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For Lay-led Congregations, Having a Rabbi’s Not the Thing

August 26, 2005
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During the week, Dr. David Kolinsky practices family medicine in this sleepy California coastal town. But on Saturday mornings he dons his tallit and leads Shabbat services for Congregation B’nai Torah, a Conservative congregation in neighboring Monterey. Kolinksy serves as spiritual leader and president of B’nai Torah, which has been lay-led since it broke off from a nearby Reform temple 13 years ago.

Visiting rabbis have passed through, but with just 24 dues-paying members, there’s no budget to hire even a student rabbi. The congregation also lacks a building — it rents a small room in a local church, where it stores its two Torah scrolls and where, every Saturday morning, the stalwarts wait to see whether a minyan will show up.

“Probably half our members are happy without a rabbi, and the rest would like one if we could afford it,” Kolinsky says. “Many synagogues have gone through a process of professionalization, where unless you do something of professional grade, you have no right to represent your community before God. Here, everyone does their best. If someone wants to try, the answer is always, come up and do it.”

Among U.S. congregations, B’nai Torah is still in a tiny minority: Most congregations from all streams have rabbis, unless they’re too small or isolated to attract one. Those that can’t afford full-time clergy usually hire visiting or student rabbis.

But the number of lay-led congregations is on the rise nationwide, movement leaders say. Much of that is due to economics — it’s expensive to hire rabbis and cantors, and many older congregations in economically depressed regions have dwindling memberships.

“It’s costing more and more each year to hire a rabbi, so congregations of 100 to 150 families are finding it harder,” says Jay Weiner, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s director for northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Demographic change also creates congregations in new parts of the country, as young Jews move west and north, and their parents retire south. And some congregations consciously choose to forego clergy; they just want to run their own show.

“By and large, the congregations that don’t have rabbis do it because they don’t have a choice,” says Rabbi Victor Appell, a small-congregation specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. “Because of their size or location, it’s a challenge to find a rabbi to serve them. But that puts them in the position of becoming self-reliant. If you asked many of them now whether they’d want a rabbi, I’m not sure they’d say yes.”

According to Jewish law, congregations don’t need rabbis. U.S. law requires clergy — or other state-sanctioned representatives — to officiate at a marriage, but other than that, any Jew — male in Orthodox circles, male or female in other congregations — can lead services, proclaim a bar or bat mitzvah, name a baby or run a funeral.

Still, most congregations choose to hire a professional.

“It’s the preferred course of action,” says Steven Huberman, director of regional and extension activities for the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. “Congregations do prefer professionally trained clergy. They look to them as pastor, spiritual stimulant, lifestyle catalyst—it’s difficult for lay leaders to do all that on a regular basis.”

Congregations also turn to rabbis to decide points of halachah, or Jewish law. Clergy can mediate between warring factions in a congregation, or decide delicate questions such as the role of interfaith families, or whether it’s time to take down or put up a mechitzah, which divides men and women at Orthodox services.

The number of lay-led congregations varies from movement to movement. Roughly speaking, the Reconstructionist movement has the highest percentage, the Orthodox Union has the least and the Reform and Conservative movements fall in the middle.

Rabbi Moshe Krupka, executive director of programming for the Orthodox Union, says “very few” of his 900-plus congregations operate without rabbis. They are mostly newly formed congregations that hire rabbis as soon as they can afford it.

“In the Orthodox world that puts a high premium on Torah, mitzvot and spiritual growth, to have someone who will infuse the community with a sense of mission and scholarship, it willy-nilly becomes a necessity” to have a rabbi, he says.

The highest percentage of lay-led congregations is in the Reconstructionist movement. Since its inception, the movement has emphasized the importance of empowering lay leadership and looks at rabbis more as educators and consultants than as pulpit heads.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit, director of outreach and external affiliations for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, says 30 to 40 of its 107 congregations operate without rabbis. Even so, he believes many of those congregations would hire rabbis if they could afford it.

The Reconstructionist movement has also inherited some havurahs, or lay-led minyans, from the 1960s and ’70s, Zevit says, though most havurahs don’t affiliate with a movement.

Very few Conservative congregations function without rabbinic support, according to Huberman. He says the United Synagogue is unable to place rabbis in only about 5 percent of its 750 affiliated congregations.

The percentage is slightly higher in the Reform movement. Between 75 to 100 of the 900-plus congregations in the Union for Reform Judaism don’t have full-time rabbis, according to Appell.

Size matters: Most lay-led congregations are very small, which in the Reform and Conservative movement generally means less than 150 members.

Place matters, too: Lay-led congregations are more numerous in regions with smaller Jewish populations, “more often in the South, sometimes in the Midwest,” Appell says.

Many of these congregations used to be larger and more prosperous. They were built in the late 19th or early 20th century by Jewish merchants and professionals who followed the general population shift westward.

When the industries supporting these towns dried up, so did their Jewish communities. The children and grandchildren of the original settlers moved to cities with greater job opportunities, leaving behind tiny congregations maintained by a handful of elderly Jews.

“You have congregations dying out, entire towns that have disappeared,” says Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Southwest Council. About one-quarter of the 82 congregations in his region are lay-led, though most of them used to have rabbis.

“Monroe, La., just said good-bye to their last full-time rabbi,” he says. “Now they’ll have a student come in once a month.”

Jackofsky says some of his congregations can afford rabbis, but can’t find candidates willing to move to their isolated towns.

Both Reform and Conservative leaders say the much-publicized shortage of non-Orthodox rabbis doesn’t really factor into the equation.

“It’s mainly larger congregations looking for second rabbis who are affected” by the shortage, says Emily Grotta, marketing director for the Union for Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue, says there are actually enough Conservative rabbis being ordained to serve all the movement’s congregations, it’s simply that fewer are taking up pulpits.

Some historic congregations soldier on for years without a rabbi.

The 90-year-old Conservative Congregation B’nai Isaac in Aberdeen, S.D., lost its last rabbi 30 years ago. With just three couples and a few single members left, they still manage to hold Friday night services—when Bea and Herschel Premack are in town.

Herschel Premack, who had his bar mitzvah in the synagogue in 1940, leads services for the congregation. When he and Bea go to California every winter, the shul shuts down.

The congregation’s last bat mitzvah was 15 years ago. The congregation often thinks about closing down, but Bea Premack says B’nai Isaac serves an important educational role in the small Midwestern city.

“We’ve always had the synagogue open for Christian groups, so they can come and learn about Judaism,” she says.

A local Catholic college brings its students on regular visits, another university brings in its comparative religion classes and several churches visit with their confirmation students.

The Premacks, who have a kosher home, also run a class on introductory Judaism for a few local women and some friends whose children have married Jews.

Another kind of demographic change is creating new lay-led congregations, particularly in the fast-growing regions of the west and Pacific Northwest. As younger Jews pour into these areas looking for work and personal fulfillment, congregations are popping up in places like Eugene, Ore., and Big Bear, Calif.

Some of these are university towns that attract Jewish students and professors. Others are resort communities, or towns near computer jobs, research facilities or military bases.

“Sometimes enough people in these outlying areas get to know each other and realize there are enough Jews to organize a synagogue,” says Rabbi Alan Henkin, Reform director for the Pacific Southwest. Henkin estimates that a third of his 85 congregations operate without full-time rabbis.

Then there’s the phenomenon of members splitting off from existing congregations to practice Judaism their own way. Weiner describes a lay-led Conservative congregation in Olympia, Wash., that broke away from its Reform parent congregation because some members wanted a kosher kitchen.

B’nai Torah, the congregation in Monterey, Calif., also split off from a local Reform temple to lead its own, Conservative services. Seven members who showed up one recent Shabbat say they prefer the non-hierarchical structure and personal involvement.

“We had a visitor who said he’d never been asked to come up to the Torah before because he doesn’t read Hebrew,” says Devorah Harris, who grew up Reform in Minnesota and led a women’s havurah in the San Francisco Bay Area before joining B’nai Torah four years ago. “We encourage everyone to come up. We help them.”

Change also occurs in the opposite direction: After four decades as a lay-led Reconstructionist congregation, Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh has just hired its first ordained rabbi, who will visit once a month.

Some lay-led congregations consciously decide not to hire clergy.

“I’m not sure I miss having a rabbi,” says Jackie Gish of Reform Congregation Hugat Haverim in Glendale, Calif., a lay-led group of 30 to 35 people that split off from its parent Reform temple five years ago. Most Hugat Haverim members are in their 50s or 60s with grown children, so there’s no religious school, just monthly Shabbat services.

Congregations like hers serve a purpose, Gish says. Some Jews don’t want to meet every Friday night. They don’t want to shell out a lot of money for religious school or feel the pressure of capital campaigns, but they still want the warmth and closeness of being part of a Jewish community.

Tolerance and a respect for diversity are required to keep lay-led congregations going, particularly in smaller towns where they often have to serve Jews with very different backgrounds and observance levels.

Weiner points to Conservative Congregation Emanuel in Reno, Nev. The congregation is egalitarian, but a mechitzah goes up for Shacharit services because the lay leader in charge comes from a more Orthodox background. The other members tolerate it.

“You have to admire lay leaders who keep these congregations going,” he remarks.

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