Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Who needs rabbinic leadership?

The other day I quoted a 2007 survey performed by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (in its Community Growth Initiative) on the way that young couples choose a community.

According to the CJF's published report, they surveyed 100 “young families” from Riverdale, Washington Heights, Teaneck, University of Pennsylvania, Einstein, Kew Gardens Hills and Holliswood.

The participants were from early 20s to early 30s, from newlyweds to families with 2-3 children under the age of 5. The great majority of the participants had grown up on Long Island (16.4%) or in Queens (14.4%); the highest-ranking non-NY/NJ hometowns were Chicago, LA and Philadelpha, each with 3.4% of the participants. There was no small community with 2% or more of the results.

As I explained in that previous post, these families ranked the importance of 12 factors for choosing a community. The overall result was:

1. Hashkafa
2. Choice of Day Schools
3. Affordable Housing
4. Job / Higher Education
5. Young Couples
6. Eruv
7. Values
8. Mikvah
9. Convenience
10. Proximity to Family
11. Rabbinic Leadership
12. Kosher Restaurants

Which led one commenter to note how low rabbinic leadership ranks in the survey results. To me, though, this makes perfect sense, for several reasons:

• As the study authors noted, younger families usually have not experienced a need for real pastoral involvement, as in helping people through severe illness or marshaling community resources in a crisis;

• As the study authors also noted, the families interviewed still had strong connections to their rebbeim from yeshiva and may not have seen the need for a communal posek or pastoral authority;

• The study authors also noted that a great percentage of the young families surveyed lived in apartment communities, without any substantive rabbinic presence. [Similarly, many of them ranked eruv and walking-distance mikvah low on the list; presumably they felt they could always build one easily enough, with or without rabbinic leadership?]

• I would also add that the young families surveyed likely had little awareness of what a rabbi does in a community, particularly a small community. Coming from Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Teaneck, their experience with community organization and growth would be entirely theoretical. Speaking for myself, I had no clue about the role of a rabbi in a non-New York community.

• And, finally but perhaps most crucially, good rabbinic leadership generally takes place behind the scenes, so that these families, and most families, would likely not be sensitive to it. If a rabbi does his job well – organizes help for people in need discreetly, works well with committees, arranges for shul and community decisions to flow properly – then no one knows what he has done.

So, no, I’m not that surprised by the result. I’m curious, though, as to what those same couples will say if they are re-surveyed five and ten years down the line.


  1. Perhaps it would be a good idea for the CJF to survey more than one age group and use the combined results.

    We all have different needs at different stages of life but there are many "universal" needs.

  2. Not to be splitting hairs, but I disagree that " finally but perhaps most crucially, good rabbinic leadership generally takes place behind the scenes, so that these families, and most families, would likely not be sensitive to it." That is not leadership that is being discussed but good rabbinic practice. A strong rabbinic leader in a sense acts in loco parentis to his congregation, and a good parent should be both heard and seen, in addition to working behind the scenery.

    Once shuls and communities were known because of the strong rabbis who were at the head of the shul, something that still exists to some extent in out of town shuls. In today's NY shul rabbis are mostly marginalized unless they also have a strong yeshiva connection. At least in my experience years back if you said you davened at Shul X the first question was "Who is the Rabbi?" because that had import.

  3. I think all of your points are valid, but what really struck me was that Hashafa and Choice of Day Schools ranked so high while Rabbinic Leadership ranked so low. I would have assumed that those who value a particular hashkafa (and its implementation in day schools) would also value their rabbi, or would at least care that he share their haskafa.

    My impression is that many of those surveyed see their shul rabbi as merely someone employed to give a weekly drasha, which they may or may not remain awake for. Leadership, be it in matters of halacha, haskafa, or otherwise doesn't enter the picture.

    Perhaps this is merely a "big community" phenomenon. How we got here and where to go from here are much more complicated.

  4. Anonymous 9:47-
    Might be useful, but I think they viewed this as part of a process of helping communities attract young couples with small children.

    To refine my idea: When a rabbi is a strong leader, people know it - but they can't necessarily identify the specific actions that define him this way, because those occur behind the scenes. What remains is a sense of who he is and what he does, without specifics.
    Or maybe I'm off-base here.

    Could also be a matter of theory vs practice - they want the right hashkafah, but don't necessarily recognize the role of the leader in getting there?

  5. RH:

    "many of them ranked eruv and walking-distance mikvah low on the list"

    eruv might rank so low because many younger people grew up with an eruv and they don't realize what shabbat is like sans eruv

    i've never ever heard someone mention a walking-distance eruv as a concern.

  6. I'm very surprised that Mikva isn't higher on the list, I can't imagine a young religious family even consider moving to a community without a Mikva, although maybe they assume that they can build one and/or there will be one nearby anyway, even if not part of their community (e.g., a Chabad House across town).

    With regard to Rabbinic leadership, I'm not surprised that it is so low on the list, but I think that it's a sad reflection of the way individuals and communities think today.

    Here in Israel I think that it is tragic that most shuls do not have their own Rabbi. There may be many rabbis who daven in the shul and a city (or neighbourhood) Rabbi, but no communal Rabbi (major issues like Kashrut, Mikva, Eruv, burial, etc are dealt with by the city Rabbanut which is publicly funded)

    I think that this is a serious problem, especially when trying to raise kids. The rabbi represents our Mesora and the concept that sometimes you don't have all the answers and need to ask for guidance or for a halachic ruling from someone more knowledgeable or experienced than you.

    I've decided that the number one (possibly only) factor to consider when joining a shul is whether there is a Rabbi (or in the case of my current neighbourhood where all the shuls are getting established, is there a commitment to bring in a Rabbi)

  7. former allentownerJune 18, 2009 at 5:32 PM

    Anonymous said...
    Perhaps it would be a good idea for the CJF to survey more than one age group and use the combined results.

    actually, that probably reflects the cjf bias towards "recent grads"

  8. LOZ-
    Eruv - Yes, that could be a factor.
    Mikvah - Wait until their first Friday night tevilah.

    Michael Sedley-
    I know lots of American shul rabbis who wish Israelis had that policy of hiring shul rabbis...

    I don't think it's a CJF bias; I think it's a community bias. People especially want to attract move-ins whose kids will be in the youth programs, and whose families will be active in the shul for decades to come. It's pragmatic.

  9. Actually, my experience is that people don't really think about the rabbi so much until/unless there's a REAL problem. If the rabbi's in one's personal experience are merely adequate, they don't perceive the value. If they are outstanding, there's an assumption that the next one will be as well. After all, how many congregational rabbis do most young people know? Unless they've moved around quite a bit, it's usually only one or two.

  10. RH:

    "Wait until their first Friday night tevilah."

    i understood that this is what the problem is. but how often does this happen? i can't imagine someone choosing a home (unless all other things being equal) because of this. my friends all observe taharat mishpaha and all own homes. i've never heard of this as a factor in deciding where to live.