OPINION: Should we be concerned about rabbinical leadership in the UK?

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OPINION: Should we be concerned about rabbinical leadership in the UK?

As 14 senior religious leaders step back from their roles, Rabbi Alex Goldberg suggests ways in which rabbis can be offered more practical support in leading their communities.

Chief Rabbi and Dayan Gelley with Rabbis Fagelman and Kievman and lay members of the Liverpool Kashrut Commission
Chief Rabbi and Dayan Gelley with Rabbis Fagelman and Kievman and lay members of the Liverpool Kashrut Commission

Challenging times often reveal the character of societies, institutions, and individuals. As we emerge from the shadow of a global pandemic, we find ourselves at a crossroads with new and unprecedented challenges to our communal institutions.

One particular alarming trend, the widely reported withdrawal of 14 esteemed United Synagogue rabbis since lockdown, prompts reflection. Is this an ominous sign of systemic issues within the religious leadership of the UK, or a temporary setback?

During lockdown, faith leaders, traditionally our pillars of comfort and guidance, confronted challenges previously unforeseen. They grappled with an influx of funerals, the surging pastoral care needs of congregants struggling with loss, bereavement, furlough or simply the stresses of working from home. They did this while financial pressures loomed large in our communal institutions.

This predicament wasn’t restricted to the UK or Judaism alone; clergy across diverse faiths globally have shared in these trials.

In my role overseeing 25 university chaplains and associates, sent by and representing eight faiths and worldviews, I’ve had a front-row seat to the myriad struggles that different religious institutions have faced.

Chief Rabbi, Vincent Keaveny (The Lord Mayor), Michael Goldstein (President of the United Synagogue) Credit: Paul Lang Photography

However, within our Jewish community, it’s pivotal to realise that these pressures didn’t spontaneously appear during the pandemic. Conversations with my fellow rabbis have confirmed that these challenges were long-standing in many congregations and that recent events accentuated them. What remains paramount is our capacity to adapt, evolve, and draw lessons from these unique circumstances.

An inspiring takeaway from the lockdown has been our collective ability to innovate and collaborate. In the face of adversity, the resilience of the human spirit shone brightly. My own experiences with colleagues to create an open air “Grab and Go Iftar”, “Seder in the Tent” and the largest Christmas lunch in the South East of England for hundreds of students unable to fly home due to restrictions.

The pandemic underscored our adaptability for innovation. Clergy seamlessly transitioned into roles as digital presenters and producers, thereby expanding their reach well beyond their usual congregations. In our case, we produced over 800 programmes that had over one million views and counting. Many communities had similarly rewarding experiences.

Nevertheless, amidst these commendable strides, the strain on our faith leaders cannot be downplayed. A substantial number reported feeling overwhelmed. Their significance in our community is immeasurable; rabbis aren’t merely ceremonial figureheads or prayer leaders but at their best the very bedrock that anchors our communities during unpredictable times.

Mill Hill United synagogue under Covid restrictions, including social distancing and masks (Credit: Marc Morris)

The acceptance and open acknowledgment of needing support, prevalent among Millennial families and GenZ, signifies a cultural shift. The rabbi’s evolving role as pastoral counsellor on university campuses over the last decade is a testament to this change.

This inclination is now gradually being echoed by younger families joining synagogues. The increasing demand for rabbis who double as pastoral counsellors is undeniable. For me, initiatives like the Mental Health and Halakhah course initiated by the Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Communities are essential and timely.

The role of the rabbi pastoral counsellor will only grow and in order to meet community needs we need to plan for the future. At the University I was lucky enough to collaborate with pandemic experts to plan out everything before lockdown. It helped. There will be other emergencies in the future but of equal importance is our need to adapt to the increasing demands placed on our clergy resulting from this societal shift.

Drawing from our collective experiences, there needs to be a post-lockdown blueprint for the Jewish community which includes:

– Community self-assessment: Esteemed bodies, like the JLC, should undertake a holistic review of our pandemic response, with a keen focus on bolstering support mechanisms for pivotal community professionals, such as our rabbis.

Rabbi Alex Goldberg

– Clinical supervision for rabbis: It’s imperative that every rabbi receives access to clinical supervision, a service offered to most counsellors, aiding them to navigate their intricate roles and pastoral care responsibilities.

– Counselling accessibility: Prioritising access to counselling services for our rabbonim is essential in crisis situations.

– Peer networks: To offset the inherent isolation synonymous with clerical roles, regular peer check-ins, much like the ones we initiated for our chaplains, can be invaluable.

– Career flexibility and ongoing development: It’s crucial to offer avenues for our rabbis to smoothly transition between varied communal rabbinic roles, recognising and nurturing their diverse talents, and propelling professional advancement through both formal and informal educational routes.

– We are a people business: and like most people businesses we need to look after our key workers if we hope to retain them.

To me, these aren’t just optional guidelines but vital mandates.

While some initiatives might require substantial investment, the timeless wisdom, direction, and unwavering support that our rabbis provide deem them absolutely essential.

Our collective duty is to unfailingly back our faith leaders. The Talmud poignantly states, “Whomever benefits from a thing without showing gratitude for it, it is as if he robs the Divine and the assembly of Israel” (Berakhot 35b).

In simpler terms: let’s wholeheartedly support those who support us.

  • Rabbi Alex Goldberg is Dean of Religious Life and Belief at the University of Surrey
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