Modern Day Questions

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

My phone rang at about 10:45 p.m. It was the eve of Hoshana Rabba and my family was still feeling the euphoria and exhaustion of Succot. For as a result of a tremendous amount of work we were able to serve almost two hundred meals in our Synagogue Succah enabling scores of individuals to experience this wonderful Mitzva for the first time in their lives. The young man who was calling introduced himself indicating his name and that of his father and mother. I responded that I knew who they were as they were upstanding individuals in Chicago's Orthodox community. He told me he had a problem and was hoping I could be of assistance to him. I responded that I would attempt to do my very best to be of some help.

"Rabbi," he began, "Recently I became acquainted with a young woman who lives but blocks from your Congregation. I was hoping she could attend your services, but would like to ask a few questions about the Synagogue as I don't know you personally but was told to speak with you by a number of individuals."

"What would you like to know?," I asked. "Well, my first question is - what type of Congregation is it?" Since he had been recommended to me and had indicated that he was Orthodox, I assumed he wanted to know something about our structure rather than our religious affiliation. "It is the last of the great Synagogues of Chicago," I replied. "It seats about 2,000." "No, that's not what I mean," he responded. "Who attends the Synagogue?" "I don't understand," I said, "Jews attend the Synagogue - mostly seniors from the former Soviet Union." "But what kind of Jews are they?" he asked. "Struggling Jews," I replied, "as most of us who are attempting to fulfill the Mitzvohs of HaShem." "But are there any Orthodox Jews in your Synagogue... I mean other than yourself and your family of course?" "No," I responded, "why are you asking me all these questions?" "Well, you see, I am trying to bring her closer to Judaism. If she went to your Synagogue, who would work with her?" "Myself," I replied, "just as I do with all my members." "But she is a woman, does that bother you?" "No," I responded. "Good, then I will give you her number so that you can call her and invite her. I will as well give you my number so that you can keep me abreast of what is happening with her."

This conversation is but another sterling example of the calamity that has befallen the Rabbinate. Once viewed as a noble profession, the Rabbi was seen as the individual who ministered to the community. In times of joy, in times of sadness, it was the Rabbi who shouldered the burden of the average Jew toiling to give his flock direction and support. And when it came to their spiritual growth his efforts went way beyond the Rabbincial lecture in Talmud or some other traditional subject and the Halachic question. The adult education program, the contemporary lecture that he was forever attempting to develop to have the greatest of influence upon his flock, the cultural event, the party and so much more were his daily concern. Hours running into the early morning were spent with individuals experiencing spiritual and personal problems. Listening to their questions and their pain, attempting to answer according to their ability to understand and accept, the Rabbi's major task was to work with people one on one. That is the noble profession I struggled to enter and struggle to be worthy of each and every day.

When, three years ago, I became Rabbi of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, on the condition that the Congregation abandon Egalitarian Conservative Judaism and return to its Orthodox roots, my family and I were confronted with a host of problems. Immediately, a number of members, all good donors to the Congregation, left because of the religious change. The Synagogue rarely had services - it was for all practical purposes a moribund institution. Today, thank G‑d, it is a viable enterprise. Sabbath services with regular attendance approaching fifty, High Holy Day attendance maxing out at seven hundred, Sedarim, parties, adult education, cultural events and more, Agudas Achim has come into its own, albeit it still remains an extremely impoverished Congregation. To me this is a wonderful accomplishment and I thank G‑d for His Help and the dedicated support of my entire family as well. Yet even though this story is known in the Orthodox community, I still have people comment - I don t know why you bothered to make the Congregation Orthodox. After all there are no Shomrei Shabbos Jews attending it.

For a growing number of individuals Halachic observance is purely the domain of the Orthodox Synagogue and its Orthodox observant families located in a predominantly Orthodox community. It is the ever more common thought that only in this unique collective of the frum that Orthodoxy can grow and bear fruit. To trust a potential returnee to the likes of my Congregation is looked at with serious concern. While this article does not allow for detail, I can assure you that the spiritual experiences that regularly occur in my Congregation, publicly occur in my Congregation would, without a doubt, positively inspire the most devout resident of Rogers Park. To see individuals embracing Yiddishkeit, drinking of its life giving waters for the first time in lives that span more than half a century, is one of the most stimulating religious experiences I have had in my thirty-three years in the Rabbinate!

We who still revere the profession commonly known as the pulpit Rabbinate must ask ourselves what we are doing to enhance our profession s reputation, what are we doing to return the mantle of Jewish spiritual leadership to the Morah D'Asra once again. While I recognize the tremendous work outreach groups are doing to bring Jews back to authentic belief and practice, it is the Synagogue that is the institution that has contact with the greater majority of Jews. It is the pulpit Rabbi who is known by the greater majority of Jews. When one is introduced to most Jews, with the notable exception of the Orthodox as Rabbi so and so, the first question is, "Rabbi, where is your Congregation?" This question underscores the inexorable connection of the title Rabbi with the Jewish ministry.

I still believe in the centrality of the Congregational Rabbi in Jewish communal life and in the life of each Jew. I am firmly convinced that the Rabbi can and must play a vital role in shaping the future of Jewry as a whole and Jews as individuals.