A Brief History of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis

With thanks to past presidents, Rabbis Bruce Ehrmann, Earl Grollman and Terry Bard.

Originally founded sometime around 1938, the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis was known as the Rabbinical Association of Greater Boston, and met at the offices of the Associated Synagogues at 177 Tremont St. (where the Va'ad meets today). Its founders included Rabbi Herman Rubenovitz of Mishkan Tefila, who served as president for many years, followed by Rabbis Louis Epstein (Kehillath Israel), Joshua Loth Liebman (Temple Israel), Beryl D. Cohen (Temple Sinai), Sam Abrams (Ohabei Shalom). Chaplaincy was a major topic of discussion, along with lay leader Harry Kraft of the Associated Synagogues (now the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts). There were two organizations at the time responsible for chaplaincy: one for state and city agencies, and the board of rabbis covered hospitals. The Associated Synagogues did not include many non-Orthodox synagogues, which was apparently a source of tension for many decades.

In the 1950s, the group "put an end to" the practice of open caskets at funerals (from Bruce Ehrmann). They notified the Jewish funeral directors to close the casket before the funeral, in contrast to the prior custom of passing by the open casket at the end of the funeral.

In the 1960s, the issue of exclusion of non-Orthodox rabbis from community-wide decisions became more prominent. Rabbis Murray Rothman (Temple Shalom, Newton) and Israel Kazis were leaders at the time. Some members of the board became active in civil rights issues, fair housing concerns, catering issues, and funerary concerns, and the Vietnam War. The board was known for taking stands at the time.

At some point, the group invited Rav Soloveitchik to speak. He agreed, under the condition that his talk was not advertised. The group also met with clergy from the Catholic Church in the early days of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, according to Earl Grollman. Bruce Ehrmann recalls that, as president, he was invited to Paris with Christian leaders for the dedication of the Air France flight from Boston to Paris, all expenses paid.

In the 1970s, three major components of the MBR program were chevruta, social action, and the creation of a Blue Cross/Blue Shield program for rabbanim. This last program was likely the motivation for three Orthodox rabbis to join.

In the 1980s, organizational concerns turned to funeral and wedding fees, organizational management, and development of educational programs. Attempts to build bridges between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities at the time (including inviting all rabbis to every program), did not achieve much success. In that decade, the Associated Synagogues was transformed into the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, which endeavored to bring Orthodox and non-Orthodox synagogues together, and began to work more closely with the MBR. This was a time of tension and conflict between CJP, the synagogue community and the rabbis, particularly over the building of the JCC in Newton. Despite the acrimony of the times, reports Rabbi Terry Bard, it inevitably led to better relationships.

In the 1990s, the MBR stopped providing a health insurance plan and focused mostly on educational programs, as well as setting funeral and wedding fees. Other community organizations began providing educational forums for rabbis, including Hebrew College (under Rabbi Samuel Chiel and in cooperation with the MBR), CJP's Commission on Jewish Continuity, and Rabbi J.J.Schacter at the Soloveitchik Institute.

In 2002, the organization requested funding from CJP and brought in a part-time executive director. Increased funding has enabled the organization to become more professionalized, publishing a directory annually and improving communication with its members.