the main stakeholders in The Search. Since the rabbis I wrote about often liked to quote from nontraditional sources, I’ll start with a quote from a source you don’t often hear in synagogue. “Be excellent to each other,” which are, of course, the immortal words of Bill S. Preston, Esq. from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

It is advice I wanted to offer at so many turns during my time documenting intense synagogue politics, when I often saw more passion than compassion.

When I began covering rabbi searches (which are hopelessly intertwined, because many synagogues are seeking and losing rabbis at the same time), I went to New York and had “the talk” with members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the overseers of searching for the Conservative movement. They told me what they have told so many others — a version of which is also explained to congregations associated with the Reform and other movements.

“Congregations all want to hire the same rabbi,” I was told. “They all want someone who attends every meeting and is at his desk working until midnight, someone who is 28 years old but has preached for 30 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.”

When lay leaders and congregants hear stuff like this, they smile knowingly. And then they ignore it, because they think they are special, unique, exempt from the rules that govern the rest of “the retail business of religion” — as the rabbi whose congregation I covered, the late Gerald Wolpe, used to refer to it.

While this rabbi search season, like every other, will be dominated by discussions of finding inspirational clergy, I’d like to suggest that more attention be paid to finding inspirational congregants, inspirational lay leaders, inspirational synagogue problem solvers. It is, I can assure you, up to you — not the clergy member you seek to hire — to be inspired and inspirational.

Click here to read America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis

It is also crucial that congregations realize that the process of self-evaluation leading to a clergy search tends to intensify all emotions and not only tears open old wounds before healing them, but also, in many cases, is the first time some people even realize there were old wounds.

Here are a couple of rules for search committees and searching congregations: Assume that any problem you “discover” during your synagogical hand wringing is 1) probably not unique, 2) probably not “new” (although it may be new to you) and 3) probably at least partly your fault. These three rules can offer the buffer of perspective to the intense emotions of rabbi searches — from which congregations sometimes never recover, even if they end up choosing the right clergy.

I was thinking about all this recently at a funeral — one of the most achingly sad funerals I’ve ever attended. It was for a beloved 59-year-old pediatric dentist who died of pancreatic cancer. It was brutal for all the obvious reasons, but also for one that nobody mentioned.

The dentist had been an inspirational and devoted lay leader — and occasional fill-in cantor — at the synagogue I covered for “The New Rabbi.” And just before the book came out, in 2002 (in incidents I later covered for the afterword that appears in the current paperback and eBook editions), a fellow congregant viciously attacked him — because of his stand on the rabbi selection process. He eventually chose to resign the presidency he had worked toward for years, for the good of the synagogue. He and his wife, who had been on the rabbi search committee, chose to quit the synagogue where they had raised their children and where they had both devoted unending hours to service. His funeral was held at a different synagogue, just down the street, and the audience was packed with people from the one he and his family had left. In fact, the cantor from the other synagogue sang during the service.

What it all made me think about was time, the time we devote to our houses of worship and to our communities. Everyone involved in synagogue life and leadership gives up time, precious time, for the good of something bigger than himself or herself. No matter how much you passionately disagree with fellow congregants during this search within your community and yourselves, I pray you remember that. Your new rabbi isn’t responsible for teaching you how to be excellent to each other — that’s something you have to do yourselves.

Click here to read America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis

Stephen Fried teaches at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of five books, including “The New Rabbi” and “Appetite for America.”


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