Recently, a good of friend of mine suggested to an interfaith couple who was looking for a rabbi for their wedding ceremony that they be in touch with me. I met with the couple for about an hour and we had a great conversation, at the end of which they asked me to officiate at their wedding. I told them that I’d be honored, and over the next year we would get together several more times so that I could get to know them as individuals and as a couple before standing with them under their chuppah (wedding canopy) next July to unite them in marriage.
The other day, I saw my friend who referred this couple to me. “I’m so excited!” she exclaimed. “The rabbi of the bride’s congregation wouldn’t marry them because her fiancé isn’t Jewish. They were going to hire a ‘rent-a-rabbi.’ I’m so happy that they are going to be married by YOU instead!” While my friend meant to give me a compliment, instead I felt offended by her pejorative term “rent-a-rabbi.” I felt that she was implying that non-congregational rabbis who perform wedding ceremonies (or baby namings, B’nai Mitzvah, funerals or other life-cycle events) were simply doing so to “make a quick buck” and were of inferior quality to congregational rabbis. According to her logic, the only thing that separated me from the “rent-a-rabbis” that she disparaged was that she personally knows and respects me.
For the past ten years, since leaving my position as assistant rabbi at a large synagogue in order to spend more time with my family, I have officiated privately at life-cycle events – what some would refer to as a “rent-a-rabbi.” I’ve continued to do so over the past five years even as I’ve worked part-time at a small congregation. (My congregation, which I absolutely love, is made up mostly of members in their 70s and 80s, so it would not be an ideal “fit” for many of the young couples and families with whom I’ve worked privately. Plus, many of them do not live near the synagogue.)
The fact is that I’ve gotten to know the wedding couples I’ve worked with who are not congregants of mine just as well as I knew couples who were congregants that I married; and I’ve gotten to know the parents and siblings of the babies that I’ve named just as well as I knew the parents and siblings of babies that I named in my congregation. And whereas when I served over ten years ago as a congregational rabbi at a synagogue in which there were as many as a hundred B’nai Mitzvah each year, now that I only work with a handful of B’nai Mitzvah students a year I get to know them MUCH better than I ever could as a rabbi at a large congregation. When I work privately with B’nai Mitzvah students, I meet with them on a regular basis so that by the time of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah I know the student – and usually the parents and any siblings – very well.
This serves in contrast to when I was at a large synagogue and I was only scheduled to have two or three half-hour sessions with each B’nai Mitzvah student. At the congregation (which was often referred to as a “Bar Mitzvah mill,” another term I dislike), if the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his/her family were not “regulars” at Shabbat services or other synagogue activities, I did not know them nearly as well as I know the students with whom I now work privately.
Just because many of the wedding couples, baby naming parents and B’nai Mitzvah students that I have worked with over the past decade do not belong to the congregation that I serve, their life-cycle events are no less important, meaningful and sacred to me as a rabbi – or to them. And I am certain that this is true of the vast majority of my colleagues who privately officiate at lifecycle events. Yes, we charge a fee for what we do, since we do not receive a salary to be available for these services as full-time congregational rabbis do. But just because we are paid directly for our services does not make the experience any less meaningful for anyone involved.
Over the years I have paid doctors, therapists, yoga teachers and a vast array of others for their services. They have almost without exception been caring and committed to helping and healing, often getting to know me on a deeply personal level – yet there is no doubt that they are entitled to compensation for their work.
I have heard people claim that when rabbis officiate privately at lifecycle events this makes it easier for people not to join congregations. Personally, I would love it if every Jewish person and family (whether every member is Jewish or the family is interfaith) would join a synagogue, but that is simply not the reality in which we live, and it is not the fault of so-called “rent-a-rabbis.” The fact is that in this day and age congregational life just isn’t for everyone – at least not at every moment of their lives.
There are a multitude of reasons why people don’t join synagogues, ranging from financial reasons (while the vast majority of synagogues will “work with” potential congregants to make membership financially feasible, this sometimes requires submitting tax returns and other personal information, which many people are not comfortable doing) to not feeling welcome to the fact that they simply are not interested. I cannot imagine that that the availability of non-congregational rabbis to officiate at their lifecycle events has very much to do with their decision not to affiliate.
When a wedding couple comes to me – either because a congregational rabbi with whom one of them is connected (usually his or her parents are members of the congregation) will not marry them because their partner is not Jewish or because they are not connected to a congregation – I strongly believe that the best thing I can do to increase the odds that they will become more involved in the Jewish community, and hopefully join a synagogue at some point, is to work with them and make them feel welcome. After all, they have many options besides going to a rabbi (such as hiring a celebrant or a justice of the peace) and by working with them I have the opportunity to expose them to the beauty of Judaism.
I feel the same way about the baby naming and B’nai Mitzvah families that come to me. I would much rather work with them and enable the parents of the baby or the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student to have a positive, meaningful experience than to turn them away. And when I am approached about officiating at the funeral of a Jewish person who was not affiliated with a congregation, I feel privileged to be able to help his or her family to mourn the deceased according to Jewish tradition and to bring honor to his or her memory through Jewish ritual. Is this really something to be looked down upon?
Ironically, when congregational rabbis officiate – for compensation – at lifecycle events for non-congregants (some rabbis’ contracts with their synagogues allow for them to do this, while others do not) they are rarely referred to as “rent-a-rabbis.” I think that the fact that I serve as a part-time congregational rabbi is another reason why the friend I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the one who had referred a wedding couple to me, did not view me as one of the “rent-a-rabbis” that she disparaged. But the reality is that congregational rabbis officiating for non-congregants who do not join their synagogues is really no different than non-congregational rabbis officiating.
There are many fantastic rabbis who do not work in congregations, perhaps because they work at other jobs within or outside of the Jewish community or perhaps because they currently are not employed, either by choice or by circumstance. Just because they earn money by officiating privately at life-cycle events does not mean that they are not talented, committed and sincere. So please, don’t call them “rent-a-rabbis.” Just call them “rabbis.”
What has your experience been? If you are married, were you married by the rabbi or cantor of a congregation to which you and/or your partner belonged, or the rabbi or cantor of a congregation in which one of you grew up?
Were you married by a rabbi or cantor (as a sole officiant or co-officiant) that you found outside of a synagogue setting? If so, how did you find this rabbi or cantor? And what was your experience with him or her like?
Have you ever used the term “rent-a-rabbi?” How do you feel about this term?