Jun 1, 2009
For 50 years, it was almost a given that the president of the Rabbinical Council of America would hail from in or around New York. But for the first time, a West Coast rabbi has taken the top elected post of the world's largest Orthodox rabbinical organization. That rabbi, Moshe Kletenik, also leads the state's largest Orthodox synagogue, Bikur Cholim-Machzikay Hadath.
Kletenik said that during his two-year term he hopes "to make the Rabbinical Council of America the most dynamic, the most proactive organization that it can be in terms of both being responsive to the needs of our many members and also in terms of the major issues which face the Jewish world."
Kletenik is well-equipped to move forward on a list of issues the rabbis discussed at their annual convention earlier this month, ranging from the economy and its effects on families and Jewish day schools to promoting transparency and ethical behavior within Jewish institutions and businesses. As a 28-year member of the organization, he has served twice as one of the RCA's vice presidents and once as recording secretary, chaired the s'micha standards committee, which sets guidelines for rabbinical ordination, and heads the Northwest's regional beit din, or rabbinical court, which falls under the auspices of the RCA.
"I'm thrilled that a man of his caliber has accepted this position," said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA. "We are very confident that it will be a time of growth and expansion on many, many fronts."
Rabbi Kletenik takes the helm of an organization that, like so many other institutions in Jewish communal life, is facing changes far beyond its control. Herring said one of his new president's missions is to clearly define what the organization is and what it stands for. "Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions as to what the RCA represents and what it sees itself as in terms of vision and what it is trying to accomplish and what it is to its constituents," Herring said. "That is a very important goal that he has set."
In recent years, the issue of Israel's chief rabbinate not accepting conversions by some rabbis had become a problem. "There was a time when individual rabbis lived in communities and were essentially on their own and they had to set policies with very little guidance or support from central organizations," Herring said.
The RCA established its network of regional b'tei din, which set specific standards for conversion. It left some aspects of those rules in the hands of the local rabbinical boards given the availability of resources and to allow some level of autonomy for the individual rabbi. "One needs to create that balance," Herring said. "That is an ongoing debate."
Kletenik wrote an article for the national Jewish press in March 2008 that outlined and defended the RCA's efforts to create a standardized network for conversions that would be accepted in the U.S. and in Israel. So far, he said, that effort has met with success. "The conversions that have been performed by our national network of b'tei din, or regional courts of conversion, have been accepted by the chief rabbinate of Israel," Kletenik said. "That's an important achievement of ours." The RCA will continue to monitor that situation, he added.
The RCA is also in the process of releasing several initiatives it hopes will make the organization more relevant to its congregants' lives. One of the ways that will happen is in a field where Kletenik has an extensive background: The relationship between medicine and Jewish law. He currently sits on the health care proxy committee, which plans to release a new, more user-friendly version in the near future.
This new proxy, Kletenik said, will "come with an educational brochure which will set forth all of the critical questions that one should consider when they are making plans for end-of-life decisions, and it will be set forth in a way in which it is accessible to the lay man."
Another important initiative forthcoming from the RCA revolves around business ethics and how ethical behavior should be manifested in what the RCA considers the center of Jewish life: The synagogue. A commission of rabbis and experts in the field of business ethics are creating a compendium "in accordance with Jewish law and in compliance with all government regulations governing relationships with workers and everybody that the Jewish business deals with," Kletenik said.
A resolution passed at the RCA's convention earlier this month sets forth actual guidelines for business people, including making amends for past behavior and taking leadership positions within their synagogues. "We call upon synagogues to review longstanding policies and publicly reaffirm among their membership that ritual kibbudim [taking part in services], leadership positions and public honors and recognitions should be conferred only upon those whose reputations for honesty and ethical conduct comport with these values," the resolution states.
The resolution will begin by covering the kosher food industry, Kletenik said, partly in light of the scandal last year that resulted in the closure of Agriprocessors, the country's largest kosher slaughtering facility. "We're going to be asking various food companies to accept these standard of ethics and abide by them, and hopefully we'll branch out beyond that to Jewish businesses in general," he said.
Also forthcoming from the organization is a new Artscroll prayer book, with more refined translations, new annotations and sections for newer holidays such as Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israeli Independence Day, which Kletenik said would be more accessible for its readers and more geared toward the modern Orthodox synagogue.
Kletenik said that the approximately 1,000 rabbis who belong to the RCA are quite diverse in terms of geography, age and ideology, which means there may not always be agreement on important issues. "There's more that unites us than divides us," Kletenik said, noting that one of his goals during his presidency is "making the organization as inclusive as possible without in any way compromising our core values."
Though there is a wide geographic spread of rabbis, there's no denying that the American center of the Orthodox universe is New York. Even five or 10 years ago, having a president 3,000 miles from that center may have posed problems in just getting things done. And considering that attending to his own community's needs must be any rabbi's priority, constant travel would likely compromise both of his mandates. Technology has begun to close that gap, however.
"Through the use of electronic media I will be able to conduct most of the business from my office," Kletenik said. "There will be a number of times I will need to travel, [but] that will be kept to a minimum."