I often recall my childhood days, growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the Fifties and Sixties. Many of us were children of survivors—those heroic individuals who came to these shores penniless and broken but persisted in building Torah homes. America was foreign; the language strange. We, the sons and daughters, were expected to remain religiously strong even while exposed to the Sixties’ radicalism, the rapidly evolving counterculture, the permissiveness, the defiance against authority.
American society was undergoing widespread upheaval—Vietnam, the draft, ongoing protests and social change. It was a turbulent, chaotic time. What we needed was guidance and spiritual direction—not heavy-handed direction, but gentle, persuasive leadership. This is what our generation sought, and this is what we were fortunate enough to find in personalities such as Rabbi Sidney Hoenig, rabbi of the Young Israel of Brooklyn; Rabbi Solomon Sharfman, rabbi of the Young Israel of Flatbush; and Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, who helped build the first yeshivah in Nassau County, among others.
Despite the fact that these rabbis had grown up in an entirely different era and were from a different generation, they related to us, empathized with our challenges, and understood our youthful struggles. They were effective leaders because they knew how to listen and understand.
This lesson in leadership is so beautifully expressed at the beginning of Sefer Shemot, in the personality of the greatest Jewish leader in all of Jewish history—Moshe Rabbeinu. Raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace, Moshe emerges one day to witness a taskmaster abusing a “lowly” slave—a Jew. Moshe does not turn aside or act indifferent. Despite his pampered upbringing, he feels the pain of his fellow Jew—deeply. So deeply in fact, that he murders the Egyptian. It was this act of empathy and compassion that leads Moshe on the road to leadership.
Unfortunately, the past few decades have seen a decline in the role of the shul rabbi. While in Europe the town rav was the most prestigious rabbinic position, with the rise of the American yeshivah movement, from the Seventies until quite recently, the prestige of the rosh yeshivah has grown, while regard for the shul rav has waned. To be sure, the rashei yeshivah are paradigms of Torah scholarship, preserving our mesorah by passing it down from generation to generation. But for the most part, rashei yeshivah do not deal with the pragmatic, day-to-day struggles facing their congregants, their communities. They do not have to bring Torah down to the masses, interpreting it on a daily basis, responding to their congregants’ various needs and stresses.
The strong rabbinic leadership I experienced in my youth is especially needed today when the problems facing us are unusually complex. Unlike the Sixties, when the challenges to our community were mostly external, today our problems originate largely from within: the rising incidence of broken homes, the phenomenon of at-risk youth, the growing dependence on technology and its negative implications, and the excessive materialism, to name a few. We no longer have to contend with the draft or the social protests of the Sixties, but the turmoil and instability now affect our innermost sanctuaries—our homes.
In the pages ahead, we present a symposium on the Orthodox family in the twenty-first century featuring some of the most prominent mental health professionals and Torah personalities in the Orthodox world who respond to these problems with insight and empathy.
It is obvious that the shul rabbis participating in this symposium, from various communities around the US and even from abroad, exemplify the exceptional leadership of the past.
Nevertheless, there is no question that we are in need of strong rabbinic leadership. There are many Orthodox Jews who never had strong ties to a rosh yeshivah, and even among those who have had such a bond, such ties often weaken over time. If we want to seriously address the problems plaguing our homes and our communities, we must reinstate the shul rabbi as the communal pillar, as the indisputable spiritual guide of the kehillah. We need to restore influence and prestige to the rabbinate. Our rabbinic leaders can only be as effective as we allow them to be. And most importantly, we will only attract capable, knowledgeable Torah scholars to the rabbinate if we give them the kavod they deserve.
Despite my concerns, I remain optimistic about the future of the American rabbinate. Recently, one of the local shuls I daven at was in the process of selecting a new rabbi. Many capable candidates were considered, but the search narrowed to four finalists. Each one of those relatively young individuals is an articulate, genuine talmid chacham who, along with an accomplished rebbetzin, possesses a sincere desire to help the klal. Unfortunately, the shul could only select one. But if such promising young men are entering the rabbinate, I know that despite our current challenges, our future is bright.
Wishing all of you a chag kasher vesameach.