Orthodox Union’s Synagogue Initiatives Creates Support Network for Rabbis of Small and Midsize Communities

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10 Aug 2023

Members of Chaburah Draw Chizuk from OU Leadership and Colleagues to Address Ongoing Challenges

For rabbis of small to midsize Orthodox communities in cities like Edmonton, Alberta, and San Antonio, Texas, professional life can feel lonely.

L-R: Rabbi Dovid Kaplan of Wilkes-Barre. P.A. and OU Kosher COO Rabbi Moshe Elefant at OU-hosted chaburah to support rabbis of small to midsize communities

“As the sole Orthodox rabbis of their towns outside Chabad, these rabbis deal with issues impacting the entire spiritual life of their community,” says Orthodox Union Department of Synagogue Initiatives National Director Rabbi Adir Posy. “They are dealing with the eruv, kashrus, the mikvah, chevra kadisha and conversion. That’s a very unique and often very heavy responsibility for one individual.” 

Orthodox Union (OU) Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer empathizes with these rabbis’ unique situations.

“Within larger Orthodox communities, rabbis have local peer partnership and support,” he says. “In smaller communities the rabbi tends to be more isolated, making ongoing support and networking opportunities so much more valuable. We must strive to be there for those who need us most.”  

Participants learn about the OU’s innovative eruv app from OU Director of Halacha Initiatives Rabbi Ezra Sarna (center)

Recognizing their distinct challenges and opportunities, the Department of Synagogue Initiatives recently hosted a chaburah of a dozen rabbis from small to midsize communities for a day of chizuk, inspiration and education at the OU headquarters in Manhattan. 

“These rabbis are doing incredible and important work and deserve significant investment from the klal,” says Rabbi Posy. “That’s one of the messages we wanted to impart in creating this chaburah and hosting this event.”

The oldest department in the OU, the Department of Synagogue Initiatives provides vision, leadership, and programmatic support to Orthodox communities and congregations throughout North America. Its goal is to strengthen communities, congregations, and their constituencies, by providing religious, educational, and social programming on relevant and timely issues that impact the lives of individuals and families.

L-R: Rabbi Dovid Asher of Richmond, V.A. speaks with OU President Mitchel Aeder and OU Director of Synagogue Initiatives Rabbi Adir Posy

A large part of the department’s focus is rabbinic support. For the last eight years, it has united cohorts of rabbis based on their commonalities in chaburahs who gather in person as much as possible to network and share personal or professional challenges in a safe space with others living the same experience. About 12 different chaburahs comprising different niches — such as rabbis in the first few years of their pulpit, for example — meet on a rolling basis over the course of the year.

“The best support tool in the arsenal of a rabbi is other rabbis in similar situations,” says Rabbi Posy. “We fundamentally believe that a more inspired, empowered, energized and supported rabbi is a better rabbi, and everyone benefits from that.”

This was the inaugural cohort of rabbis from small to midsize communities, and participants stemmed from Edmonton, Canada; San Antonio, Texas; New York’s Poughkeepsie, Mount Kisco and Albany; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Richmond and Norfolk in Virginia; Louisville, Kentucky; and Orlando, Florida.

L-R: Rabbi Shlomo Eisenberg of Norfolk, V.A. and OU Executive Director of Synagogue Initiatives Rabbi Naftali Herrmann at the OU’s chaburah to support rabbis of small to midsize communities

“This gathering provided a unique platform for rabbis to share creative ideas related to communal development within the contexts of their particular communal reality,” says OU Managing Director of Community Engagement Rabbi Yaakov Glasser. “The Rabbis also enjoyed learning from world-class experts in halachic areas that they consistently navigate in their work.” 

The chaburah centered on both professional development — offering resources and insights on topics like kashrus, mikvah, conversion, broader communal relationships and issues prevailing in their communities — and personal development, including work-life balance, rabbinic loneliness, and the idea of being everything to everyone. Sessions were facilitated by OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer, OU Director of Halacha Initiatives Rabbi Ezra Sarna and OU Kosher COO Rabbi Moshe Elefant.

“These OU leaders have such incredible knowledge and are wonderful sources of guidance,” says Rabbi Posy. “The chance to sit down with them excited many participants because of the unique insights and experience they bring to the table.”

Beyond its supportive framework, the chaburah enabled participants to foster relationships and network with one another beyond the event. 

“The connections the rabbis make as part of these chaburahs often extend to other circles, whether to shul presidents or other community members,” says Rabbi Posy. “They in turn build their own networks and achieve really wonderful things.”

The event also provided a platform to discuss the OU’s growing support of emerging communities, an initiative supported by former OU President Steve Savitsky and his wife Genie through the Savitsky Family Communal Growth Initiative. Recently, the couple made a very generous investment that will expand the OU’s strategic approach to North American Jewish communal development. 

Savitsky joined participants for part of the day, and appreciated the opportunity to hear the rabbis’ perspectives on how their communities can best be supported. 

“Genie and I are delighted to see our gift being used to enable these and other rabbis to meet the challenges of their respective communities,” he says.

As founder of the highly-successful Orthodox Union Virtual Jewish Community Home Relocation Fair, Savitsky’s passion is working with this population, says Rabbi Posy. 

“There was some really good information sharing between Steve and the rabbis,” he reflects. “It was special to connect this donor to the frontline people who are the beneficiaries of his family’s gift.” 

Rabbi Dovid Kaplan has served as the rav of Wilkes-Barre’s Congregation Ohav Zedek and a satellite location in Kingston, Pennsylvania, for nine years. Of some 2,000 Jews in the region, his kehilla comprises about 110 families and singles. 

Rabbi Kaplan loves his job and congregation, but is challenged with growing his community against the backdrop of a somewhat aging population. The chance to connect with OU leadership and colleagues living similar experiences at the chaburah was a tremendous source of chizuk.

“It was a very profound day,” he says. “It was very meaningful and inspiring to know that we are in it together, and wonderful to share experiences and camaraderie. I look forward to reconnecting either virtually or in person with fellow rabbanim in the very near future.”