When Samantha, a 13-year-old Jewish girl from Westchester County, N.Y., became a bat mitzvah, she read from the Torah and recited the ancient blessings before a gathering of family and friends. But unlike a typical ceremony, Samantha’s was in a catering hall and not a synagogue. She read from a rented Torah. And the rabbi presiding over the ceremony was rented off a Web site.
Samantha’s family used to belong to a Conservative synagogue, where her brother was bar mitzvahed. After the bar mitzvah, the family left the synagogue, but they still wanted a bat mitzvah for their daughter. So Samantha’s parents turned to RabbiRentals.com. There they found David Honigsberg, a rabbi who follows his own liberal, mystical leanings and is unaffiliated with any of the three major denominations. He worked with Samantha individually for months to prepare her for the ceremony.
When the time came for Samantha to read from the Torah, Rabbi Honigsberg said that “she flew through.”
Unnatural though it may seem, the rent-a-rabbi phenomenon responds for many to a very real need. But while supporters of RabbiRentals and the other services like it say that some Judaism is better than none, many religious leaders say the site and the idea behind it are a sad testament to how estranged today’s Jews are from Judaism.
“Rabbis should not be rented for a ritual and then returned,” said David Israel, director of communal services at Yeshiva University. “You’re not renting a vacuum cleaner for the weekend.”
Some religious leaders warn that ventures such as RabbiRentals offer Judaism in a void, outside its essential communal context. A religious rite, they say, should be part of an ongoing religious commitment.
“In some ways, this Web site underscores an individualistic approach to Judaism instead of a communal approach,” said Rabbi Charles Savenor, associate dean of the rabbinical school at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. “It may be helping individual Jews, but is it really helping the Jewish community?”
“I do think it indicates a longing on the part of Jews who are not part of a community to be connected,” said Rabbi Shirley Idelson, a dean at Hebrew Union College, Reform Judaism’s flagship institution. But, she continued, “I’m quite skeptical that this would give them the connection that they are looking for…. You just can’t do Judaism in a two-hour ceremony without any context.”
RabbiRentals’s database includes nearly 70 rabbis, with at least one in each state in the union, one in Israel and one in the United Kingdom. Rabbis can be searched by location, denomination (including Orthodox) and services offered — everything from house blessings to weddings. Prices vary by region, from $993.25 for a Los Angeles wedding officiated by a rabbi emeritus of the Reconstructionist University Synagogue, to more than $1,087.50 for a wedding by a prominent Reform rabbi in New York City, to $725 for a wedding by a Reform rabbi — and former Army chaplain — in Texas.
Site founder David Segal said that the impetus for the project came from his own impending nuptials. After moving from his childhood home in Boston and resettling in Arizona, Segal found himself unaffiliated with any synagogue. When he finally met a nice Jewish girl and they decided to get married, the couple could not find an affordable rabbi. None would do it without having the couple join his or her congregation, and it was simply too expensive to do that (Segal said it would cost at least $3,000) and then make a wedding.
So Segal found a modern solution to his problem: a Web site. A friend built the site, and by the end of 2001 the twosome had RabbiRentals up and running. The site “provides a [rabbi] for people who absolutely need one,” Segal said. “I’m not doing this to get rich. I’m doing this because it is a mitzvah.” Segal relies on his day job as an information technologist to pay the bills.
The site generates about 1,000 hits a month, a small fraction of which translates into requests for rabbi rentals. Segal said the site brings in $15,000 to $20,000 a year in gross revenue, most of which he donates to Jewish charities.
“Ultimately,” Segal said, “I’m looking for these individuals to build a relationship with these rabbis I put them together with.” Most of the rabbis listed on the site, he said, are congregational rabbis. After the unaffiliated Jew meets a rabbi through RabbiRentals, a new bond to Judaism and, in some cases, a synagogue has been formed.
The JTS’s Savenor said that most synagogues would work with a young couple to remove the financial stumbling blocks to becoming part of their congregations. There are myriad resources for Jews in search of congregations, including a Web site listing Conservative rabbis by location and programs dedicated to attracting Jews to congregations.
Still, rabbis Savenor and Israel credited the site with opening some sort of door to Judaism. Savenor said that he “applauded efforts for creating an entryway for people.” Israel said that while renting a rabbi is far from an “optimal situation,” he was nevertheless glad to see Jews reaching out for rabbis.
But Savenor said the challenge remains: “How do we get Jewish people who live in a world of infinite choices to choose the Jewish community?”
Lani Perlman is a freelance writer in New York City. She recently earned her master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.