On June 10, 1979, I ascended the steps to the bimah at Temple Emanuel in New York City and stood before the open ark with Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk (z'l), President of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (the Reform rabbinic seminary). He placed his hands upon my shoulders in the traditional gesture of S’michah (lit. “Laying on of hands”), looked intensely into my eyes and asked, “Are you prepared to serve as a Rav b’Yisrael (a Rabbi in Israel)?”
“Yes!” I said, and he ordained me “Rabbi.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t at all prepared. Yes, I had learned a great deal and thought deeply about many things, but I had no clue about what would be demanded of me in serving a synagogue community, the Jewish people and God.
Among the most difficult and persistent challenges I have had as a congregational rabbi is to constantly shift my mood and thinking at the drop of a hat (often multiple times daily) according to the demands of the occasion (e.g. birth, b’nai mitzvah, conversion, marriage, divorce and other life traumas, illness, death, and mourning).
Add to that challenge my need to grow spiritually, deepen my Jewish understanding and Hebrew knowledge, and help my congregants understand what it means to be American Jews, ohavei am Yisrael (lovers of the Peoplehood of Israel) and ohavei M’dinat Yisrael (lovers of the State of Israel).
Being a Reform rabbi these days means being a kol bo (i.e. all things to all people) and an emotional chameleon.
The American Reform rabbi’s multiple roles as master of the tradition, teacher, ethical and spiritual leader, friend and pastor, trouble-shooter and problem solver, communal and personal healer, progressive visionary and social activist, and representative of Judaism and the Jewish people are daunting, overwhelming and impossible for any one person to fulfill. I think back to the moment as an undergraduate at the University when I decided to enter the rabbinate, and I realize how very naïve I was.
Having said this, I know that many in other professions and life-roles confront equivalent demands and pressures. What we all share is the need to compartmentalize our lives to such an extent that we can jump effectively from one situation to the next without losing ourselves, damaging our integrity or becoming hard-hearted. We have to be able to hold multiple thoughts and conflicting feelings at the same time, to feel both the joys and sorrows of living without being overwhelmed by one or the other, to appreciate ourselves and others as reflections of Divinity despite our numerous flaws, and to set high moral and ethical standards even as we expect failure, without our resorting to unpleasant, cruel and unnecessary rancor and personal attack.
None of us can do this by ourselves. We need good people in this work – loving spouses/partners, trusted friends, kind and capable colleagues, smart and big-hearted lay leaders, and a community that shares common values, ethics and vision.
Despite the challenges I face continually as a congregational rabbi, this sacred work has been and continues to be rewarding beyond measure. I am grateful for that and for all the people alongside whom I work and love.
As 2014 commences, I wish for you and all those dear to you a year of good health, joy amidst sorrow, spiritual and emotional growth, and expanded meaning.
May Israel reach, at last, a secure and lasting peace with the Palestinian people in a two states for two peoples final resolution of their conflict.
And may all humankind live peacefully under their vines and fig trees with none to make them afraid.
Happy New Year!