Since early this year, the Greater Washington Jewish community has been blessed with two Orthodox rabbinical councils (or “Vaads”). The newer entrant, the Beltway Vaad, includes clergy from four area Orthodox synagogues — Beth Joshua Congregation and Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville and Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac — and Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington.
What makes the new Vaad truly unique is not that it counts a maharat (female clergy member) among its members. Although unusual, maharats and similarly-situated women can be found in more and more modern Orthodox communities.
The truly differentiating element of the Beltway Vaad is its Lay Advisory Council (LAC). To my knowledge, the LAC is the first of its kind among vaads of any Jewish denomination nationally, and there appears to be no real analog in other faiths, either.
The LAC is an advisory body comprised of those members of our local Orthodox community who have volunteered their time and service. LAC members serve for fixed terms in order to ensure a steady stream of new voices at our family table. I have the very real privilege of serving as its founding chair. Our full list of members appears on the Vaad’s website at beltwayvaad.org.
The LAC is not a board and does not have any legal or other “authority” over the Vaad or its members. (Disciplinary actions and employment-related oversight remain the province of our members’ respective synagogues and of any rabbinic or other organizations to which our members belong.) Nor will the LAC be involved in addressing halachic questions. Those remain the sole province of the Vaad and its members.
However, the LAC does serve several important functions. I note only two here.
A vehicle for accountability and transparency
In the Torah portion Pekudei, in Exodus, Moses directs the Levites to provide the people with a detailed accounting of how their donations for construction of the mishkan (the Tabernacle) were used. The specificity of the accounting is remarkable and, according to midrashic commentators, was intended to prevent suspicion that Moses may have misappropriated some of those donations for his personal benefit.
Notably, the accounting was conducted not by Moses himself, but by the Levites “under the direction of Itamar” (Exodus 38:21). If even our people’s greatest historical leader subjected himself to external oversight, surely our contemporary leaders should as well.
In that spirit, accountability and transparency are key principles for the Beltway Vaad, and this aspect of our responsibility comprises the LAC’s most important function.
Reporting and evaluation of grievances
The ethical conduct of our religious leaders is of vital importance to the Jewish community because it is these individuals to whom we look for ethical, moral and halachic guidance, and spiritual inspiration. Unfortunately, in recent years, we all have witnessed instances in which our leaders have fallen woefully — sometimes criminally — short of those ideals.
For that reason, we have developed a confidential grievance procedure. A person who believes the Vaad or any of its members abused his or her authority, behaved unethically or illegally or otherwise acted inappropriately may contact the LAC for assistance.
Upon receipt of a grievance, the LAC will work with the complainant to determine the best course of action. Options may include mediation with the involved member, consultation with other members of the Vaad, reporting to the Vaad member’s synagogue or rabbinic organizational leadership or, in some cases, public disclosure of the issue. Where there is evidence of a crime, the LAC may report the situation to relevant law enforcement.
This grievance mechanism is entirely voluntary. No one is required to seek recourse through the LAC instead of any other method that may be available. Moreover, the LAC has no legal or formal authority over, or responsibility for, the Vaad or its members.
The LAC’s role is entirely advisory, and its most severe sanction is to report to other bodies that do have such authority or to seek public exposure of alleged wrongdoing.
Ultimately, the LAC is comprised of volunteers, laypersons with limited ability to investigate or authority to enforce ethical and legal standards. Nonetheless, we believe that the existence of a credible lay mechanism can offer a safe and supportive outlet for those who feel disempowered by clerical abuse or wrongdoing. The grievance procedure and the very existence of the LAC allow our new Vaad to set an example for transparency, accountability and lay oversight that we hope others will emulate and further improve.
In that spirit, before the Vaad formally adopts the grievance procedure, the LAC is soliciting community comment on the proposed process, which can be reviewed at beltwayvaad.org. Please provide any comments to the LAC at [email protected] n.
Behnam Dayanim serves as the founding chair of the Lay Advisory Council of the Beltway Vaad.