Journalist walks fine line tracking shuls rabbi search

Author Stephen Fried knew that his book "The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for its Leader" would generate some controversy. What he couldn't have predicted, however, is what the controversy would be about.

The investigative journalist admitted that to accurately capture a rabbi in the twilight of his career, he had to spend a lot of time at synagogue, taking notes, especially on Shabbat. This gained him the ire of some Orthodox rabbis.

But that is minor in comparison to how some rabbis in the Conservative movement have reacted. Some are miffed that Fried used the real names of candidates seeking to replace Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, and that members of Conservative Congregation Har Zion's search committee spoke so openly with Fried about the selection process. The author has been charged with committing lashon hara (idle gossip).

The Philadelphia-based Fried disagrees. "Is any journalism that pisses off a rabbi lashon hara?" he asked, before he gave a recent talk at Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom. "Can we cover Jewish life accurately if we can't cover anything that causes lashon hara?"

Furthermore, he said, in most cases, "the Jewish community isn't used to being covered accurately by its own media, and it's not used to being covered by the secular press unless a rabbi has sex with an animal."

Fried said that in a situation such as this, people tend to get most of their information from rumors, and that a lack of communication could in fact devastate a community.

The author, who has also written books about the pharmaceutical and fashion industries, said the idea of writing about a congregation as it searches for a new leader occurred to him when he was 11 — when Wolpe, Fried's own rabbi in Harrisburg, Pa., was hired away by Har Zion.

Fried was a nominally involved Jew as an adult, celebrating only the major holidays. He and his wife did not belong to a synagogue. Then his father died, and seeking comfort, he began attending a daily minyan to say Kaddish.

It just so happened that a few months into the one-year mourning period, Fried heard that Wolpe would soon be stepping down from his pulpit.

It all fell into place. Wolpe was not only Fried's childhood rabbi, but he was incredibly charismatic and a national player. With 1,400 family-units, Har Zion was one of the most wealthy and influential synagogues in the country. And Wolpe agreed to grant Fried whatever access he needed.

But just because Wolpe was open, didn't mean the search committee would be equally forthcoming. Fried made his case in front of the search committee, which turned him down. However, certain members agreed to tell him what was happening.

Calling it "an organic process," as well as his own personal "shiva project," Fried said in light of his father's death, he felt drawn to spending more time at synagogue anyhow. "The best non-fiction assignments are like that," he said, "that you would have done anyway."

The process took three years. The committee settled upon one candidate, who then turned down the job. Then, against Rabbinical Assembly rules, the committee decided to elevate the assistant rabbi, who had only been out of seminary a few years, to the higher post. That too, ended in disaster.

"The New Rabbi," released in the summer, is still creating a buzz. And Har Zion is still without a spiritual leader. Fried is at work on an epilogue that will come out with the paperback edition.

Fried said he intended to write a Jewish book, but also a secular book. And just as much as it is about looking for a new rabbi, it is about how a community makes priorities and decides what its needs are. He said the book was meant to be about religious life and the clergy, as well.

While he wasn't trying to be an advocate for rabbis, Fried said he hoped his readers would gain more insight into the difficulties of being in the rabbinate, as "being a rabbi is one of the hardest jobs in America."

This project was different than most other journalistic assignments, he said. Usually, reporters collect information about something that has already happened. In this case, events continued to unfold. Fried appreciated the opportunity to "watch a community grow, argue and react to things…I could have ended it 20 times. I kept writing the end and then another thing would happen."

His relationship with Wolpe and most people at Har Zion remains unchanged, he said. In fact, Fried receives about an e-mail per day from the rabbi, usually regarding feedback he has heard about the book.

"Keep in mind what I had access to and what I could have written, and what I as a Jew concerned with the future of the Jewish community, wrote," he said. "I believe holding a mirror up to a community is a good thing."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."