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Rabbis pitch in to help small communities
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Rabbis pitch in to help small communities

CLAL’s ‘service corps’ addresses isolation of places without clergy

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Steven Bayar said that for congregations without clergy, “Just knowing there is support out there can make a big difference in keeping these communities alive.”
Rabbi Steven Bayar said that for congregations without clergy, “Just knowing there is support out there can make a big difference in keeping these communities alive.”

Small towns in Georgia, South Carolina, and the Bahamas, and even some non-Orthodox communities in Israel are the first to respond to an invitation from CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, to submit a request for a part-time rabbi. 

They are part of a new CLAL initiative known as the Rabbinic Service Corps. A network of 150 rabbis has agreed to donate their time and head out to far-flung communities for a few days each year to provide services to communities where there are no clergy. The rabbis have already participated in CLAL’s Rabbis without Borders project.

Among the participants are 14 from New Jersey.

Unlike Chabad, whose emissaries settle in areas where they are often the only link to Judaism, CLAL is making rabbis available on an as-needed basis. They might come in for a weekend and help with a life-cycle event, pastoral care, teaching, leadership training, or setting up educational programs.

“We can’t really predict what their needs are and don’t know what to expect,” said Rabbis without Borders director Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, who lives in Teaneck. “We want to hear from the communities,” and then in response to specific requests, CLAL will send the rabbi who is the best match.

In the past, such communities may have been served by students from the Jewish Theological Seminary or Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, but in many cases that funding has run out. “It’s a real hole we need to fill,” said Sirbu, who is hoping to serve between five and 10 communities the first year and then build on that.

The funding for the project, totaling $125,000, has come from family foundations and will last two years.

For Rabbi Steven Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, who spent his adolescence in Charlottesville, Va., taking part in the program is personal.

The Jewish community where he grew up “was disunited and had no direction,” he said. “It also had no resources” and no rabbi. “There were so many times that having a rabbinic presence, just someone to call, would lessen the stress and increase unity in the Jewish community, where people were interested but didn’t know what to do or how to do it, and didn’t have the confidence they needed.” 

It’s not just the once-a-year fly-in that is important, he said, but the relationship that emerges. 

“Isolation is often the biggest problem,” Bayar said. “Just knowing there is support out there — someone to ask questions, send comments to, or get suggestions from — can make a big difference in keeping these communities alive.” 

Rabbi Helaine Ettinger of the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon has built a career serving small congregations. 

“I feel a particular affinity to these tight, hands-on, do-it-ourselves Jewish communities,” she said. “They don’t take their Jewish life for granted. Every person is precious. Every coming together is an affirmation of identity and continuity.” 

She said that the financial situation of these communities makes hiring a rabbi impossible and places the burden of every undertaking on “the same small group” of people. The outside energy of a rabbinic presence would “replenish the leadership and the members,” Ettinger said.

Other NJ — or formerly NJ — rabbis taking part include: 

Matthew Gewirtz and Josh Stanton of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills; Amy Small of Deborah’s Palm Center for Jewish Learning & Experiences, which serves Morris and Essex counties; Michael Jay of West Caldwell, who leads the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island; Leana Moritt of West Orange, who leads the Roosevelt Island Jewish Congregation in New York and is the founder and director of Thresholds: For the Jewishly Curious; Rabbi Justus Baird of Princeton, who serves as dean of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York; Brandon Bernstein, the former Reform Outreach Initiative Rabbi at Rutgers Hillel who now works at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.; Robert Scheinberg of United Synagogue of Hoboken; Ari Saks of Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy; Ben Greenberg of Teaneck, a planning executive for UJA-Federation of New York; Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck, director of programs for T’ruah; and Zvi Kaplan of Teaneck.

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