Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Congregation Beth Israel prepares for a virtual Passover class, April 2020. (Photo/Courtesy CBI)
Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Congregation Beth Israel prepares for a virtual Passover class, April 2020. (Photo/Courtesy CBI)

The role of rabbis and synagogues is more vital than ever

One of the pleasures of a Jewish community newspaper is having intelligent, thoughtful people with opposing views duke it out in the opinion pages. Such is the case this week with Congregation Emanu-El Rabbi Emeritus Stephen Pearce and former Kitchen executive director Yoav Schlesinger debating whether ordained rabbis — and, indeed, the synagogue as an institution — still adequately fulfill their traditional roles in American Jewish life.

Pearce defends the professional rabbi as a worthy product of intense scholarship, grounded in thousands of years of Jewish religious thought. Schlesinger counters that Judaism’s inherently democratic core argues for more decentralization and less top-down authority in religious and communal life.

Without equivocation, our position is that rabbis and synagogues are so central to Jewish life that it is absurd to demand that they prove their worth. A particular rabbi or synagogue might not be to everyone’s liking, but as a whole they are foundational to Jewish practice and Jewish society.

Not only that, but synagogues move with the times, certainly in the Bay Area. Meditation, yoga, Pride services, social action committees, congregational gardens — the list of creative innovations is endless.

And during the current crisis, rabbis have stepped up to lead with courage at a time when leadership is so desperately needed — keeping in mind that they, too, are dealing on a personal level with the pandemic.

Consider how swiftly pulpit rabbis in the Bay Area pivoted to provide virtual forms of worship services via Zoom or livestreaming. Or how rabbis organized their congregations to provide lifelines to members, offering solace to the sick, the elderly, and others vulnerable to the coronavirus and the distress of extended isolation.

And consider how rabbis and synagogues are acting to help the broader community by mobilizing volunteers and donations for food banks, blood banks, hospitals and nursing homes.

It is well to point out the priority Judaism puts upon developing a literate lay leadership. Indeed, congregations hire rabbis, and can fire them — rabbis are ultimately responsible to those they serve.

We honor our rabbis and say unreservedly that we are fortunate to have them lead us through this crisis now.

J. Editorial Board

The J. Editorial Board pens editorials as the voice of J.