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Introducing ‘From Here to There’—A Project of the RCA/Barkai

Today, Israel and the United States are Judaism’s two largest centers. While we share many qualities, there are many things that make us quite different. We don’t talk enough. Jews in Israel and Jews in America have much to learn from one another.

In January of 2020, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we co-led a project that brought together 16 U.S. and Israeli community rabbis in Jerusalem. The project was a partnership between the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Barkai Center. Half of the rabbis were North American and half Israeli. We gathered to discuss issues of community and the rabbinate. We learned much from each other.

Following our meetings, each North American rabbi was paired with an Israeli rabbi and returned to his community to serve as scholar-in-residence for Shabbat. These communities included Petach Tikvah, Dimona, Chatzor HaGelilit, Givat Zeev, Gedera and Modiin. The American rabbis were able to see up close how an Israeli community works.

The plan was for the Israeli rabbis to travel to the U.S. for the Annual Convention of the RCA in the spring. Afterwards, the American rabbis would host their Israeli counterparts as scholars-in-residence for a Shabbat in their communities.

Then, Corona struck.

While the second leg of our “home-and-home series” has still not happened, we have stayed in touch through the pandemic. Building upon these rabbinic relationships, we are launching a series of written rabbinic conversations that will appear in The Jewish Link and Arutz-7, entitled “From Here to There.” American and Israeli rabbis will discuss important communal issues facing both communities and how we can learn from one another’s experiences.

To get us started, we will discuss some of the differences between our communities.

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler: David, why are Jewish communities in Israel and the United States structured differently?

Rabbi David Fine: Chaim, most synagogues in Israel do not have a hired professional rabbi (or for that matter any staff) and if they do the rabbi is only part-time and is paid a minimal salary, requiring him to hold another full-time job. You’ll notice that I used the term “synagogue” and not “community” to answer your question. Let me explain.

David Ben Gurion, the founding prime minister of Israel believed in what he called Mamlachtiyut. One aspect of Mamlachtiyut, often translated as statism, is the belief that the state, and only the state, is to provide for all the needs of its citizens, including their religious needs. Ben Gurion and those around him believed that the Jewish community, which had always provided these needs, was a vestige of the exile which could not continue to exist in the new state. He preferred the maintenance of the chief rabbinate system that had been in existence years prior to the founding of the state.

The chief rabbinate is a provider of religious services. Today each city has its own chief rabbinate which administers religious services, including kashrut supervision, registering of marriages, mikvah and eruv maintenance. Large cities in Israel have only one or two “chief” rabbis, making it impossible for these rabbis to offer pastoral care to individuals. In many ways, synagogues in Israel became places to pray and perhaps to attend an occasional class but were not places of community.

Rabbi Strauchler: How does this structure determine the nature of how Israelis see Judaism and their communities?

Rabbi Fine: Synagogues were seen as state services no different from roads and parks. There wasn’t a need to come together—roll up your sleeves with your friends—and create something that depended upon you. This is slowly changing. People have begun to understand that even in the State of Israel people need community. Synagogues have begun to transform themselves from places limited to prayer and study to places of community.

Many synagogues have realized that in order to become a community a properly trained rabbinic leader is needed. In order to attain ordination in Israel, no practical courses or experience is needed. The only requirement is passing tests in Jewish law. The Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development, based in Modiin, was founded 10 years ago in order to provide newly ordained rabbis the skills and the practical pastoral training that they need in order to be true community leaders. One of the important components of the Barkai curriculum is to introduce Israeli rabbis to the community model of the diaspora. What would be your first message to Israeli community rabbis?

Rabbi Strauchler: I know that Barkai—rightfully—has called attention to the role of community rabbis. Counterintuitively, my message to potential full-time community rabbis is that “It’s not about us, rabbis.” It’s about our people. Our job as rabbi is to facilitate our people growing close to Hashem. We do that in exactly the same way that Hashem instructed Moshe to build the Mishkan. We invite people to give. We ask them to give not material things—but to give themselves through Torah, avoda and gemilut chesed. It’s not about us.

This critical idea of rabbinic tzimtzum allows people to identify with their communities (and their rabbis). We love the things that we give to more than the things that we get from. The critical ingredient in a community is not the rabbi but the people. Once it’s about the people—we can discover the mitzvot that we can do together but that we cannot do alone.

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler is the rabbi of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.

Rabbi David Fine is the founder and dean of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development.

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