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Group Established to Prevent Abuse of Rabbis by Congregations

A 36-year-old New York Orthodox rabbi said today that the fledgling Independent Rabbinate of America, of which he is director, was created to function as a professional organization in seeking to prevent abuses of rabbis by congregations, rather than as a labor union. Rabbi L. Martin Kaplan, who now holds a pulpit here and who has served congregations in Albany. New Jersey and Tennessee, also told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the immediate stress of the organization’s effort is on membership building. Currently, he said, the organization has about 100 members, most of them Orthodox rabbis serving Conservative congregations. He said the three-month-old organization would maintain a confidential file on complaints registered by rabbis against congregations and that this information would be made available to any rabbi seeking a position, regardless of his affiliation. Rabbi Kaplan stated that the organization was particularly concerned with congregations which fire their rabbis for any reason and would investigate all such incidents reported to it. He said another major concern was unfair harassment of rabbis and attempts to “usurp” the rabbi’s classical authority. Rabbi Kaplan listed as other categories of complaints failure to respect the rabbi’s professional dignity; failure to provide a rabbi with adequate compensation, tenure, retirement and severance pay; exclusion of rabbis from boards of directors or other congregational policy making bodies; and “excessive complaints” where the rabbi is not at fault, as for example, not visiting sick congregants when not informed. He told the JTA the new organization is open to any rabbi who is legally recognized by the domestic relations law of his state. He expressed the opinion that the existence of the projected confidential file would make congregations more circumspect in their relations with their rabbis, “just as the existence of credit bureaus makes people more careful about paying their bills.” Asked about the dangers inherent in such secret files. Rabbi Kaplan said he was aware of the dangers and that the problem “will have to be worked out.” One of the problems he hopes the new organization will help to resolve is that of the organizationally-unaffiliated rabbi. He said that of the approximately 3,000 rabbis in the United States, about 1,200 have no such affiliation.

Their unaffiliated status, Rabbi Kaplan declared, permits congregations to “bargain” on lower standards in their hiring practices, which tends to drag down professional standards for the entire rabbinate. Most unaffiliated rabbis are not in that situation by choice, he added, asserting that any rabbi who serves a congregation of a Jewish “wing” different from his has a “hassle” getting into one of the major rabbinical groups. Currently, he reported, the new organization has an office in mid-Manhattan but no staff. So far, he added, no complaints have been registered. The organization has an executive committee of 11 rabbis, representing all three branches of Judaism. Pending creation of working committees, he said, he personally would deal with initial complaints by determining the validity of the complaint and raising the issue with the offending congregation. Rabbi Kaplan added that initially, at least, the approach to representing a rabbi with a valid complaint would be limited to persuasion. Later, he indicated, as the organization becomes larger and stronger, “we will use rabbi power” in defending the rabbi “when his position or authority may be challenged in the proper execution of his function.”

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