In one form or another, the Vaad: The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia has existed for more than 100 years. But with the departure last summer of its director of the past eight years, Rabbi David Gutterman, coupled with the absence of funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, it seemed likely that the institution was down for the count.
But now a number of area rabbis are working with a shoestring budget to try to reconstitute the board, hoping to reassert the entity as a more active player in Jewish communal affairs and interfaith efforts.
However, it's not clear how closely the new body will resemble the old organization of past decades, or whether economic realities — along with perception that the institution of the rabbinate does not carry the same clout it once had — will cause the board to take a dramatically different shape.
"What the board says to the community is that just as the rabbi is an individual leader of his or her congregation, the rabbis collectively are the religious leaders of the Jewish community," said Rabbi Robert Layman, a former Board of Rabbis president who came out of retirement in December to become the part-time, interim director.
Along with Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood — who is also a past president of the board — Layman helped recruit a brand-new set of officers and a larger executive committee to draw up a contemporary set of by-laws. (Layman called the old ones woefully out of date.)
"I think we can become a more vibrant and energized voice for the rabbis of the Jewish community," said Rabbi Jay Stein of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.
Stein is the new president of the board.
The election of Stein and the other officers — a total of four people — must be officially ratified at a general membership meeting, which is expected to take place in September.
An issue not on the table at the moment is the group's name. When Gutterman arrived, he added the word "Vaad." While agreeing that the moniker is a mouthful, the new leaders have decided to keep it for now.
Differences Across the Board
Only a handful of boards in other locales have professional staffs, among them the New York Board of Rabbis and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. But the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, for example, functions more on a volunteer basis.
The Philadelphia board has never served as an authority on Jewish law, in the way an Orthodox Beit Din does, and generally focuses on areas where the major streams — the four major ones, that is, since Philadelphia is home to the Reconstructionist movement — can find common ground.
Layman acknowledged that while the participation of Orthodox rabbis in the board here has historically been limited, it's something organizers hope to change as they reimagine the organization's purpose.
"The Jewish community ought not to be factionalized [along] denominational or institutional lines," said Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and one of two Orthodox rabbis serving on the reconstituted executive committee. "The board of rabbis can help bridge the divide between the denominations and among the institutions."
The new slate is also believed to represent the first time that a female — Rabbi Elisa Goldberg of the Jewish Family and Children's Service — will serve in a top position; moreover, she is not a pulpit rabbi, another first.
Goldberg noted that one of the group's functions will be serving as a sounding board for clergy in an era when roles are rapidly changing.
Stein, Layman and others have cited the board's work in the 1980s and 1990s as a model to draw upon for inspiration.
Back then, the organization convened rabbinical gatherings that sometimes drew more than 70 individuals. Those events worked to develop relationships between members of the clergy from different streams, according to Rabbi Richard Hirsh, who served as executive director of the board from 1988 to 1993. (He noted that when congregations were slightly less dispersed physically, it was easier to draw such a crowd.)
Hirsh, now the director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, also said that the board was a "go-to" place in the Jewish community for interfaith dialogue.
Layman, who served as president when Hirsh was hired, added that the board typically played a supporting role in organizing major communal events, from the Holocaust memorial ceremony to Israel Independence Day festivities.
'Giants of the Community'
Through the 1990s, the agency — which was founded as the Jewish Board of Ministers during the Civil War — had three full-time staff members, and was funded almost entirely by Federation. The board also oversaw local chaplaincy programs, something that was transferred to fall under the auspices of the Jewish Family and Children's Service starting in 2000.
Hirsh noted that a number of factors has led to the decline of the organization, which was housed in Federation's old headquarters at 226 S. 16th St in Philadelphia. One was the retirement of long-serving, influential rabbis — like Gerald I. Wolpe of Har Zion Temple, who passed away last month, and Aaron Landes of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park — who served as a bridge between Federation and synagogue leadership, both lay and rabbinic.
"They were really the giants of the community. When they retired, the gravitas of the rabbinate sort of diminished a bit," said Hirsh.
More recently, Federation made a strategic move away from providing block grant funding to agencies, instead earmarking dollars for specific programming. That means that longstanding groups that had counted on Federation for the bulk of their support had to beef up their programmatic efforts to receive money; they also had to come up with new ways of maintaining their activities.
While in the past few years, the Vaad has gotten Federation funding to run enrichment programs for rabbis — lectures, study sessions and other types of professional development — it most definitely needs to drum up more cash, especially now, in order to achieve its new goals.
Another shift in the diminished prominence of the Board of Rabbis was the fact that when Gutterman took over, he worked part-time for the board and part-time serving as an in-house director of Jewish services for Federation. Stationed at the Jewish Community Services Building on Arch Street, he worked, for the most part, alone.
At present, funding remains an issue. Layman is being paid out of the Vaad's existing fiscal pot. The group will have to raise money to hire a future full-time director; Layman noted that he only plans to work several more months.
One nominal way of earning cash has come from the Vaad's ability to provide certification to rabbis who want to work in state-run hospitals and mental-health facilities. The state pays these clergy members via the Vaad, which gets an accounting fee in return.
Nonetheless, Stein noted that private fundraising — even in these stark economic times, and perhaps especially so now — is needed to create the vitality the group is currently promoting: "Whenever there are great ideas, there are people to help fund those great ideas."