Joy in the Rabbinate

There is a delicious irony in being asked to write the lead article for an issue devoted to “Joy in the Rabbinate” as I mark 40 years since being ordained. I say that because if one were to read the essay that accompanied my application to RRC in 1975 it could well have been titled “A Reluctant Rabbi”. In that essay I tried to explain why I was applying to rabbinical school when I was pretty unclear how I would use the credentials.

This article appeared in Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Autumn 2019. 

My essay probably reflected some immaturity on my part regarding the profession I was seeking to enter. I do remember that I was resolute about two things if I was admitted to rabbinical school: 1) I would never serve as a pulpit rabbi; it seemed to me to be a relative uninspiring place to expend one’s time and talent and a totally joyless pursuit; and 2) I had multiple interests and believed that a rabbinical degree would be a good credential to have access to many, if not all of those interests. I was dead wrong about the first resolution; the second resolution turned out to be a predictor of how my career would evolve.

Now just to prove that the God I do not believe in has a sense of humor, the first professional opportunity that came my way in my first year at RRC was to become the part-time rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Media, PA. Beth Israel was the most accessible and popular training ground for the first generation of RRC students. There was no affiliated Reconstructionist Congregation closer to RRC and while there was an “anchor” student rabbi, dozens of RRC students had opportunities to lead services or teach there each year. Ron Aigen (z”l) was the anchor rabbi when I first arrived at RRC but he was about to graduate and assume the pulpit of Dorshei Emet in Montreal so the anchor spot came open and I was offered the post. I accepted the position because it seemed way more challenging than any other field placement available at the time.

I ended up spending eight years at Beth Israel, four as a student and four after I graduated, as I finished up my Ph.D. Years later, as my career allowed me to serve as a national consultant for synagogues and rabbis, I reflected on the fact that I never did have a rabbinic mentor even as I assumed pulpit responsibilities at a relatively young age.  What did motivate me, however, was that I was given a relatively free hand to experiment to my heart’s content. The charge from the synagogue president who hired me was: “make it interesting and make it fun!”. I loved the challenge. From my first year I experimented with what a synagogue could be and I was enough of a rebel in spirit to have as my guiding principles: challenge conventional practice, take risks, and make it joyful. While I am sure I had some pushback to my experimentation, my memory is of a community that always appreciated my efforts to push the envelope. It was a great gift.

Not everything worked, but a lot did. I began writing up many of my ideas and experimentation in the pages of the Reconstructionist Magazine. It resulted in my being invited to teach a course at RRC the year after I graduated called “Creating Alternative Communities”. The course helped me sharpen my thinking on how to re-imagine the rabbinate and the American synagogue. There is a logical progression between this early part of my career, helping to found Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD in 1988, writing my first book, Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue, published in 2000, and then establishing a career doing national work in the synagogue transformation/rabbinic mentoring space.

Having served Beth Israel and Adat Shalom for eight years each, I can say without reservation that I loved being a congregational rabbi. Just writing these words surprise me, even today. Were there challenges? For sure. Were there unnecessary and petty political squabbles. For sure. But the overall experience was unadulterated joy, both on the micro and the macro level.

By micro level I mean being privileged to enter the intimacy of people’s lives and to be “their rabbi”. Dozens of examples flood my memory, such as:

  • sitting with people who have just lost a loved one and reflecting their sentiments in a eulogy;
  • getting a couple, in pre-marriage counseling, surprisingly excited about how they might create a Jewish home together;
  • spending time in the hospital room of a family whose teenager was deathly sick with no clear prognosis, gathering the family in a circle around the hospital bed, holding hands for a traditional misheberach and a not-so-traditional sharing of prayers and then sharing the joy of full recovery of the teen about a week later;
  • having the opportunity to officiate at the Bat Mitzvah of young woman at Adat Shalom who was the daughter of a Mom whose Bat-Mitzvah I performed at Beth Israel twenty years earlier;

Most rabbis serving in congregations can list hundreds of such experiences. Cherish them. I certainly do. The people who you serve will never forget the role you played in their lives.  

By macro level, I mean helping to bring people together to create a true covenantal community in a society that privileges individual autonomy. This has required thinking big, inviting congregants to join me in an experiment that they themselves don’t fully understand, no less than imagine to be possible and then to guide the creation of a social structure (e.g. a spiritual community) that helps people become more Jewish and more fully human. I can’t fully explain this in a few words but I have written about this elsewhere (e.g. Finding a Spiritual Home and more recent articles) and spent a considerable amount of time helping rabbis and lay leaders all over the country do this in their respective communities.

Because I have continued to play an active rabbinic role at Adat Shalom more than 25 years after I was succeeded by my very able successor, Fred Scherlinder Dobb, I have been able to witness how the seeds of covenantal community blossom and grow. On a regular basis, I get approached by members of Adat Shalom who have been deeply touched by a service, a class, a retreat, a holiday program, etc. and they say: “Thank you Rabbi Sid for creating this.” Often this comes from members who were not even part of Adat Shalom when I was its rabbi. I am not sure that I deserve this praise. But it conveys to me how much people need the kinds of spiritual community that we were able to build at Adat Shalom. This is joy.  

It so happens that my years as a congregational rabbi represent only a small part of my rabbinate. I have spent considerably more time building several national organizations and programs that touched people in very different ways: PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values touched the lives of over 20,000 young Jews with a unique mix of Jewish learning, Jewish values and social responsibility. The Rene Cassin Fellowship Program was a fellowship program on human rights for Jewish young adults, ages 25-35, with hubs in New York, London and Jerusalem that I ran for three years. Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network, is a program I currently run that identifies, convenes and builds capacity among Jewish social entrepreneurs. And the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) is two-year fellowship for rabbis on visionary leadership and change management.

I will be the first to admit that none of these endeavors brought me into the lives of people in the same intimate ways that happens for a congregational rabbi. And yet I have taken tremendous joy in the process of identifying a need in the Jewish world, constructing a program to address it, raising the necessary funds to support it, building a staff team and then, working with that team to execute that which we set out to do. My rabbinate has had a reach that I never imagined possible and it is a rare week when my path does not cross someone who identifies themselves as having participated in and benefitted from a program that I helped to create.

A final story.  A few months before I entered RRC, my 1963 Rambler got a flat tire. I got out of the car and hitchhiked a ride to the nearest gas station to get a tow truck (no such thing as a cell phone back in the day!). In the short ride, the driver asked me what I did for a living and I told him about my impending journey to rabbinical school. He asked me: “When did you get your calling?” I am embarrassed to say that I had no clue what he was talking about but I made something up.

Today I get it. The rabbinate has never been a job for me. It has been a calling; a sacred calling. And I feel so privileged to have enjoyed a career where, almost every day, I have had a chance to touch people’s lives, strengthen the Jewish community and bring the world a tad closer to shlemut, sacred wholeness.