Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

By 22 February, 2014Personal Blog

After reading the responses to Rabbi Kennard’s original
article (AJN, 31/1/2014), I felt he was deeply misunderstood. He pointed out the
disproportionate number of Chabad Rabbis in Melbourne congregations, and
bemoaned the lack of diversity, particularly the lack of home-grown non-Chabad
Rabbis.

Chabad has a strong history in Melbourne. From the
pioneering Moshe Zalman Feiglin (my wife’s great-grandfather) who arrived just
over 100 years ago, to the wave of immigrants post WW2 (which included my late
grandparents), many of these people had a huge impact in developing schools and
institutions for the entire community, and building a foundation of what is a
highly regarded Jewish community around the world. While the influence of
Chabad in Melbourne has waned over the last 10-20 years, it’s only as a result
of the relative growth of other Orthodox Jewish groups, and their associated
shuls and schools.

Chabad Rabbis are over-represented in Australia for three
simple reasons: (a) the strong history of Chabad here, (b) the Chabad system
that develops young Rabbis and encourages them to take up community positions
(be they Chabad Houses or Rabbinic positions in existing shuls), and (c) the
lack of local alternatives.

While Rabbi Kennard was critical of Chabad Rabbis’ approach
to their own customs when working in a non-Chabad shul, I took his article as principally
a call to action for the community on the third point. This especially
considering that there’s little anyone can do about the first two points.

But in response (AJN 7/2), he received three doses of sour
grapes. In particular, Rabbi Schochet (who doesn’t live in Melbourne) rushed to
the defence of Chabad Rabbis in non-Chabad shuls where there was no serious attack.
And unfortunately, it went downhill from there, with Rabbi Kennard’s reply last
week (AJN 14/2) taking the bait and launching into a detailed counter-refute of
Rabbi Schochet, which included some personal and generic Chabad swipes thrown
in for good measure. So instead of a productive debate on how our community can
develop a stronger and more diverse local Rabbinate, we have a silly spat about
whose Rabbis are better.

Melbourne has seen plenty of non-Chabad shuls with
floundering and/or aging memberships hire a Chabad Rabbi to reinvigorate the
place, and many have succeeded, with a mix of respect for the history and
customs of the shul, and Chabad enthusiasm and outreach.

The boards of these shuls likely went in with eyes wide
open. Some would have seen first-hand the approach of many Chabad Rabbis as
pointed out by Rabbi Schochet. Standard practice for a Chabad Rabbi in a
non-Chabad shul is to uphold the existing customs and nusach (form of prayer)
of the shul – indeed maintaining these are a requirement of Jewish law. But
when it comes to other Chabad practices (girls lighting Shabbat candles,
handmade matzah, etc) that do not conflict with shul or individual customs,
is there really a need for these to be accompanied by an explicit disclaimer
“this is a Chabad custom” as Rabbi Kennard suggests?

Suggesting that any group of Rabbis are better or worse by
virtue of their affiliation or education is by definition a generalisation. As in
any profession, Rabbis range from good to bad; overqualified to underqualified;
divisive to tactful. While I am studying for Rabbinic ordination, I have no
desire to be a congregation Rabbi. The role is a complex blend of scholar,
leader, counsellor, diplomat, and politician.

We ought to refocus this debate where belongs. Jewish
Melbourne continues to become more diverse, and no one group has a monopoly on
anything. As a community, we need to invest in the next generation of leaders
and Rabbis, and we need to unite our community around important issues rather
than allow them to divide it. There are several new initiatives around for the
development of young leaders and innovators, and this is an area of focus for
several organisations (including Australian Jewish Funders). While the RCV
facilitates professional development for Rabbis, not much is being done to
develop the next generation of Rabbis. Indeed, the only local centre for
Rabbinic training recently closed its doors.

Aside from this, the other important question raised by
Rabbi Kennard was: “who would ever want to be a Rabbi?” A similar question
applies to community leadership, and reflected by the “revolving door” comments
in these pages a few months ago. The role of Rabbi is often a thankless job,
and shuls with great Rabbis usually only realise this after they have left the
position. Dealing with this issue is chicken-and-egg – Rabbis/leaders and the
community need to work together to improve the quality (and therefore the
perception) of those positions.

Both of these require long-term vision and investment, so results
will only be apparent in 5-10 years. However, the approach that will work is
top-down – the initiative has to start with the existing community
Rabbinate/leadership itself, and flow from there.

This article was first published in the AJN in Feb 2014 and was republished on this blog in Feb 2015.

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