Being the youngest child in my family has always given me many learning opportunities. It began with observing my siblings getting to the cookie jar, and twenty five years later it helped me decide a career path for myself. For the past fifteen years, as I went through high school and the ensuing years, I watched my brother’s career in rabbonus develop. What started out as a career in kiruv, later developed into a position as the rav of a large out-of-town kehilla. Through his experiences, I had the ability to be inspired by him, and to see the behind-the-scenes of what happens on a typical day in the life of a 21st century rav.
When my paternal great-grandfather embarked on his 40 year career as a rav in 1889, the needs of his Polish kehilla were unique. The Haskalah movement was at its height in Europe, forcing rabbonim to innovate, responsibly move boundaries when Chaza”l so advised, and lead against the tide. When my maternal grandfather began his first job as a community rav in the American Rust Belt in the 1950’s, that kehilla also needed a leader. He took upon himself the mission of raising awareness of the importance of taharas hamishpacha and other basic tenets of Halacha.
However, I learned from watching my brother that many of the issues brought to the desk of the community rabbi in 2017 are nothing like what confronted the 19th century Polish rav or even the 20th century American rav. Our problem-solving tools – Gemara and Shulchan Aruch – remain unchanged, but the problems we are solving couldn’t have been imagined in previous generations. If I were to become as effective as my grandfather and great-grandfather were, I would need specialized, 21st century training. This realization propelled me to join the Center for Kehilla Development (CKD) to seek out what exactly is needed to guide the communities of today.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner once compared the job of a rav to that of the old town clock. The town clock was always installed on a high tower. The obvious reason was so that wherever you were in town, you would be able to see what time it was. But Rav Hutner pointed out another benefit in placing the clock high above anyone’s reach: If the town clock was within reach, passersby who noticed a difference between the time on their own watches and the time on the town clock would be tempted to reset the town clock. But if the clock is high up and untouchable, then only the watches of the pedestrians would be within reach. Anyone who noticed that the time on the big clock does not match the time on his watch, would have no choice but to change his watch to match the time on the town clock. The big clock sets the standard for the kehilla members’ watches, and not vice versa. Rav Hutner explained that a Rav is not supposed to be a politician who appeases his constituents. His sole interest must always be to espouse the unadulterated truth, but always in a way people can hear it. He must be the proverbial tower clock towards which everyone else lifts their gaze.
“Most shailos being asked to a Rav are not skin-deep,” notes Rav Ephraim Kirschenbaum, a leading Rav in Ramat Beit Shemesh and a senior lecturer in the CKD, “Usually, the real question is lurking in the background.” Rav Kirschenbaum consistently demands that his CKD avreichim practice stripping away a shailah’s superficial elements to get to the heart of the matter. This is a complex and sometimes counterintuitive process, and it requires very specific training.
A 21st century rav does not have to be a physician or psychologist, but he must know how to identify when those types of professional assistance are required, and he might need to know how to practice emergency interventions in the moment. To this end, CKD avreichim not only receive emergency psychological training from leading psychologists and psychiatrists around the globe, they are even trained to deal with the most basic medical emergencies.
A 21st century rav does need to be a mechanech. Since parents will turn to their rav for guidance about everything from school placement to behavioral issues, the contemporary leader of a kehilla needs expertise in chinuch. And learning about chinuch, like learning any other complex wisdom, requires not only limud but also shimush. “This is not an area where you can rely on hunches and intuition,” warns Rav Leib Kelemen, dean of the CKD and an acknowledged chinuch expert. Rav Kelemen challenges the avreichim with real life scenarios, walks us through the process of analyzing them, and helps us develop effective strategies for resolving these chinuch challenges. Without this sort of guidance, an ordinary challenge can escalate over time into the sort of crises that unfortunately we see often in our communities.
One of the incredible series of shiurim given at the CKD is presented by the world renowned posek, Rav Asher Weiss. He frequently shares the complex shailos presented to him. Just being exposed to these sorts of shailos changes an avreich’s perspective and sensitivities; and as Rav Weiss weaves through the intricate web of halachic analysis towards his psak, one can only marvel at the brilliance of our gadolim.
Perhaps the greatest benefit I and others are gaining from being at the CKD is time. Life is complex, and developing real solutions to complex problems requires enormous effort and time. The CKD grants us five years to think about Klal Yisroel, fine-tune our understanding of the kehillos’ needs, and develop realistic strategies to help those for whom we will soon be responsible. Some of us are headed for kiruv, others for chinuch, and others for rabbonus. But all of us share a singular passion: We want to help, and we want to be the sort of leaders today’s communities expect. Becoming the people Klal Yisroel expects requires siyatta diShmaya, and the sort of opportunities I am being granted at the CKD. After all, when people look up at the town clock nowadays, they expect to see a lot more than just the time.
*For more information about the CKD, visit www.c4kd.org.