Posted by Jeremy Fine
The Jewish Theological Seminary used to conduct a program called Seminary Shabbat. In short, JTS provided a modest stipend to a student while a synagogue flew that student to their community for a Shabbat. I did several of these and my responsibilities ranged from delivering sermons, leading services, and teaching lunch-and-learns. For students, there were many advantages to this program. Students got to practice skills in front of different sized communities, see different synagogues around the country, and meet their soon-to-be colleagues.
I participated in as many Seminary Shabbatot as possible. And while I was excited to practice delivering sermons and teaching in front of large crowds, I was most interested in learning from the rabbis in their respective pulpits. These Shabbatot allowed me to meet some very interesting people and some great rabbis. I learned quickly to watch how various rabbis in different positions phrase their words, deal with congregants, and speak to their congregation.
Along the way I met Rabbi Jonathan Berkun, the rabbi at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Aventura, Florida. Our paths actually crossed while I was staying with my parents in Miami and his synagogue is the closest Conservative synagogue in walking distance. Rabbi Berkun is an impressive pulpit rabbi. He has inspired his congregation, created an extremely welcoming environment, and is a great speaker. While in Miami we attend services at ATJC because of him and his charisma. I have learned just by watching Rabbi Berkun and have gained a colleague in a different part of the country.
Rabbis can learn a lot just by watching other rabbis and I think it is something the Rabbinic/Jewish world should consider doing more often. Congregations should adopt a program similar to Seminary Shabbat, for rabbis throughout the country to swap congregations for a Shabbat and receive a different rabbi for Shabbat in return. Synagogues will receive the perk of hearing different rabbinic voices from the bimah. Also, synagogues would get some fresh ideas brought back to their community. The rabbi will get a weekend away to rejuvenate and learn. If the host rabbi is in town, the rabbis will get the companionship of each other and pick up new perspectives by witnessing a different synagogue’s way of life.
Last year, I spent a Shabbat in a colleague’s synagogue and experienced his synagogue’s intricacies and customs. Seeing a classmate excel and being able to teach his community was very fulfilling. Sitting in the back as a congregant, I felt proud of my synagogue and was able to once again have a different perspective during services. Sometimes rabbis are blinded, in both positive and negative ways, to the constant routine of the bimah. Witnessing other communities and rabbis would allow for more growth in our rabbis and their communities. I look forward to seeing Rabbi Berkun in action this Shabbat, and hopefully, I will pick up some new ideas and innovations to bring back to my own congregation.
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March 4, 2013 | 1:35 pm
Posted by Jeremy Fine
Last week I returned to New York to attend a conference for the first time since commencing my pulpit in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had lived in New York for the better part of seven years, mostly while in Rabbinical School. During that time, not only did I make close friends but I became a part of several “families” (or communities). I cannot speak for all rabbis, but in my experience it has proven to be very difficult to uproot my life from these communities. Regardless of why a rabbi leaves a particular community; whether for a better opportunity, the incompatibility with a synagogue, or simply because it was time it is never easy to say goodbye to people who have become extended family.
In 2011 I began working in a new pulpit in Westchester NY. My first Shabbat I walked to synagogue and was full of emotion. Not so much about the journey I was about to begin but rather reminiscing about the community that I had left behind in Amsterdam NY. My experience in Amsterdam was nothing short of amazing and I am gratefully indebted to that community for preparing me for my career. I remember their faces when I informed them I was leaving and it haunted me for a while. I taught these families, I sat at the bedside with their sick, and I got to know their visiting extended relatives. I was entrenched in their lives and cared deeply for their well-being. My wife and I, while we knew it was the right move for my career to move on, truly left a piece of our heart in Amsterdam NY and long for those simple yet intense Shabbatot.
While in New York I stopped by the pulpit I had just left to say hello to the Cantor, Executive Director, staff, and a few congregants I had become very close with. In a book that one of my mentors asked me to read entitled Generation to Generation Edwin Friedman writes, “But it is the way fusion and separation affect relationships. For clergy who are truly interested in their faith community, and whose commitment goes beyond gathering disciples, taking advantage of the separation from our disciples to achieve what we could not achieve while still their leaders are in everyone’s best interest.” Divorcing oneself from said community is extremely difficult. But it is important not only so the congregation can move on, but because reminiscing and lingering can become emotionally dangerous for the clergy. During this visit I understood why. Sitting with my colleagues, exchanging stories and ideas, it was as if nothing had changed. Seeing these families, that took me and my wife in as almost family, got me chocked up.
Finally, I visited two of my Rabbinical School friends with whom I was close with during our years together at the Seminary. Both are doing such great work in their respective jobs. Both are helping to grow and engage communities. And while we learned, traveled, and celebrated together for years, we are now off in different corners of the country and those moments to interact in person will be few and far between. Deep down inside I am so happy for their success and have a burning desire to witness it.
So I returned home to St. Paul MN with a lot to think about and longing for the Seminary life that impassioned my spirit. Then waiting for me at the airport was my current synagogue’s Director of Informal Education, and those wonderful memories went back to being memories and the present became home. My new family at this synagogue, which has so much to give, allows me to realize how lucky I am to be a rabbi with different families across the country. And while I cannot see all of these families as often as I would like, I am happy to be in such good hands for now. It can be difficult and heart aching to leave family behind, but it’s a blessing to meet, love, and care for so many people. Watching a synagogue family grow, experience, and learn is a blessing one that I now get to share with my St. Paul family. Together we will conquer great things and hopefully make each other better. Each rabbi is lucky to have a community that becomes an extended family; it is one of the great advantages of being in the rabbinate.
February 20, 2013 | 8:50 am
Posted by Jeremy Fine
Yesterday, when I saw Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah Save the Date it was up to about 1,400 YouTube views and when I checked back this morning it was at 60,000. Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah has gone viral and I expect it to be over 100,000 views by the end of the day. Much has been said about the Bar Mitzvah over the past ten years. The ceremony vs. party dilemma is probably best displayed in a Jeremy Piven’s Keeping Up with the Steins in which the Bar Mitzvah party becomes this extravagant moment and the ceremony plays second fiddle. Personally, I am less concerned about the crazy parties . If people want to spend money on that night to make it special, I say go for it or as Daniel so eloquently put it, “Playas play.” What I am more concerned about is the Bar Mitzvah - the ceremony, party, and dedication - being an end moment in a young Jew’s life. If the Bar Mitzvah is the end or, at very least, the pinnacle of a child’s Jewish education then I agree with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who said, “If I had the power I would abolish the Bar Mitzvah ceremony in this country.”
Daniel's Save-the-Date is actually pretty awesome. The fact is that when he wakes up this morning he will see at least 60,000 views to his video (Hey, Daniel where’s my invite?). He probably did not spend nearly the amount of money that some families spend on the actual Bar Mitzvah party (although he might if Matt Ryan makes an appearance) and he will forever have a sense of Jewish pride from the memory of the video. A transformative Jewish experience is what will make him cling to his Judaism, something the average Bar Mitzvah does not do. On the contrary, the Bar Mitzvah is often used as a way to defend one’s Jewishness. I cannot tell you how many people say to a Rabbi, “I am not that religious. I mean I had a Bar Mitzvah so I know what is going on, but that’s it.” That is not it. The Bar Mitzvah is not a standard of higher Jewish learning; it is a check point into what is hopefully a Jewish life full of commitment, learning, and longevity.
There are many who have been frustrated for a long time at the glorification of the Bar Mitzvah. There is probably very little that is more depressing, from a rabbi’s point of view, than a Bar Mitzvah child standing on the bimah with a look of total carelessness or discomfort. Rabbi Byron Sherwin writes,
“The place bar mitzvah has assumed in the social and religious life of the Jewish community in the United States is unparalleled in Jewish history. Already in 1887, a commentator on American Jewish life described the bar mitzvah as ‘the most important religious occasion amongst our Jewish brethren.’…Contrary to popular misconceptions, a child need not have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah to be Jewish. One’s status as a Jew is granted either by birth or by religious conversion.”
Sherwin is right. Why does the Bar Mitzvah receive so much attention? For parents to say at thirteen (or even twelve) that their child’s Jewish education in some way is reduced when in reality the education of our children should truly be in its middle stages.
Next week I am attending a conference The Jewish Futures Conference in New York focusing on the Bar Mitzvah. I am very excited to explore potential visions for the Bar Mitzvah in the 21st century. In the 1950’s Reform Judaism tried to change the Bar Mitzvah but it failed; “Reform Judaism, in its effort to make the practice of religion less of a routine, as well as to give it a more modern and more realistic tone, virtually abolished the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, not to supplant but to supplement the Confirmation service, coming somewhat later.” So, I am extremely curious to know how synagogues are going to approach the Bar Mitzvah and if there is actually a way to use it to enhance our children’s, and even family’s, Judaism; or will it remain an end point for the Jewish people even if it’s a high point (maybe highest point) for the children?
Daniel, I do intend on saving May 11th 2013 on my calendar. But you should plan on saving May 11th 2014, 2015, 2016, and so on to see if your Bar Mitzvah meant more than a YouTube video and party. Hopefully, your Bar Mitzvah is just the beginning of your Jewish learning and commitment. But regardless of your Jewish future I have to give you props for making a hysterical video and dropping those lyrics. My only other advice is trading in the Jason Heyward jersey for a Chipper Jones.
February 10, 2013 | 8:34 am
Posted by Jeremy Fine
Right around this time last year began the craziest month of my life. The Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement’s international body of rabbis) began interview week at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Interview week consisted of soon-to-be graduates of both the JTS Rabbinical School and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies sitting down for hour or half hour interviews with synagogues and schools who have decided to hire a ripe rabbi. Monday-Thursday was filled with interviews to see which institution you liked and, maybe more importantly, which saw you as their future rabbi. I found this week to be extremely inspiring, a true culmination of all the years and work I had put into developing my rabbinic path. In fact, the entire month was a whirlwind of emotions. Some congregations call you back, some do not. Some places you thought were a perfect match, felt it was not the right fit. Every rabbi’s (or soon-to-be rabbi’s) experience is very different. But I truly felt it was a holy process, one that teaches (if one cares to listen) a great deal about oneself, one’s future, and the growing everyone undoubtedly needed to do.
This week kicks off the interview season (at least for Conservative rabbis). To the best of my knowledge, twenty-five synagogues and schools will be attending interview week and over 200 interviews are scheduled. The next month will fly by for these students. I figured since I am one year removed from this process and have begun life in the rabbinate I would offer up some advice to graduating rabbinical students and the journey they are about to embark on.
1) Find a Coffee House – I think it’s important to get some “me” time during this week. Find a place to escape, review your notes, and drink a hot beverage. This will also come in handy when you begin the rabbinate as Starbucks has literally become my second office (Yes, I am a Gold Member).
2) Interviewer as a Microcosm – Each synagogue sends specific congregants to organize the interviews and you will become close with them throughout the process. This relationship is unique and special and will continue once you land a job. I advise getting to know these people well and if you are lucky like I am they will become some of your closest friends at the synagogue.
3) The 90% Rule – I truly believe this process is holy and people, while maybe they do not see it at first, end up where they are supposed to (call me a believer). 10% of people will fall through the cracks. If you are in that 10%, take a day off to relax and regroup. Then get back on the horse. Often some of the best jobs and institutions do not match either and jobs will open up.
4) Consult Wisely – This process will be draining regardless if you get seven call backs or zero. It is important to have a rabbi who you can talk to. If you have a spouse or significant other, it’s crucial that they are a part of the process so that you are not alone and they are informed.
5) Be Authentic – Before and during the whole process it is important to represent yourself accurately. If you do not blog, do not wake up one day and start a blog. If you are passionate about a project let people know. Ultimately, day one of the job they expect you to be the rabbi they hired. It is a lot easier if you intend to be that person.
6) The Perfect Synagogue – I am not sure the perfect synagogue exists. My advice is to look for a place that gives you the opportunities you want and at the same time allows you to continue learning. Some of that learning will be on the job, but a rabbi should never just settle (at least not right away).
7) Do Your Homework – Study the synagogues; their programs, history, and current demographics. They will be studying you and you should do the same.
8) Location, Location, Location – Location is super important to many people (myself included). But I believe the less you limit your search, the more you will realize what you are looking for. Most rabbis move at least one more time, so understand that your decision is not permanent unless you and the synagogue want it to be.
9) Quality Over Quantity – I was not a big believer in applying for every job. If you could NEVER see yourself at an institution then do not interview there. Also, it will be hard to be excited and properly prepared for 20 institutional interviews. Pick the ones you can actually imagine yourself serving. This is not to say cut 20 of 25, but be wise in your choosing and know yourself well.
10) God’s Work – Throughout the tough breaks and the joyful smiles, remember that this whole process is so you will be able to lead the Jewish people. When you think about that, the rest is gravy.
B’Hatzlacha (best of luck) to the soon-to-be rabbis. May this week/month be inspiring and holy.
Rabbi Jeremy Fine - @RabbiJeremyFine
January 23, 2013 | 3:37 pm
Posted by Jeremy Fine
Many musicians have written about the idea of walking alone. For example, Green Day’s song Boulevard of Broken Dreams begins, “I walk a lonely road, the only one that I have ever known. Don't know where it goes, but it's home to me and I walk alone.” I can identify with these lyrics as a 21st century rabbi, living in a nice size Jewish community because each and every Shabbat I walk to synagogue alone. That is not to say my wife and child do not come to synagogue, but rarely do they accompany me before 9AM. Normally, my morning Shabbat stroll is pretty lonely just as Green Day implied in their lyrics. And like in the Green Day song, it truly is the only one I have ever known.
I have always walked to synagogue, not growin up Shomer Shabbos rather living across the street from one. When looking back at my life, I do not think I have ever lived more than five blocks away from a synagogue. Ironically, the furthest I have ever lived from a synagogue was in Israel. And I have always done this walk alone. As a child my thoughts veered towards how upset my parents were that I was late or if anyone would notice if I went directly to kiddish. As an adult I often wondered if I would find the person whose house I was sharing a meal with or if I looked like I had just woken up. But now as a Jewish professional, now that Shabbat services are not just a part of my life but are very much my livelihood, this walk to synagogue is lonely.
Moving from New York to the Midwest, there are fewer – if any at all – Shabbat Shaloms from people on the street. And not seeing anyone walking passed me on a Saturday at 8:30AM, has a bit of emptiness to it. So, what does a rabbi think about on his way to synagogue, in the dead of winter in St. Paul Minnesota? I cannot speak for all rabbis, but I do a few different things. Sometimes I go over my sermon in my head. Other times I reflect on my week, something I do not get to do while on the bimah. Other times I just sing in the streets. The Zmirot (songs) of Shabbat make me feel less alone.
I have a memory from my last full summer at Camp Ramah leaving the dining hall and singing with some campers. I remember looking into the night and humming Shabbat melodies and often try to recreate that moment on my walk. Or I think about the 100 students that pack the Kraft Center (Columbia University Hillel) every Saturday night to just sing together. In Jerusalem it was not weird running into someone singing Jewish music in the streets. But here in Minnesota the ability to create Shabbat music has become somewhat of a hobby and pivotal time in my week. It is the voices through my memories that turn my Shabbat walk from lonely to full.
There are moments in the pulpit life that are like this lonely walk, where the rabbi is alone. Maybe it has to do with moving from city to city and maybe it has do to with a rabbi’s continuous search for God amongst the sermons, hospital visits, and funerals. But we often walk alone.
Johnny Cash wrote, “Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart, and you'll never walk alone, you'll never walk alone.” I guess, to use Cash’s words, my hope is that one day that I do not walk these few blocks by myself. That my community joins me on my walk through the rain and dreams and no Shabbat walk is done alone. I am lucky to be in a place that can understand that it is never too late to bring that music that we sing (whether literally or metaphorically) with us in an attempt to be together. A community that really loves you and understands the music that each rabbi brings is something very special. And without that acceptance it might be a constant walk alone, always trying to fill that void with another sermon or song.