Serving the Needs of Small but proud Communities Across the US
By Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu
The Rabbis WithoutBorders Service Corps was launched in the fall of 2015. Through contact with various Jewish organizations, researchers, and a social media campaign named #smallbutproud, we put the word out that Rabbis Without Borders were available to serve on a volunteer basis underserved Jewish communities across the United States. In the past, these communities had been served by various Jewish organizations that have now ceased their service for different reasons. In addition, the large denominations who used to provide consulting services and student rabbis to these communities no longer do so. These communities are in need and Rabbis Without Borders stepped in to the breach.
Rabbis Without Borders are specifically qualified to serve these communities because RWB rabbis have a willingness and investment in meeting people where they are. They understand the shifting definitions of membership, community, and Jewish life in general and feel comfortable working in situations which would challenge other rabbis. They can be creative in working with ritual so that Jewish wisdom can be as accessible and as impactful as possible. They understand that there is no one “right’ way to teach, share, or perform a ritual. They can do what is needed by that specific group of people. Moreover, RWB rabbis believe in the possibility for vibrant Jewish engagement in any stage of a communities’ life, whether it is growing or dying. It is about serving the real need of the people in front of them.
In two years, we have served 33 communities, well beyond our expected goals. Service to each community begins with the very first phone call when an extensive intake of the community’s needs and challenges is assessed and initial consultation is conducted to see where RWB can be most useful. Since the needs vary widely.
~ Some communities need actual on–the–ground rabbinic services.
A lay leader from Biloxi, MI called with a request for a rabbi to come lead services on Shavuot. The community in Biloxi is small, yet dedicated. After being devastated by hurricane Katrina, the community, with help from Jews around the country built a new building that houses the synagogue and a small Hebrew school. They cannot afford even a part time rabbi, and desperately wanted someone to come down for Shavuot. We matched them with Rabbi Hillel Norry from Atlanta and he reported:
“The evening began with a program for kids. As you might guess, there are not a lot of young Jewish families there, and we had around four or five school aged kids. Since it was Shavuot, we did a “tour” of the Torah. we opened the ark, removed a scroll and really looked at it carefully, identifying the different features and showing them some of the special passages. After that, the adults all showed up and we had a pizza dinner and a homemade cheesecake competition. I led a maariv service for about 12-15 adults, and we recited Yizkor together. I taught a short lesson about the history of Yizkor and why you might/might not stay for yizkor even if your parents are still living. Then, because we had a minyan, and because they do not have a morning Shavuot service, we took out the Torah again, and I read the ten commandments for them so that they could hear those sacred words read on the anniversary of their being given at Sinai. We did one big group Aliyah. It was good night. I really think this program is pretty amazing. These folks need and appreciate the support that we were able to provide, and I enjoyed having a new way to celebrate and meeting some kind and hospitable southern Jews who genuinely valued the presence and teaching I brought.”
~ Still others need a rabbi to serve as a resource and teacher.
A small community in Kerrville, Texas filled out a request for Service from. After an initial consultation with them, it became clear that they did not need a rabbi to come visit to lead services as they enjoy their lay led group. However, they did want to have access to some adult Jewish education classes. Rabbi Sirbu, Director of Rabbis Without Borders, was consulting with them and knew that the Conservative synagogue in Austin, Texas, two hours away and home to two RWBs offered a broad range of adult education classes. She arranged for Rabbis Blumofe and Swedroe of Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, TX to open their classes via Skype to the congregation in Kerrville. The people in Kerrville would gather in one location, participate in the class, and get to schmooze themselves afterwards. Then a couple of times a year either they would go to Austin, or one of the Austin rabbis would visit them.
~ Other communities have strategic planning needs.
Rabbi Steven Bayar of Milburn, NJ took a weekend to visit a synagogue in Dayton, OH. While not an isolated community, this synagogue was in great need. They had been steadily losing members over the past several years and had not has a rabbi in several years. When Rabbi Bayar arrived, he learned that the community was truly in crisis. They needed to decide if they were closing its doors or not. In addition to leading services and teaching a couple of classes, Rabbi Bayar spent a significant amount of time meeting with the leadership of the synagogue and helping them think through if and how they wanted to close. Understandably, this was an incredibly painful conversation for them to have, and they were very thankful to have a rabbi on hand to help them think through their different options. Nothing was decided that weekend, but Rabbi Bayar reported that he helped them begin to mourn and come to terms with the demise of their congregation. He served as a pastoral presence in a very fraught moment.
Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu the Director of Rabbis Without Borders has consulted with a number of synagogues by phone who have requested the services of the Service Corps. In one case, a lay leader from the Conservative synagogue in Tennessee called. She and a couple of other lay leaders were interested in merging their religious school with the local Reform congregation. A similar effort had been tried about ten years ago and failed. She wanted help thinking through a strategic plan for getting the right people on board to bring the two institutions together. Over the course of two conversations, Rabbi Sirbu listened to the communities needs and concerns and helped the lay leader map out a plan of action. The lay leader was incredibly thankful. She said, “You made me think about so many angles that would have never occurred to me. I feel much more prepared to take this on now. Thank you for your time and wisdom.”
Each community that we are in relationship with is unique in its own way. We have learned that many of these communities contact us without having a clear idea of their needs, or there is a mismatch between what they feel they “should” be offering people like prayer services with what people actually want, such as gatherings around meals or learning opportunities. Given this reality, we are spending much more time consulting with each community. Our consultations span a broad ranch of services. We are offering:
- Strategic planning
- Visioning for their community and identifying its purpose
- Determining sincere community needs
- Coaching on emerging pictures of membership and Jewish life
- Providing tactics and stories of what has worked and not worked in other similar communities
- Providing scholarship and resources about contemporary community building models and systems
An overwhelming need which we heard about was placement, meaning a community wanted to hire a rabbi for High Holidays, full or part time work. Initially we did not envision this project to be a placement service. However, after speaking with these communities, what we have come to understand is that they have nowhere else to turn. These are communities who are unaffiliated with the major denominations and are having great trouble finding a rabbi. The aim of the Rabbinic Service Corps is to serve communities in need, so we have decided that we will help these communities get the word out about these jobs.
To this end in the fall of 2016, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, the Director of Rabbis Without Borders launched RabbiCareers.com to connect rabbis and the communities that need them. The website is an open source platform where anyone seeking a rabbi for any type of rabbinic job can post, and any rabbi can search for a job and post their resumes. This cuts through the red tape of existing placement systems which require membership in a denomination, dues payment, and places limits on who the community can hire based on their size and a rabbi’s experience.
Response to the site has been tremendous. In the past year, we have had over 95,000 hits on the site showing the great need for such a service. As of this writing 452 people have registered as active users, a third as employers, and two thirds as candidates or jobs. Over 200 jobs have been listed, about 50 of them pulpit positions. Feedback on the usefulness of the site has been extraordinarily positive:
“The website was absolutely invaluable in our rabbinic search. We received close to two dozen resumes in a short period of time. This search process was less stressful and more productive than past searches I have been a part of. We just settled on the right rabbi for us. We could not be more thrilled, satisfied, and happy.”
Alan Matisoff, Temple Shalom of Central Florida
The RWB Service Corps has been invaluable to the people and communities we have touched. In one case, a rabbi visiting a small community in New Mexico reported that a few people came up to him and cried while thanking him for coming. “This shows we have not been forgotten,” said one person. Rabbis Without Borders believes in serving anyone anywhere. No individual Jew or community should be forgotten simply because they are small or unconnected to larger Jewish systems. We look forward to continuing to expand the services of both the RWB Service Corps and RabbiCareers.com to serve the needs of small Jewish communities who otherwise are not being served. To request a service, fill out this simple form. We look forward to working with you!