CREVE COEUR, Mo. — When the world’s Conservative rabbis gathered for their annual convention in 2011, Abby Kelman took up her position in a Las Vegas hotel corridor clotted with vendors selling the usual array of Jewish books, tours, jewelry, crafts. Passing out business cards and stationery, Ms. Kelman was offering something different: legal representation.
At times, she felt a little bit like Lucy in the “Peanuts” comic strip with her booth advertising “Psychiatric Help 5¢.” Yet she could cite both a decades-long career in litigation and a lengthy family heritage in the rabbinate, the kind of pedigree known in Yiddish as “yichus.”
By the time the Rabbinical Assembly wrapped up its meeting, Ms. Kelman had begun establishing her professional niche. Now, five years later, she has built a practice from her home office in suburban St. Louis negotiating contracts for rabbis and cantors — 125 so far. She has few, if any, peers in the field.
Into the business relationship between Jewish clergy and the synagogue boards that hire or fire them — traditionally the realm of handshake deals, promises of mutual loyalty and testimonials to “kvod harav,” the Hebrew phrase for “respect for the rabbi” — Ms. Kelman has brought the pragmatic tool kit of the agent.
While other lawyers periodically represent rabbis, the concept of an agent for religious leaders is even rarer in the Christian and Muslim parts of the American theological landscape, according to clergy members, scholars and seminary officials. The exception is with the celebrity pastors of evangelical megachurches.
“I feel like this is a covenant,” said Ms. Kelman, 59. “You’re talking about someone who’s doing holy work. And I like everyone to think that way when we negotiate. But often what my clients worry about is, ‘I’m bringing in a lawyer. They’ll think I’m trying to make this adversarial.’
“But the clergy I advocate for don’t know how to advocate for themselves,” she continued. “How can they advocate for themselves when they might be doing the funeral for the synagogue president’s mother tomorrow? And in the middle of that, you’re going to ask the 10th time for a raise? I’ll say to my clients, ‘You’ll agree too fast.’ I won’t.”
Ms. Kelman has won praise even from synagogue leaders who bargained against her. The major congregational and rabbinical organizations in Reform and Conservative Judaism, for their part, do recommend formal, professionally negotiated contracts between boards and clergy members. Even so, the arrival of an agent can be rattling.
“A lot of the difficult situations I’ve heard about have involved a third party,” said Barak D. Richman, a law professor at Duke University and former president of a Conservative synagogue in Durham, N.C. “There can be a power imbalance. The phrase I hear from lay leaders around the country is, ‘Our rabbi came in all lawyered up.’ To some degree, the difficulties are generic; it’s always hard to talk about money. But there’s also something structural; congregations are under real financial strain.”
Ms. Kelman’s life prepared her for this role. She grew up in Manhattan as the daughter of Wolfe Kelman, a prominent rabbi in the Conservative movement. She eavesdropped as he gave younger rabbis advice on their contract negotiations. Ms. Kelman’s brother, Levi, went into the rabbinate and leads a Reform congregation in Jerusalem. Her sister, Naamah, also a rabbi, serves as dean of the Jerusalem branch of the Reform movement’s seminary.
Even as she was immersed in all things rabbinical, Abby Kelman felt more strongly drawn to law, the profession of her maternal grandmother. She had a formidable career, ranging from the New York district attorney’s office to the Anti-Defamation League to commercial litigation to teaching at a law school.
“And then I said to myself, ‘I always wanted to have my own firm,’” she recalled. “What do I know? I know a lot about law. And I know a lot about rabbis.”
After her debut at the Rabbinical Assembly convention, Ms. Kelman began receiving referrals. These days, she charges $350 per hour or a flat rate based on her estimate of how much time a negotiation will require.
At the most basic level, she bargains with synagogue boards for a client’s salary, which for a rabbi, generally ranges from $90,000 to $150,000 annually, depending on experience, geography and congregation size. But the intricacy of her work involves the myriad fringe benefits. Some, like pension and health insurance, would be true of almost any professional. Others, like religious-school tuition for children, apply particularly to rabbis and cantors.
In her home office one morning last month, Ms. Kelman texted a young rabbi on the East Coast, hired fresh out of seminary, who was being asked to sign a contract allowing termination without cause. Ms. Kelman had drafted a counteroffer, but the congregation refused to budge. Now the rabbi was being told she had to sign by the end of the day.
When the rabbi called in response to Ms. Kelman’s text, they went over the proposed contract line by line, with Ms. Kelman supplying a lot of backbone. “What are they going to do if you don’t sign? Stop paying you?” she said at one point.
Next, Ms. Kelman dealt with a cantor who had been fired after five months and was seeking the balance of her annual contract — $15,000. The cantor had sent Ms. Kelman a 19-page letter of grievances, which seemed certain to worsen the rancor, so the lawyer began paring it down to a more civil two pages.
Her clients may all be clergy members, but they are not all saints. One rabbi whom Ms. Kelman represented in a separation agreement had “borrowed” money from his discretionary fund to pay his mortgage. Others are more combative than even Ms. Kelman, she of the self-described “potty mouth.” She will tell them, “Do you want to be in arbitration forever with a congregation that doesn’t want you, or do you want to get the best deal and go on with your career?”
The approach has succeeded for people on both sides of the negotiating table. Rabbi Jack Moline sought out Ms. Kelman in 2013, when he wanted to leave his longtime congregation in suburban Washington to take a job in political organizing.
“I know there were hurt feelings in the congregation and I would’ve had a hard time dealing with my own expectations and frustrations,” he said. “Abby was the grown-up in the room, because she wasn’t dealing with any of the emotions.”
As a lay leader in a Reform congregation in the St. Louis area, Joe Pereles has parried with Ms. Kelman in negotiating three clergy contracts. “She sees the big picture,” he said. “She does a great job of representing her client, but she also understands the issues the congregation faces and can be very practical in coming up with a win-win solution.”
Ms. Kelman and Mr. Pereles will present a joint session on contract negotiations for students at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati next January.
That appearance answers a rhetorical question one of Ms. Kelman’s young clients posed a few weeks back: Where were you during my last year in seminary? “The people I’m dealing with — clergy and congregations — are babes in the woods,” Ms. Kelman put it. “I feel like I’m the shock absorber, I’m the explainer, I’m the conduit. Or, like my husband likes to say, I try to bludgeon them with logic.”
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