Being a small congregation has advantages. Everyone matters. Any time someone wants to pitch in, their help is always welcome and needed. Things feel more personal. Gatherings are more intimate. People look out for one another. There is, however, one major disadvantage: resources are usually very limited. Limited money means that many small congregations don’t have a building of their own or clergy. This puts great demands on the lay leadership who form an even smaller group within the membership. Small congregations often feel overlooked within the larger Jewish community. CLAL’s Rabbinic Service Corps is trying to change that.
Launched in 2015 under the banner, #small but proud, the Rabbinic Service Corps is a program that offers clergy visits, consultation, education, pastoral care and strategic planning to small congregations around the country. CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership recognized a need: small congregations are often underserved because they are in remote areas, or they are aging, or they are just starting, or they are independent of denominational affiliation. CLAL raised funds to be able to offer services for those congregations who have no clergy support.
Thanks to the cadre of rabbis who have participated in CLAL’s competitive Rabbis Without Borders fellowship, there are rabbis around the US who are particularly open to today’s challenges. Here in Westchester, there are three RWB Fellows serving three different communities. Rabbi Jaymee Alpert serves Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester. She is very active in the local community and has founded Neshama Body and Soul, a practice that combines exercise and prayer. Rabbi Leora Frankel is the Assistant Rabbi at Community Synagogue of Rye and an avid Israeli dancer. Rabbi Ben Newman is the founder and spiritual leader of Shtiebel, a startup shul in Dobbs Ferry.
RWB Fellows participate in a year of regular meetings and study in New York and/or California. Upon completing their cohort year they are invited into an active online conversation with other RWB’s and are eligible to attend the annual RWB Retreat. The Retreats strengthen the connections among rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, expose rabbis to the creative work that others are doing, and continue to challenge rabbis to wrestle with the issues with which our society is grappling. Past retreats have examined positive psychology, and disruptive innovation, for example. These RWB rabbis have volunteered their time and expertise to work with small congregations.
Applying for assistance is straightforward. The process begins when a congregation submits a request for service, http://rabbiswithoutborders.org/what-we-offer/, after which the coordinator of the Rabbinic Service Corps, Rabbi Helaine Ettinger, follows up with a phone call. There is a thorough intake process to learn of the particular needs of each congregation. These conversations help clarify what kind of help the Rabbinic Service Corps can provide. Does the congregation need a rabbi to consult with them? Does a congregation need to be connected with another congregation? Does the congregation need emotional support? Does the congregation need a visit from a rabbi? Then the Rabbinic Service Corps matches the congregation with a rabbi who will be best suited to their particular needs. The members of a small congregation in Roswell, NM tearfully thanked the rabbi who came to them for Shabbat and said, “This shows we have not been forgotten.”
Rabbis Without Borders and the Rabbinic Service Corps believe that no individual Jew or community should be forgotten simply because they are small or unconnected to larger Jewish systems. To learn more about CLAL’s programs, visit www.CLAL.org.