Tuesday, October 30, 2012

For Rabbis: How to avoid being intimidating

I spent a lot of time this past weekend at my friend and Rabbi's shul installation. One point noted by many speakers is that this Rabbi is beloved for his approachability.

This is not a small thing; how can you offer counsel and support when people are afraid to talk to you? And it's not necessarily easy to achieve, given the title and its baggage, as well as the popular rabbinic costume of dark suit, beard and hat. [I have my own problem of PermascowlTM, thanks largely to bone structure. It was useful on the New York subway of my youth, but it's just annoying now.]

Several years ago, in a different venue, I asked what Rabbis could do in order to avoid being intimidating. Here are some of the responses I received:

* Open your divrei torah with a joke [I don't like this approach, where it is intentional; I know the gemara about it, but it feels like pandering. "Please, please! Like me! Look, I'll do a trick for you!" I'll tell a joke when I feel like it.]

* Play racquetball

* Have a pet python [I had a boa constrictor as a kid, does that count?]

* Always have a joke on hand

* Walk around with a yo-yo

* Keep a kazoo, maracas or set of castanets with you

* Be seen socially with your wife, outside of a shul setting

* Practice smiling

* Dye your beard purple

* Wear a blue shirt (the beard is more likely; I don't know how to match a tie with a coloured shirt)

What would you add?





21 comments:

  1. It definitely hurts a rabbi when his wife isn't seen socially with him, but what if the wife isn't interested or is unable due to career/family/personal concerns? Over 20 years ago, I heard Rabbi Rosenblatt of the RJC say "the days of two for one are over".

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  2. Just a general observation,but some shul rabbis could do with being less makpid on their kovod. Let them be the first to offer their hand for a handshake or the first to say good Shabbos or good morning or the first to offer a smile and ask how a congregant is doing. And if a congregant comes to see them in their offices, don't sit behind the desk (the boss's or principal's chair) with the congregant on the other side (the employee's or student's chair)--these offices should have two arm chairs where such meetings can take place. And if a congregant has either called the rabbi or met with him about a problem, a follow up call would be nice, initiated by the rabbi.

    As to choosing a tie to match a colored shirt, studies show that men suffer from color blindness more than women do, and that Ashkenazic men have a higher percentage of color blindness than the general male public. That is why wives are quite useful--they can color match what their husbands can't.

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    1. Hi ProfK,

      Hope all is well.

      I can honestly say that I have known dozen of rabbis, and I have never seen any of them be makpid on their kavod in the ways you describe. They offer greetings firt, they rise for others, and they follow up.

      I shudder to think that rabbis like this are out there somewhere. I'm glad I have not met them.

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  3. Also - a shul rabbi should have knowledge about general practical matters that are important to congregants. Prior to a scheduled hospitalization we asked our rabbi about the availability of kosher food at a major local hospital (5 miles from home) - his answer was "call the hospital". I don't mind if a shul rabbi can't answer questions about faith and belief, and I don't mind if he needs to consult another rabbi or take some time on a complicated sh'ayla - but isn't a shul rabbi supposed to be able to help with questions about local kosher food?

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    1. That is odd, Tesyaa. I don't know what to make of that, at all.

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  4. wear shorts and a t-shirt to visitor's day at camp like normal people

    talk a lot and walk around the sanctuary and bais medrash shmoozing during davening


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    1. I'm not sure which of those would be harder for me...

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  5. RABBI SOLOVEICHIK: I went to college, so I can relate to my talmidim, I can talk with them about what they're studying. But you didn't go to college, how do you connect with your talmidim?

    RABBI MICHEL SHURKIN: That's no problem, I have a killer hookshot.

    RABBI SOLOVEICHIK: What's a "hookshot"?

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  6. No shtick needed. Behave as a friendly neighbor would. If you care, it shows. Also, do not treat people according to their social status (that is, what they can do for you).

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    Replies
    1. These are certainly proper conduct, and they can help knock down walls - but I don't think they are the sum of things.

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  7. Make the ordinary details of ordinary lives as important to you as they are to the congregant. I knew one rabbi who always asked me what I was up to and when I saw him next he remembered as inquired, "so did you get the job for which you were interviewed." Or, he might ask did you finish reading the book you were excited about last time we talked. I am willing to bet that any rabbi who shows that kind of interest and acceptance will be thought of as approachable.

    As for jokes, a good idea if you are good at it. But wit and a generally cheerful demeanor, that is always winning.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks; this is a good point, and certainly true in my experience.

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  8. While approachability is certainly nice and important, a significant population want the rabbi to be and act "rabbinic", which is often the opposite of approachable. If the rabbi plays racquetball or wears shorts (!), then he's not rabbinic enough for them. So while this post is nice, it doesn't acknowledge that many rabbis struggle to find the proper balance between approachability and authority. Many baalei batim might want their rabbi to be "one of the guys", but they really need him not to be one of the guys.

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    1. I have very mixed feelings on this issue, and have posted on it in the past. I agree that it's a hard balance, although I do believe in erring on the side of approachability.

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  9. I heard a great vort from R Barry Nathan years ago. Avraham Avinu's tent opened on all fours sides because any Rav or kiruv worker needs to be approachable from every angle: relationship issues, business issues, halacha, ethics, current events, chinuch, etc.

    In my experience, I'd say that a Rabbi who's spouse isn't on board is a negative.

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    Replies
    1. But what does "on board" mean, Neil? There are many ways to be a Rebbetzin.

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    2. I'd say "on board" means being a partner in the success of the shul, social with members, friendly to people.

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  10. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)November 1, 2012 at 5:58 AM

    To match a tie with a colored shirt, just make sure the tie contains at least a small amount of the same color as the shirt. That's how I learned to do it.

    You'll have to ask someone else how to match ties with striped shirts, though. I've never figured that one out.

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  11. Steg-
    Thanks; much appreciated.

    Neil-
    There is a pretty big spectrum of possibilities there, I'd say.

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