Behind the Headlines Where Have All the Rabbis Gone?
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Behind the Headlines Where Have All the Rabbis Gone?

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The old joke that “being a rabbi is no job for a Jewish boy” has become a not so funny reality for many congregations of the United Synagogue, Anglo Jewry’s biggest grouping of synagogues.

Four of its major pulpits in London alone are without a minister or soon will be. They include Hampstead Garden suburb and Saint John’s Wood, the capital’s wealthiest communities. Cries of help are also heard from important provincial centers like Glasgow, Hull and Sheffield.

Meanwhile, United Synagogue membership is declining as assimilation, Reform and Progressive movement take their toll. It is not helped either by a resurgence of militant Orthodoxy among some Jewish youngsters. For although yeshivot are crowded, their students tend to shun the mainstream of Orthodoxy represented by the United Synagogue. As one despairing minister sees it, the yeshiva students are like rabbis who prefer to wear a fur coat than to light a fire which will also warm others.

Although the shortage of rabbis has developed over many years, its full gravity was brought home by last month’s shock announcement that the rabbi of Saint John’s Wood Synagogue was leaving after less than two years. Rabbi Menahem Fink came here from Holland where he was principal minister at The Hague. He is now going to Israel, where his father is head of the Haifa Beth Din (rabbinical court). The vacancy at Hampstead Garden suburb follows the departure of its rabbi, Irish-born Isaac Bernstein, for the United States.


Blame for the crisis is frequently directed at Jews College, the rabbinical seminary founded in 1855 to train English-speaking ministers and laymen. From 1971 to 1976 it did not produce a single rabbinical graduate. Of last year’s II graduates, only two entered the Anglo-Jewish ministry and a third became a cantor. Others became lecturers and one an accountant. The college hopes to produce four more ministers in the next couple of years.

It hotly denies, however, that these sad figures are caused by any lack of facilities, and attributes them to the lack of incentives for potential rabbis, which in turn reflects the community’s own priorities.

The laymen who run the United Synagogue are blamed for not making the ministry more attractive in terms of prestige and salary and for giving congregations too little say over hiring rabbis. The issue came close to flashpoint recently over the appointment of a rabbi at the important Golders Green Synagogue in North-West London, whose previous full-time incumbent died nearly two years ago.

The synagogue issued a “call” to 30-year-old Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a gifted Cambridge trained philosopher who was a lecturer at Jews College. Sacks accepted the “call” and the synagogue agreed to his request that he should be allowed to retain his Jews College past. The college principal also agreed to this. However, S.S. Levin, the United Synagogue president, took the view that Sacks should not fill both positions, and Sacks indicated that he would forego the Golders Green job rather than lose his lectureship.

The synagogue’s honorary officers then threatened to resign on bloc and successfully appealed to the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits, who is also honorary principal of Jews College. Sacks’ appointment was confinned and has proved so successful that a congregation which seemed doomed is showing marked signs of revival and is the envy of others.


But this is an exceptional case. Remedies for the shortage of rabbis are well known: they include better and more flexible salary scales and less interference by the United Synagogue in its constituent congregations. But they are long-term measures and will not produce results immediately. The only other step is for the United Synagogue to raise the statutory retirement age of ministers, and to ask some who are already pensioned off to fill the empty pulpits until new men arrive.

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