The Rap on Rent-a-Rabbis

Independent rabbis without congregations get a bad rap. There seems to be a general cultural assumption that unless you have a congregation–or you’re famous, the great reprieve of American culture–you are somehow not a “real” rabbi. Somehow the fact that a small group of volunteer leaders at a synagogue decided to pay you a salary confers more legitimacy on you than if you write, do freelance projects and travel the country to officiate at weddings and other life cycle events.

An otherwise quite thoughtful article in the Baltimore Jewish Times about changing attitudes toward intermarriage in the religious movements is marred by this prejudice:

Rabbi [Bradd] Boxman arrived at Har Sinai in 2003. Up until then, he had not officiated at a single interfaith ceremony. He had been thinking about it and, he felt, if he were going to make a change, this would be a good time.

Even now, though, he hasn’t done that many and, he admits, he still isn’t totally comfortable with the idea.  He has devised six “qualifications,” his term, to which couples must agree in advance, such as joining the congregation and raising their children as Jews.

Rabbi Boxman pauses. He wants to be crystal clear about his change of heart. He talks about maturing as a rabbi; about the sentiment among his congregants, who seem to be evenly split for and against his officiating; and about the Reform movement’s policy.

There is another factor, though, that is beyond his control. Today, if the rabbi of the shul in which you were raised and to which your family has belonged since forever won’t officiate, there is no shortage of rabbis who will. Indeed, the Web site, InterfaithFamily.com considers it a service to its visitors to provide that information.

Says Edmund Case, president of InterfaithFamily.com , a Boston-based non-profit organization, “We were getting 65 inquiries a month, even from Europe, from people asking us to help them find a rabbi to officiate. We hired a rabbi recently to respond, to give names and resources.”

The point is not lost on pulpit rabbis like Rabbi Boxman. He holds up a hand and rubs his thumb and forefinger together in the universal symbol. “Then it becomes about money,” he says, emphasizing his thought with the gesture. “Because for $600 you can find a Jewish clergy who will marry the couple. You can ‘buy’ a rabbi and it cheapens the experience.”

In response to this insinuation about rabbis for hire–and the integrity of our rabbinic referral service–Rabbi Lev Baesh, the director of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, wrote the following letter to the Times:

Your cover story about interfaith marriage (“Star Crossed,” Dec. 14) was a relatively positive expression of the changing views of the liberal Jewish movements. However, the article subtly suggests that there is something unsavory in the work we do referring interfaith couples to rabbis and cantors who will officiate at their weddings.

As the Director of the Resource Center for Jewish Clergy at InterfaithFamily.com, we work very hard to provide interfaith couples with connection to rabbis and cantors whose mission it is to create a loving welcome by a Jewish leader and then offer further connection to the larger Jewish community. Many of the rabbis and cantors we refer to are congregational leaders and others are independent Jewish leaders and teachers.
Of course there is a fee for the time and work independent clergy offer couples in preparation and celebration of their life cycle mements, just as rabbis and cantors are compensated by their congregations to provide these services for members. The rabbis and cantors we refer to serve the Jewish people who are not finding their way to the center of Jewish community through the usual avenues. Many of these couples have been turned away by the mainstream Jewish community, and its leadership. All of the rabbis and cantors we suggest to couples offer counseling about interfaith life and the value of finding a home in a welcoming Jewish community.

We are thankful that the Jewish institutional world is becoming more and more open to these families, and are also working to support that effort. It is with the help of our funders, and our supporters in the institutional Jewish world, that our work is growing and that interfaith families are finding their way to Jewish life and community.

It is also our hope that synagogue based Jewish clergy would contact us in an effort to make the transition for the interfaith families we serve, into Jewish life, welcoming and deep connection.

Respectfully submitted,

Rabbi Lev Baesh
Director of the Resource Center for Jewish Clergy
InterfaithFamily.com

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One thought on “The Rap on Rent-a-Rabbis

  1. Do most Jews consider Orthodox rabbis more ‘rabbinic’ than Reform rabbis? Of course. There’s no way you’re going to change this thinking (regardless about what people say). Same thing with rabbis who do/do not officiate at Jewish weddings. Same thing with Jews who are the offspring of Gentile mothers.

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