Rethinking the Role of the Modern Orthodox Rabbi in the Aftermath of the Pandemic

April 22, 2021 | Ezra Schwartz
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As Jack Wertheimer recently observed in Mosaic, the coronavirus has led many Orthodox Jews to pray in small outdoor minyanim, where social-distancing regulations could be properly adhered to—and, having come to like the informality and intimacy of these gatherings, not all are eager to return to their synagogues. Ezra Schwartz, in an assessment of COVID-19’s effects on American Modern Orthodoxy, believes that this new trend toward decentralization calls for a reevaluation of pulpit rabbis’ obligations:

To some extent this emerging American rabbi will need to model himself after the Israeli model of the rav ha-ir or rav ha-sh’khunah [city or neighborhood rabbi]. In that traditional Israeli model, the rabbi is not limited by the walls of a particular building. I [visiting the Israeli town of] Modi’in a decade ago when the current Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, ran from synagogue to synagogue on Shabbat morning. From what I am told, he spoke at eleven different minyanim that Shabbat, inspiring and sharing words of Torah (sometimes the exact same words) in each location.

This rabbinic model [resembleds that of] pre-war European communities as well. . . . . There may have been a large synagogue that served as [a particular rabbi’s] base, but his orbit extended to the entire community.

The American model of a rabbi for every synagogue is historically novel. However, it serves a tremendous need. The ideal American congregational rabbi is far more than a teacher and preacher. He is a life guide and lifelong mentor for his flock. He offers pastoral counseling and is deeply involved in the life of his congregants. . . . The question to ask is how can the essential personalized pastoral role of the American rabbi persist in a decentralized world of backyard minyanim and shtiblakh [very small synagogues]? How can the successes of a century of American congregational rabbis be maintained if many of the changes wrought by the pandemic remain in the post-pandemic world?

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