Calls for Respect Don’t Pay Non-Orthodox Rabbis’ Bills

By Andrew Sacks

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
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Why do so many of us rabbis seem so invested in whether Israeli President Moshe Katsav addresses Reform and Conservative rabbis by their title? So what if he insists on not giving due recognition to the Reform movement’s Rabbi Eric Yoffie. And so what if he then turns around and assures Rabbi Jerry Epstein that his fellow Conservative rabbis will be addressed properly.

Personally, I really don’t care if the president of Israel calls me “rabbi.” Sure, I would prefer that the president do so. I would also prefer that he call Reform rabbis by their title. But what I do really care about is access to his office — which truth be told has been good.

I find it interesting that it was an American rabbi around whom the Reform movement flap began. It was an American rabbi who then pushed to resolve the issue on behalf of Conservative rabbis. And the storm of reaction that has since come from Reform and Conservative rabbis has come from the United States, too.

In the event that our American counterparts may have overlooked this small detail: Some 10% of us members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, are citizens of Israel. Was the reaction to this flap not a matter that should have been coordinated with our Israeli colleagues? Ought not the possible impact of this discussion on those who live here be a consideration?

The Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, together with the Masorti movement, has a mechanism to react to these matters. Why was this mechanism not employed?

I am not saying that Diaspora rabbis should not have a say in religious matters in Israel. They clearly should, and need to, have a say — we, the non-Orthodox movements, cannot make progress without their help.

But they should also make sure to work together with us. When delegates to meetings of the World Zionist Congress and the Jewish Agency for Israel leave the country, we are still here when the backlash hits.

If we, the non-Orthodox movements, demand respect from the president of Israel — if we demand that he recognize us as rabbis — then would it be right to demand anything less than respect from our own constituency?

If the Conservative movement in the United States truly wanted respect for Masorti rabbis in Israel, it would not abide by a situation in which our rabbis are paid $1,400 a month for a full-time position. As it is, most positions are not full time, because most congregations cannot afford even a part-time position. Most rabbis cannot find work within the movement.

Some in the United States may say, “there goes another Israeli rabbi, whining again.” To them, I would like to propose something concrete.

I would like to see each Conservative rabbi who has spoken out on the need for Israel to respect Masorti rabbis to go to his or her shul, local federation, affluent friend or congregant, and make every effort to endow a rabbinic position in Israel. I would like to see the Woman’s League endow a position. The Men’s Clubs and United Synagogue could endow one position each. The Jewish Theological Seminary could endow the “Ismar Schorsch Rabbinic Chair in Ramat Aviv,” or for that matter the “Arnold Eisen Chair.”

This same proposal, I would think, could also resonate in the Reform world.

Will our organizations come through for us? Will those sitting on the boards of Conservative and Reform organizations take the initiative in proposing endowed positions? I fear not, given that too many have seemed more interested in obtaining respect from the likes of Katsav than in coming through in ways that really count.

Conservative and Reform leaders in the United States need to realize that the non-Orthodox movements must respect their rabbis in Israel if they are to demand it of Katsav and others with a clear conscience.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks is director of the Conservative/Masorti movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. The views expressed are his own.

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