Just as there are online services that deliver food right to your door, you can now “order” a rabbi online to help you with your Judaic needs, be it a Bar Mitzvah or wedding service. Or, at least, that’s what David Segal is hoping for.
Earlier this year, Segal founded the website BookARabbi.com, which gives users who are not affiliated with a congregation — but still want to celebrate Jewish life cycle events — access to a rabbi who will perform the service, whatever it is.
According to the 2013 Pew Research Center study, “A Portrait of American Jews,” roughly 31 percent of the Jews surveyed said they belonged to a synagogue.
For Segal, the thought process started three years ago while he and his wife were searching for a mohel for their son’s bris. They were both Conservative, and it was important for them to find a Conservative mohel to do the service — no small feat, he said, in Phoenix, Ariz.
“Two to three months later, we were reflecting back, and my wife was like, ‘what about a website?’ ” he recalled.
In the 90 or so days since the site’s 1launch, Segal said, 53 rabbis have registered on the site.
The site’s target audience is someone who identifies as a Jew but does not belong to a synagogue, which Segal says is really a large majority of America.
He or she “knows they’re Jewish, is born Jewish, probably has a Jewish mother saying they need to marry Jewish,” he said with a laugh.
Two other desirable demographics for him and his site are the “25-years-old and up and then into early 40s” to “the family that is just having a Bar Mitzvah.”
The website has three parts for the user to choose from: the region and state/city; the service, which ranges from Bar/Bat Mitzvah to interfaith weddings; and choosing a rabbi.
All rabbis on his site go through a screening process, Segal said.
“We primarily target only three seminaries: Hebrew Union, Jewish Theological Seminary and a seminary out there called Rabbinic Seminary International that’s independent,” he said. “These are rabbis that I’ve had nothing but respect for. I made sure everyone is who they say they are. It’s a very important thing to verify everyone’s information.”
He called each of the seminaries where the registered rabbis studied to verify they went to that seminary and are “real.”
Next is a phone conversation in which Segal and the rabbi discuss the rabbi’s services and pricing. Typically, that is left to the discretion of the rabbi, Segal said, so long as it’s reasonable. And Segal gets a piece of the pricing so he can make a profit with the site, which he hopes will one day become his full-time job.
About 60 percent of the rabbis who register on the site are not affiliated with a congregation, Segal said, including those who may be rabbis at hospitals. The remaining 40 percent are actually pulpit rabbis who will still offer their services to others.
His ultimate goal is for the rabbis to officiate at 35 to 60 events each year.
The benefit is that there are many rabbis who do most of the services offered on the site, and if there is one they don’t do, there is a rabbi who will, he said.
“More conservative rabbis won’t necessarily do an interfaith wedding or LGBT wedding,” Segal said, “but that’s OK, because if you look next to them, there’s three more that will.”
Although BookARabbi.com is taking off, other rabbis have been working independently for years as well.
Rabbi Lynnda Targan was ordained 12 years ago by the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. She was an empty-nester when she became ordained, and even though she became a rabbi later in life, she still had no desire to be a pulpit rabbi.
“I felt that because I had a pluralistic background, I wasn’t going to fit neatly into one movement,” she explained. “My rabbinate should consist of ministering to all of the sections of Judaism.”
She prefers the phrase “independent” or “community rabbi” rather than the “elitist” concierge term; she wants to be able to reach out to any Jew who may need her help.
She said she prefers setting her own schedule and being able to do work that she feels most passionate about. The flexibility gives her the opportunity to lead many other groups, such as being a part of the Board of Rabbis in Philadelphia and New York, a speaker for Jewish Federations of North America, and a founder of a women’s Midrash institute in Center City, where she teaches classes either at people’s homes or at her own at the Philadelphian next to the Museum of Art.
Although she provides her own services to others, she enjoys the synagogue camaraderie as a participant — she is a member at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am and fills in there occasionally whenever the synagogue needs someone to deliver a sermon, read Torah or teach classes.
“There are things about the Conservative movement that I love, things about Chabad that I love, things about the Reform movement — I really don’t put myself into one classification,” she said. “And I think that’s the big reason why I didn’t really look to have a pulpit.”
For at least eight months out of the year, Targan has at least one event a week, whether a speaking engagement, a life cycle event or a teaching opportunity.
Mostly, people discover Targan’s services by word of mouth.
Targan said she usually charges $525 for a funeral, $800 to $1,200 for a wedding and $400 to $600 for a baby naming, although she accommodates whatever’s best for her clients. She provides counseling, helping with documents, writing original sermons and answering any questions they may have.
She said people reach out to her because they don’t want to pay to be a part of a synagogue or they’re expressing their Judaism in different ways, but regardless, they still want or need a rabbi.
She mainly performs her rabbinic duties in Philadelphia, but some have requested her services across the globe: She’s officiated weddings in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, California, Florida and France.
“I’m here to accommodate anybody who identifies as a Jew or wants to identify as a Jew or needs my help in the community, one way or the other,” she said.
Rabbi Michael Stern also offers his rabbinic services to those without walls — congregation walls, that is.
He has been at Knesset Hasefer in Yardley for about 11 months. But many may know of him from his service, Rabbi Without Walls, which he says is essentially “Judaism a la carte.”
Stern, who was also one of the founders of Aish HaTorah Philadelphia, offers his rabbinic services to those unaffiliated with a congregation, or “walls.”
“The idea is not that walls are unimportant — walls are very important,” Stern said.
So often is the case, he continued, that membership to a synagogue becomes more about the rabbi and the building than the connection with Judaism or even beyond Judaism.
“The basic idea of Rabbi Without Walls is everything is for helping the person to inspire, to grow — to grow as a human being, not just ‘Jewishly,’ ” he explained.
To him, outreach was a way “to attract someone who is either not interested in a Jewish journey or [has] minimal interest in a Jewish journey. Someone who has misconceptions of what Judaism is and can be for a person,” he said.
The end result would be the person getting involved with something like the JCC or with an organization like the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
“The idea of Rabbi Without Walls is more — it’s not to be its own synagogue or community — it’s to be a point guard for a community,” he explained.
With this in mind, he offers classes in addition to the services he performs. He individualizes lessons for students depending on their interests and how they learn.
But he also does offer services for life cycle events such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, even High Holidays services, which he has previously hosted in his home in Bala Cynwyd.
He said he never does more than three minutes of prayer at a time unless there’s singing, and most of the people who came last year when he hosted Rosh Hashanah services in his home were unaffiliated.
“You cannot have a more inspiring experience,” he said. “It’s short, it’s to the point, it moves. I give relevant ideas in stories and anecdotes, but quickly.”
It’s a necessary service because the trends have been pointing to fewer and fewer people joining synagogues as members, he added.
It’s hard for synagogues to engage with people who aren’t sure what they want, he said, adding that outreach is a key player in that attraction, but synagogues may be struggling with that as well.
Given the technological advancements in recent years, there is another layer of complications for synagogues and membership, he said. “I believe with the whole technology explosion and particularly phones the modern day generation is much more comfortable learning via the Web and their phone. If I was really hip, I would do all my stuff by webinars.”