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Feb 07

Enthusiastic response to workshop about the next rabbi

OLD-TIMERS, newcomers, young and old, singles and couples, gathered at Beit Emanuel last Sunday to talk about what values they would like in a new rabbi.
The workshop, co-ordinated by Merle Favis, a long-time member with experience in community participation techniques, was intended to raise interest among congregants, provoke some soul-searching about what Beit Emanuel stands for – or ought to stand for – and to offer feedback for the Rabbinic Search Committee. Despite some initial wariness from those who had never participated in a workshop of this kind before, by the end of the afternoon suggestions were flying in from all sides of the room. Indeed there were so many that the final stage – drawing up concrete action points – could not be completed, and a follow-up session will be held in a few weeks.
The idea was to avoid a “blame and complain” session, and also to avoid focus on particular people. Participants were first asked what they valued most about Beit Emanuel. The choir and the catering were high on most lists; people also felt the congregation is more friendly to newcomers than most, more tolerant of differences and more diverse. Ordinary members are allowed to participate in services, particularly over the High Holy days, and the shul is open to experiment, for example the chavurah..
Turning to the question of the rabbi, Merle divided personal qualities into three kinds: Qualities of the ‘hand’, meaning acquired or innate skills; of the ‘head’, meaning intellectual abilities; and of the ‘heart’, meaning emotional strengths.
Qualities of the hand that were suggested ranged from the mundane – driving and computer skills – to the more complex, such as an ability to sing (it was eventually agreed that a rabbi did not have to sing brilliantly, just more or less in tune), and to read Torah fluently.
Qualities of the head included familiarity with latest trends in Jewish thinking, an ability to teach, a social conscience, an ability to innovate and lead, but also to listen. Some favoured a rabbi with a strong and provocative point of view.
Qualities of the heart turned out to be the longest list, and it included charisma and empathy, an ability to connect with the youth, and a sensitivity to the shul’s own culture and traditions.
A few points sparked heated debate. One was over whether a rabbi ought to have a wife (hastily amended to “life partner”). Those in favour said a partner was useful in providing prudent advice of the kind outsiders could not easily give, and that a rabbi with a family would relate more closely to the life-cycle events that most of the congregation experience. Those against said it discriminated against rabbis who chose to be single or not to have children, and treated the “wife” as an unpaid appendage. Merle said we should avoid labelling people (old, young, unmarried, disabled, etc) and rather identify the needs to be filled.
Merle ended the session by expressing delight at how, after a slow start, participants had joined in with enthusiasm. Most said the exercise had been worthwhile. Merle also noted that no human being could be expected to embody all the values and qualities listed, but the act of prioritising and listing those which appealed to the most people, will provide a guide to how the congregation views the office of rabbi, and also how it views itself. A follow-up meeting will be held in March, where these qualities will be translated into practical actions.