Amsterdam Jews want out of long-distance relationship with U.S. rabbi Aryeh Ralbag

Amsterdams Chief Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, left, with members of Amsterdam's rabbinate during an inspection<br />
last year of one of the roads that had to be sealed to enable the historic reintroduction last month of the city's Eruv.  (David Serphos)

Amsterdams Chief Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, left, with members of Amsterdam’s rabbinate during an inspection
last year of one of the roads that had to be sealed to enable the historic reintroduction last month of the city’s Eruv. (David Serphos)

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — He was exotic, but familiar; well connected, yet independent; serious, but flexible. It was love at first sight for Amsterdam’s Orthodox community and Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag.

But six years after appointing Ralbag as the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, the community’s board is considering an end to the long-distance relationship, which has been strained by cultural gaps.

Ralbag, a rabbinical judge and the rabbi of a congregation in Brooklyn, N.Y., has traveled several times a year to Amsterdam since accepting the nonsalaried position in 2005. It is his second go-round in Amsterdam. He had worked here in the 1970s, making a name for himself as a reformer who married New World entrepreneurship with an understanding of European communities.

Some, however, worry that Ralbag’s U.S. obligations shackle Amsterdam’s Jews to his politics and business across the ocean while depriving them of effective guidance because of his frequent absence.

The relationship reached a boiling point in January when the Dutch Orthodox community briefly suspended Ralbag for co-signing a rabbinical declaration describing homosexuality as a curable condition.

During a board discussion last week, roughly a third of the community’s board of 30 members favored not extending Ralbag’s contract next year. 

To fill the position of chief rabbi of Amsterdam, the board of the community — known locally by its Dutch initials, NIHS — requires an internationally acclaimed, liberal-leaning Orthodox rabbi who is also a dayan, or rabbinical jurist. A secular academic degree also is required, along with experience working with Western European congregations. Plus he must to agree to live here.

With few domestic candidates, the tall order compelled the community of approximately 2,500 to hire an American. Community members say Ralbag was chosen for his rabbinical standing, familiarity with the Dutch community and openness to reform.

"Ralbag has done some very good things, and it’s extremely difficult for me to go against my rabbi – I know it’s not the Jewish thing to do," says Hadassa Hirschfeld, who chairs the largest faction on the NIHS board, Kol Chadasj. "But the community doesn’t feel connected."

Although Hirschfeld argues in favor of ending the engagement with Ralbag, she also credits him with opening the board to women in 2009 — a reform that enabled her tenure.

"At first almost everyone was very favorably impressed with Ralbag’s vision," she recalls.

After Ralbag co-signed the rabbinical declaration on homosexuality as a condition that can be "healed," the board briefly suspended him and said the community "welcomes" gays. The board then declared that it "unanimously found the position of long-distance chief rabbi no longer works the way it should."

Ralbag — who owns and runs Triangle K, a family business offering kashrut supervision — said he had signed the declaration in his capacity as an American rabbi, providing fresh ammunition to critics who said he was mixing American meat with Dutch dairy.

"The Dutch Orthodox community is very different to other Orthodox communities — it has active members who lead halachic lives alongside people who lead non-Orthodox lives," Hirschfeld says, referring to Jewish law. "A rabbi who can accommodate both is needed. Rabbi Ralbag did not strike the right balance."

Boris Shapiro, who prays at the Rotterdam Orthodox Congregation, also believes the arrangement with Ralbag isn’t working out, but he blames the board.

"The Dutch Jewish establishment is more concerned with their public image locally than by their reputation in the Jewish World, so they punish him for presenting the halachic viewpoint with integrity," he said.

Ralbag declined to be interviewed for this article.

In addition to giving women a seat on the board in 2009, Ralbag introduced another major reform that year when he set up a new eruv, a symbolic enclosure in which Jews are halachically allowed to carry objects on the Sabbath. Opponents and supporters praise Ralbag for the initiative.

Ralbag’s background and training as an Anglo-Saxon rabbi were instrumental in both reforms, according to Bart Wallet, a historian from the University of Amsterdam and an expert on Dutch Jewish history. Wallet says that Ralbag used halachic precedents from England to solve the women’s vote issue. The board now has six women.

The eruv question was trickier. Ralbag became involved with the issue during his first stint in Amsterdam, from 1975 to 1983, when he served as a community rabbi. Amsterdam at the time had no valid eruv.

Ralbag published a plan for a new eruv, proposing to set up an elaborate system of mock roadblocks that could theoretically cordon off the area, in keeping with halachah. Meir Just, then the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, rejected the plan.

The experience Ralbag had acquired working in Amsterdam in those early days would prove "crucial" in satisfying the board that he was the right man for the title of chief rabbi, Wallet says.

The rabbi’s wife, Fanny Ralbag, an Antwerp native who is fluent in Dutch, was a major bonus. "The community is so small that it had trouble finding a rabbi of standing," Wallet says. "It was lucky to get Ralbag."

But Ralbag’s absence from Amsterdam apparently is being felt on the ground. Doron Sanders, one of the founders of the new popular Amos shul in the south of Amsterdam, says Ralbag has not contacted the new congregation once.

"Rabbi Ralbag has done a lot for the community," Sanders said, "but people need contact with their rabbis."

The complications attached to having an imported rabbi also touch one of the Dutch community’s most important political battles in decades: defending kosher slaughter.

Last year, the Dutch parliament voted to ban ritual slaughter. The vote was blocked in the Senate. Fighting against a secularized political establishment and media, the Jewish and Muslim communities stuck to tradition. The Jewish community rejected a compromise called post-cut stunning in which the animal is stunned immediately after its throat is cut.

It then emerged that Ralbag had approved the very same procedure in America. Halachically, the apparent contradiction falls within the spectrum of minhag — normal variations in customs of different communities. Politically, however, it exposes a perceived weak point that serves opponents, Wallet says.

For its next chief rabbi, the community will inevitably look also to England, according to Wallet, "its closest community in mind-set and makeup."

Esther Voet, the former editor in chief of Holland’s leading Jewish publication, NIW, is a staunch critic of Ralbag’s performance. She finds that Triangle K, the rabbi’s U.S.-based family business of kashrut supervision, creates potential conflicts of interest here. Ralbag and the community agreed he would not handle kosher certificates for this very reason, "and in this case, you really can’t serve two masters," Voet says.

She believes the NIHS would do well to name the Amsterdam-born Dayan Raphael Evers as Ralbag’s successor. Internal politics and personal grudges, however, make his candidacy uncertain, she adds.

If Evers is nominated, he would be the first Dutch-born rabbi to hold the title since Just replaced Aron Schuster in 1976.

The right candidate eventually will come along, Voet says. Someone of rabbinical stature will want to become chief rabbi of a city that before the Holocaust was one of the world’s Jewish centers.

"It’s a small community in a constant state of balagan [agitation] and infighting but it’s Amsterdam – with its very own aura of something big and beautiful, tolerant and proud," she says.

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