Lawyer assists rabbis, cantors on contract issues

Abby Kelman’s legal practice focuses on serving rabbis and cantors. Photo: Bill Motchan.

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Many rabbis across North America regularly call on St. Louisan Abby Kelman. They’re not looking for her counsel on religious matters but, rather, legal guidance.

Kelman is a lawyer. Her specialty: representing or consulting with rabbis and other clergy on employment matters.

Why, you may ask, would a rabbi need legal representation?

“What makes them great rabbis or cantors does not always help them in contract negotiations,” Kelman said.

Rabbi Michael Churgel is a fairly typical client. Churgel is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, N.Y. He previously served congregations in southern California and in Brooklyn and Long Island in New York. Earlier in his career, Churgel negotiated his own contracts.

“There are points where it becomes uncomfortable,” Churgel said. “You want to serve as the rabbi and their spiritual leader, and you don’t want to haggle with them over money and benefits and vacation and things like that. I thought it was necessary for me remove myself from the business end of it.”

Kelman often begins her legal counsel when a rabbi or cantor is offered a new job. She scrutinizes every word of the contract looking for potential problem areas. Sometimes, the rabbi already has a contract — a really bad one — and Kelman enters the proceedings as a “fixer.”

Rabbis often minimize their accomplishments and lack the chutzpah to ask for higher pay because it’s not in their nature, but Kelman is their advocate.

“Sometimes they sell themselves short,” she said. “My role is to get the best deal I can for the clergyperson. That includes a fair pension. They don’t get stock options, and they don’t get a piece of the business.”

Generally, a synagogue doesn’t have a large human resources department or a team of compensation specialists. Usually, a volunteer board hires the rabbi but lacks the legal and contractual experience to create a fair covenant.

“I spend a lot of time educating these volunteers,” Kelman said. “They haven’t done a lot of this, so there’s varying levels of sophistication. That’s why I’m more valuable to them than a regular employment lawyer. My goal is to work in my client’s best interest and avoid being adversarial. I have a big-picture view, and I can explain it to them.”

The nitty-gritty of contract work is not for everybody, but Kelman relishes the challenge. 

“There’s the money and the benefits package, medical and pension,” she said. “Then there are quality-of-life issues, time for vacation, time for study. What are their duties? What kind of issues have to be sorted out in terms of governance? Who has final say in rituals?

“I deal with things that may seem relatively mundane, like whether the rabbi is allowed to come to board meetings. Who’s in charge? Some synagogues want the rabbi as CEO, others want to keep it separate. The congregation leadership may say, ‘You handle the religious part of it, and we’ll take care of the HVAC.’ ”

 Churgel said it’s important for a lawyer to understand the intricacies of leading a congregation and the extra benefits that make a difference.

“Abby is familiar with our world, and she gets that we need certain perks and benefits within our contract that another general contract attorney wouldn’t even consider,” he said. “For example, there are conferences that are important elements for our own professional development or connection to the movement. It helps to get the time and money to go to these. An attorney who knows our world is a better advocate for these types of programs and builds them into the contracts.”

Kelman scrutinizes contracts to make sure the rabbi is protected if the synagogue merges with another congregation. She also looks out for “termination for cause” language that allows the synagogue to terminate the rabbi’s contract without cause. More typical is a three-year or longer term.

Longtime rabbis sometimes get a lifetime contract, but those situations are rarer due to economic uncertainty. 

“Some synagogues want to tie compensation to raising membership, but I tell them you can be the greatest rabbi since Moses and there may be economic conditions outside of your control,” Kelman said.

She also enters the picture when things don’t work out and it’s necessary to draw up a separation agreement. It can get tricky when the rabbi is reluctant to ask for a fair settlement because it’s just not in his or her nature.

“Rabbis are very good at worrying about other people,” Kelman said. “I may have to tell them, ‘Here’s the deal: You’ve been fired. It’s wonderful that you care, but my goal is to get the best deal for you so you can move on.’ ”

Kelman grew up in New York City and earned her law degree from Yeshiva University in 1981. She was attracted to litigation, so her first job was as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. That gave her early experience working in courts. She’s been a litigator for more than 25 years in the public and private sectors. She and her husband, Peter Barg, a TV producer, have four children and live in Creve Coeur. They belong to Congregation B’nai Amoona.

After a five-year stint as a law professor at St. Louis University, Kelman started thinking about representing clergy. She learned that not too many lawyers specialize in the field. She began her practice in 2010 and has been in demand from the outset. Although her clients are primarily rabbis and cantors, she also represents other Jewish professionals and, on occasion, clergy from other faiths. She once represented a Methodist minister.

Kelman knew immediately that she could be good at this unusual area of law.

“I knew a lot about negotiating,” she said “and I knew a lot about rabbis and the Jewish community, and I thought, ‘What if I put those skills together?’ ”

Kelman’s knowledge of rabbis came early in life. Her father was Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism. Her sister, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, was the first female rabbi in Israel and is the dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Her brother, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, is the rabbi of Kehilat Kol Haneshamah, a Reform congregation in Jerusalem. Both of her grandfathers were rabbis, one Orthodox and the other Reform.

When she was growing up, Kelman met religious leaders who often visited her home to consult with her father and to have Shabbat dinner with her family.

“I met Martin Luther King Jr. shortly before he died,” she said. “I met a lot of actors, singers, politicians, writers and a few not-so-reputable characters. I knew Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was a very close friend of  my dad. He’d call and ask to speak with him, and I often had these long phone conversations with him. There I was, telling one of the most foremost Jewish philosophers all about summer camp when I was 12 years old!”

Interestingly, Wolfe Kelman, like his daughter, was instrumental in protecting rabbis. He died in 1990, long before Abby essentially started doing the very same thing. She’s pretty sure he would approve of her career choice. 

“I think he’d laugh about what I do, but I also think he would be very proud,” she said. “He had enormous faith in me and thought that I was capable of great things. I think the only person who was surprised that I ended up doing this was me. I’d give anything to be able to talk to him about some of the issues I deal with. It can be very sensitive. There’s a lot of nuance to my work. I would love to hear from him about his experience on negotiations.”

If Wolfe Kelman had known how his youngest daughter’s career had progressed, “I think he would have been supportive and helpful and, most of all, he would be handing my business card out to everybody he met.”