Jewish Journal

Rabbis Under the Radar

by Susan Esther Barnes

July 9, 2012 | 2:47 pm

Is this man a rabbi or not? Post your answer and your reasoning in the Comments section at the bottom of the post.

Recently I received an email from a friend. “I received this bar mitzvah invitation,” she said, “and I can’t place the names. You know everyone. Help me out here.” The first thing that struck me was the phrase, “You know everyone.”

This phrase has a deep resonance for me, because about four years ago I stood up in front of the entire congregation at High Holy Day services and described to them what it felt like to look around at a packed house on Kol Nidre, and to realize that, despite having been a member for four years, I knew absolutely nobody in the room.

That awful, isolated feeling is one of the reasons why I started standing at the front of the synagogue before services, greeting everyone. I didn’t want other people to feel like they didn’t know anyone, and it turned out to be a great way for me to meet people, too. To have someone say to me, “You know everyone” is a testament to how far I’ve come since that time.

It turns out I do know the people on the bar mitzvah invitation. It was sent as an email blast to the congregational email list, including members as well as folks on the periphery who like to know about synagogue events.

The invitation said, “HerName and HisName invite you to the bar mitzvah of Son’sName,” but there were no titles listed. So, if a person receiving the invitation didn’t know the husband or the names of the woman’s kids, she could be forgiven for not realizing that the woman on the invitation is the head rabbi of the synagogue.

This incident got me to thinking about other ways rabbis sometimes fly under the radar. When the synagogue’s other rabbi calls me at work and the receptionist asks who is calling, he also just gives his name, without a title. The receptionist didn’t know he is a rabbi until I mentioned it. I suppose this makes sense – the rabbi never knows if the person he or she is calling has outed themselves at work as being Jewish.

Another example of this happened on one of our “Torah on the Trails” days. Once a month, our Torah Study group takes a short hike, and studies Torah with a clergy member outdoors, before returning to the synagogue before services.

One day, I was returning to the synagogue after Torah on the Trails, with the rabbi in my car. An attendant stopped me at the entrance to the parking lot the synagogue shares with the JCC. “You need to go this way for the JCC,” he said, pointing away from the synagogue.

“I need to go the other way, to the synagogue,” I replied. When he hesitated, I added, “You have to let me in – I have the rabbi in my car!”

The guy looked at me like I was crazy. Everyone in my car looked like a casually dressed, in-need-of-a-workout JCC patron. He couldn’t tell that the guy in the t-shirt in the back seat had a suit and tie in his office to change into for that day’s bar mitzvah – not to mention a certificate of ordination on his wall.

It just goes to show, you better always be on your best behavior – you never know when there’s a rabbi nearby, flying under the radar. Sometimes, they look and act just like us!
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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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