Lessons in Communal Responsibility

Written by Rabbi Dovid Rosenbaum on . Posted in Features

Our community has lost three very special rabbis over a brief period of time. Rabbi Gedaliah Anemer of Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Kemp Mill, Rabbi Hillel Klavan of Congregation Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah in Washington, D.C., and Rabbi Kalman Winter of Southeast Hebrew Congregation - Knesset Yehoshua in White Oak, all of blessed memory, all passed within the last seven years. In addition to being stellar leaders of their congregations, together these three rabbis were the core of Vaad Harabanim (Rabbinical Council) of Greater Washington’s leadership over the 25-year period preceding their passing.

Much has been said, and rightfully so, about the end of a rabbinic era in the Greater Washington Jewish community. As a rabbi of “the next generation” who had the great privilege of working closely with each of these individuals, I have reflected considerably since the recent passing of Rabbi Klavan on the common qualities these men shared in their leadership of the community.

 

Much could be written about the impact each of them made on numerous families and individuals within their congregations. In the context of community connectivity, I will focus on their acts on behalf of the community beyond their congregations. I hope the thoughts will be enlightening not only to rabbis, but to any individual striving to lead an inspired life that includes community service.

A word that each of these individuals would regularly intone with great passion was achrayus, frequently translated as responsibility. What, in communal terms, does that mean?

Imagine an individual leaving his home in the morning. After entering his car and backing out of the driveway, he turns to the side and notices the past two days’ newspapers in his neighbor’s driveway. As he shifts the car into drive, he suddenly remembers that his neighbor asked him to keep an eye on the house while he was on vacation for two weeks. Our protagonist stops, puts the car in park, gets out, and collects the newspaper. He accepted a responsibility upon himself and his word means something.  

What if the neighbor had not mentioned that he was going out of town, but our protagonist saw him loading the car two days ago and the neighbor normally asks him to watch the house?

Would a person of responsibility stop to collect the papers? What if the neighbor never expressed a wish that someone collect his papers, and is frequently guilty of leaving days’ worth of papers uncollected even when he is in town?

How many people would still get out of the car, thinking of the dangers the abandoned papers leave for the homeowner?

Rabbis have a number of responsibilities within their synagogues. Many times, a congregation might expect the rabbi to play a role in the broader community infrastructure. A rabbi who tends to his daily congregational responsibilities, and even to some responsibilities in the broader community at the request of his lay leadership, is doing his job, earning his paycheck, being an honest and conscientious employee.

What if no one asks a rabbi to ensure that a matter in the broader community is dealt with appropriately? Is it his responsibility? Does he have to save the world? Doesn’t he, like so many other noble individuals, have a family to look after?

What I find remarkable about these three rabbis is they all lived the community’s needs, whether it was a community standard regarding kosher food, an individual wronged, or so many things in between.

The only way I can grasp the remarkable devotion these individuals had to the religious needs of the community is that they saw themselves as charged to play such a role. Their synagogues might not have assigned them these duties–– it was G-d Himself. Each of these rabbis lived an inspired rabbinate, both in their synagogues and beyond, because they believed it was the Divine Will that they serve the community in this manner.

Only with such an outlook can I understand how Rabbi Winter could take a passionate interest not only in the needs of congregants whom he had known for decades, but also in the case of the kashrut policy of a store while he was deathly ill. Despite his remarkably gentle nature, Rabbi Klavan was a man of tremendous passion and vigor to fight for what was correct. In his last months, he still engaged in a very fierce debate over communal policies. Rabbi Anemer headed two institutions, holding roles that would have required the efforts of at least one and a half people far his junior, and yet he always had time for communal matters. Their lives did not revolve around jobs and contracts, but rather a sense of mission. They each saw the religious needs and growth of the community as part of their personal mission in life.

Another aspect that I find so striking about these three wonderful people is their tremendous adherence to the traditions of the Greater Washington Jewish community.

Rabbi Klavan’s esteemed father, Rabbi Yehoshua Klavan, of blessed memory, was a very prominent rabbinic personality in the community. Many of the communal religious standards were set by him. It was understandable, but quite beautiful, how frequently Rabbi Klavan would quote his father at Vaad meetings. Sitting at a table with Rabbi Klavan, I would occasionally reflect on how I, a young rabbi in the Washington, DC area in the 21st century, was being connected back to a world-class authority who was a product of the Kamenitz Yeshiva at the beginning of the 20th century.

I once asked Rabbi Anemer about a communal practice. Here was a rabbi through whom all communal infrastructure ran; surely he would have a passionate explanation for the practice. After all, if he didn’t feel strongly about it, why would it be the communal policy?

I was shocked when Rabbi Anemer’s explanation was simply that this policy was in place when he came to the area and he saw no reason to change it. He did not seek to put a personal stamp on local practice if it wasn’t necessary just because he could–– an act of true respect for previous authorities.

I also remember attending a rabbinic meeting at the Klavan home. Rabbi Winter pointed at a portrait of Rabbi Klavan’s esteemed father. He urged me and one of the other younger rabbis present to view ourselves as links in the chain of the Washington rabbinate.

Today’s rabbis and communal leaders are starting from a very different point than our predecessors, thanks in large part to the contributions of these special rabbis and many other individuals. In the Vaad Harabanim we have continued to build on the communal infrastructure of kashrut certification, conversion, divorce, litigation, and general communal needs and causes. Rabbis throughout the Greater Washington Jewish community are ensuring the standards of their communities’ eruv and mikvah. This is all in addition to their standard congregational responsibilities, including teaching Torah, giving halachic guidance and counsel, officiating at life-cycle events. Rabbis are engaged with and attentive to the education being provided in our schools. There is much to be done. The more we view ourselves, and all others whose efforts enhance the community, as being on a Divine mission to spiritually enrich the lives of His People, the more we can work together and learn from each other, as we look back to men of a previous generation who accomplished so much, individually and collectively.

The above is based on an article published in the bulletin of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington, Tishrei 5777, Volume 4.2. It has been modified by the author and published here with his permission.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenbaum, a musmach of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, became the Rabbi of Young Israel Shomrai Emunah of Greater Washington in 2010 after serving as Assistant Rabbi under Rabbi Gedaliah Anemer since 2005. Rabbi Rosenbaum became a member of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington in 2001 and has since served in numerous positions, including President. He is currently the Vaad's Beth Din Administrator.