Global, Politics, Religion

CEOs of the Jewish community

Chabad ShulchimJewcy’s got a post on why Chabad has been so much more successful than the Reform movement in Russia. The statements about the situation in Russia are, as far as I know, true. I take issue, however, with some of the more general descriptions of the Reform Rabbinate .

Russian Reform leadership is trained on a western model of Jewish community and religious pluralism. Since there are no Reform seminaries in Russia all Russian Jews who get trained as Reform rabbis end up in one of three places—the U.S., Israel or England (and recently the Reform movement began ordaining rabbis in Germany). This means that Russia’s Reform rabbis are trained as western rabbis and then “sent back.” …
Reform rabbis are trained to be educators and to give pastoral care, but ultimately many of them see their primary role as CEOs of the Jewish community, appointed by wealthy boards of donors, and charged with the operations of the community. For Reform Judaism, at least in its American and British forms, the rabbinate is a job, not a calling.

Now I grew up in the Reform movement, and work in a Reform synagogue. I have been blessed to work with dozens of Reform Rabbis who are a product of the Reform seminary, and I think each and every one would take issue with that last sentence. They are trained as educators and pastoral care-givers, and they do exactly that, as well as social justice work, outreach and a host of other things. The fact that they are the heads of large organizations (my place of work for example, has 800 families, 13 full-time staff people, a nursery school, etc.), and that their positions in terms of their shuls sometimes resemble that of CEO does not, in my mind, mean that they’re approaching it as a CEO, and not as a teacher and pastoral care-giver who also needs to do that other stuff, in order to teach Torah.
The article continues, spelling out the reasons the Reform movement hasn’t found success:

…as long as Reform seminaries train rabbis to be CEOs of communities and spend too little time instilling a sense of mission and calling, very few new Reform rabbis are going to stay in Russia for the long haul. Reform Judaism must adopt the corporate model that its structure emulates, and start paying rabbis “combat pay” for “hardship placements.” I have friends in Moscow working for western consulting firms who get paid double or triple what their colleagues back in New York get paid. Why shouldn’t Reform rabbis be as well?

Again, speaking for personal experience, the Reform Rabbis I know surely do not lack for a sense of “mission and calling.” There are legitimate questions as to the details of that mission (which, for me, rise from questions about the economics of supporting the movement), but I think the author here is again too hard on these folks.
The fact that Chabad shulchim simply go where they are told is more a reflection of the black-and-white picture Chabad paints of the world. The Rebbe (or his appointee) says jump, and of course the response is “how high?” Reform rabbis, inasmuch as they don’t generally hold by the Tanya, do not answer to a central franchising authority – they are free to make decisions for themselves and their families which may ultimately prove detrimental to some communities. Their sense of mission and calling can be nuanced and changing, more so than that of a Chabad shaliach, and they are free to pursue that mission in their own way.
There is also an ecominic reason given:

…as long as Reform Jewish communities rely solely on local wealth to build synagogues, Russian Reform is going to have a hard time… Chabad has a much more global funding model and gets people involved before it ever asks for money.

As I said, I have issues with the funding of the Reform movement, and the results of the funding model. This is a real critique, and one I think the folks at the movement need to hear.
Ultimately, are Reform Rabbis trained well to be Russian Rabbis? Maybe not. When the majority of the students in a school are being trained to serve in fundamentally different communities, those who choose pulpits in Russia may be ill-equipped. That being said, I think he’s too hard on the rest of the Reform Rabbis.
Full story.

10 thoughts on “CEOs of the Jewish community

  1. Interesting post LT
    Oddly enough I myself posted on a similar topic this weekend except mine was a little bit more upbeat and positive. I basically feel that over all Progressive Judaism in its various incarnations seems to be making some decent headway in several places around the world. That’s not to suggest that there arn’t challenges, just that lately based on what I’ve been hearing and reading I’ve developed a better feeling about things.
    As for Jewcey and their article I say take whatever they post with a grain of salt. I could be wrong here but to me they aren’t much more than a ” if it bleeds, it leads” kind of operation. I did read for a while and had them syndicated through RSS but I gave it up simply because I couldn’t handle what I consider to be their ” Artificial Controversy” any longer.
    I do think it’s a low blow to try and diminish what reform rabbis do as no more than a career opportunity.
    Anyhow like I said, I’m going to take what they’ve written with a grain of salt.

  2. Maybe Russian Jews are looking for something that connects them to their past in a way they can recognize, some spirituality and some plain Old Time Religion. Maybe they’re not looking for pastoral care and outreach workers…

  3. chabad has always been doing outreach in russia.
    since the previous lubavitcher Rebbe.
    the big gelt only started to make its way in the past 5-10 years from donors like leviev, rohr, gaydemak, bogalubov etc.
    but you’re right, the chabad rabbis arnt ceo’s. this isnt a business.
    the success lies in that they’re there to help yidden. the money will already come. thats how you can succeed in a place like russia where most jews are poor but there’s a good ammount of loaded jews.

  4. The writer seems to think that Chabad houses get a lot of money from “corporate”. This is not true. Each house is responsible for its own funding for the most part. The only thing the rabbis can hope for is grants from philanthropists and their startup costs.

  5. I don’t think the author of the Jewcy post was suggesting that Reform rabbis ONLY become rabbis as a career move. Yes, they are committed to social justice, and pastoral care, and helping others (although, frankly, I know plenty of rabbis who are somewhat cynical about the motivations and commitments of their colleagues – a cynicism they will only express in private, off-the-record conversations), but much of the job really is about being a CEO, and that HAS TO have an impact on who takes those jobs, and how they relate to them. The Jewcy post was attempting to point out the very different relationship that Chabad and Reform rabbis have to their jobs. To say that most Chabad rabbis don’t clearly have a stronger sense of mission is simply naive. We’re talking about people who live and breath Hashem 24/7. I know many Reform (and Conservative and Reconstructionist) rabbis, and I would not think of “living and breathing Hashem 24/7” as the first and foremost way of describing their relationships to the rabbinate. This isn’t a judgement and it’s not a criticism of Reform rabbis. The Chabad model may or may not be a particularly good way of being a rabbi. And It doesn’t work for me, that’s for sure. But it is a telling and important difference.
    I was at the World Union for Progressive Judaism conference in Moscow as well, and even some of the WUPJ leaders there acknowledged the same thing. They brought it up actually as a defense, basically saying that people shouldn’t get angry that WUPJ hasn’t been more successful in bringing rabbis to Russia because it’s tough to get rabbis in a Reform/Progressive context to take on the same levels of hardship and intense commitment as Chabad rabbis. So don’t take this post as an opportunity to get defensive about Reform rabbis. The author has a point and the interesting conversation is to then discuss what to do about it. Just accept that Russia won’t have many Reform rabbis and instead dedicate Jewish community-building resources to other things? Start paying Reform rabbis in Russia much more to help with recruitment? Change the Reform/Progressive message to better fit the demand? I don’t know the answer, but to pretend that the issue doesn’t exist is naive. And to continue to talk about how well Chabad does in Russia without acknowledging a fundamental strength of the Chabad model – a strength that may just not be replicable in other contexts – is a failure to adequately understand Chabad. WUPJ and the other organizations working to build progressive Judaism in the former Soviet Union need our support – they are doing amazing things. But that support needs to come with realistic expectations.

  6. i wrote a couple papers while i was studying chassidism and organizational behavior separately in university. one of the ideas that putting the two together yielded is especially poignant here.
    the driving force behind the global HaBaD movement is the cheap labor. They have Rabbis working for basic subsistence salaries with fairly simple lifestyles the world over. said shluchim tend to continue with their work. the difference is similar to the one that gregg pointed out: HaBaD rabbis would (on the surface) appear to care more, as they work a similar amount while being compensated less.
    a couple factors drive this prodigious, perhaps zealous commitment:
    *intense commitment to the ideology
    *the exciting belief of the imminence of messianic redemption (if i can get one more jew to do one more mitzvah…)
    *feeling of authenticity
    *the building reinforcement of their franchise model
    Lastly, the HaBaD movement, like other Hassidim and perhaps all ultra-orthodox jews reject the dominant culture and, with it, its materialism. The result is that they don’t care as much about brand name sneakers or big houses. In some ways this aligns them with the anti-materialist socialist types. this anti-materialist attitude gives them a strong advantage in their model: it’s much cheaper to implement and scale up.

  7. In response to the comment from “A”, just an FYI, that yes, that is the usual Chabad model, but in Russia, Chabad gets massive financial support from one particularly deep-pocket Russian oligarch, and that helps maintain the infrastructure in the FSU.

  8. Very interesting post, and good discussion.
    I wanted to respond to your assertion, LT, that “Reform rabbis, inasmuch as they don’t generally hold by the Tanya, do not answer to a central franchising authority – they are free to make decisions for themselves and their families which may ultimately prove detrimental to some communities.
    First off, I’m not sure what “holding by the Tanya” and “making independent decisions” have to do with one another. But moreover, from my experience working intimately with a Chabad family on shlichus, I can tell you that each family on shlichus certainly does make their own decisions and sometimes they do mess up, but a large majority of the time their initiatives are successful.

  9. In “Charismatic Leader, Charismatic Book: Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Tanya and His Leadership,” available here, Nehemia Polen writes –
    “…in the much more benign times of the post-World War II period, Chabad has grasped the opportunities for external growth and expansion, creating a network of outposts staffed by devotees who subordinate their personal comfort and even spiritual growth in favor of the urgent needs of the movement.
    As the foundational work of this religious movement, Tanya achieved enormous success and has been of inestimable influence. It must be recalled, however, that the initial purpose of the Tanya was not the promulgation of mystical doctrines, much less the teaching of mystical techniques or practices, but the stratification and regimentation of the Hassidic community and the assignment of appropriate roles.”
    I’m doing the essay a dis-service by excerpting, but I couldn’t reproduce the whole thing here. He explains how the Tanya was a departure from earlier Hasidism, creating the possibility of “franchising” without a Tzaddik in physical proximity to each community.
    Shulchim may have freedom to make choices once they arrive at their post, but they do not get to choose their post.

  10. “Shulchim may have freedom to make choices once they arrive at their post, but they do not get to choose their post.”
    Uh – I dont think so. Who makes these determinations today? Shlichim hire Shlichim who apply to a position. No?

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