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“Most Israelis, even the religious, have generally viewed rabbis as ‘religious technicians,’ as people to provide specific services,” he said. “Many are now looking more to the American model of Jewish community, which sees the synagogue as much more than a place to pray… as a place to build community, and the rabbi as a builder and leader of community.”
All the men on the training course — and given the Orthodox stranglehold on rabbinical funding, they are all men — plus the other 80 who applied but weren’t accepted because of a lack of space want to be community rabbis, but only a small minority currently hold positions. Few Israeli synagogues have a dedicated rabbi, except for those attended by a state-salaried city or neighborhood rabbi. However, over the past decade a trend has emerged of communities fundraising to take on at least a part-time rabbi. The Barkai students plan both to catalyze this trend and to be on hand when congregations do start looking for candidates.
Trainee Lavi Hendel, 31, told the Forward that he thinks the current lack of professional community leadership stems from the setup by which, in the Jewish state, the Jewish religious infrastructure is state-funded. “In the Diaspora, people understand that everything costs money, including synagogues, and that congregations benefit from having professionals,” said Handel, who lives in the northern city of Nahariya and makes a six-hour round trip for the seminar. “Here in Israel, people think that everything needs to be free.”
Davidson was in the process of piecing together his own personal curriculum through counseling and psychology courses when he heard about Barkai and enrolled. He was “clueless” regarding what he considers a key skill for a congregational rabbi: treatment for people suffering psychological trauma. “Now I feel I have the initial ‘first aid’ of what to say and what not to say,” he commented, adding that the oratory training has made him a much more effective speaker.
The session that the Forward visited was intense, and academic at points, involving discussions about tragedy, hardships and coping strategies. It was led by a psychologist, Eli Sharon, who wears a yarmulke but has a different take on religion to that found in the yeshivas where the trainees studied — and where many of them continue to teach. “We need to remember that spirituality isn’t just religion, it is also music, literature, etc.,” Sharon said. The rabbis were there not to argue about religious ethos, but rather to learn a whole new discipline, and they listened attentively.
To the Diaspora mind, a visit to the private Barkai course suggests that the ground the rabbis are covering should be integrated, even as an elective, into the mostly state-funded yeshiva curriculum. But only a tiny minority of students at Israel’s yeshivas are destined to work as communal rabbis, which means that this kind of national course is seen as the best setup.
The big question, though, is, where will the Barkai rabbis end up? When the first trainees graduate this summer, they will be exactly what many Diaspora synagogues search for and fail to find — rabbis who are Modern Orthodox; not only Zionist, but also actually Israeli, and fully trained for community roles. What is more, positions in Israel are hard to find and poorly paid.
Davidson is determined to stay in Israel. “My goal is not to go abroad, but I recognize that if I went abroad, the mentality is such that there are more options,” he said. But it’s not clear that everyone will show his determination and patience to stay put while waiting for job openings, and Israel’s loss could be the Diaspora’s gain.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forw ard.com