“Nevertheless, we followed the advice from every magazine editor who told us that rankings matter: if you want people to pay attention, you need a scorecard. The Rabbis needed standings.” In that one quote can be summed up so much of what was misguided about the annual rabbi rankings list Newsweek published for the past 7 years. Michael Lynton, Gary Ginsberg and Abigail Pogrebin in an article in The Forward explained why they were discontinuing the annual Passover tradition and that one quote is the one that struck me the most.
Every year I felt uncomfortable with the list of “top rabbis in America” and it was always difficult to pinpoint exactly the source of that discomfort. However, reading that the founders of the list initially wanted to highlight the “broad diversity” of the American rabbinate but the only way to do so in the magazine world was to make it a scorecard illustrates for me so much of what is at fault in the way we view our clergy. Do we rank them on how entertaining their sermon was? Do we score them on their clothing style? How many times they appear in a Google search?
When we transform our rabbis into only entertainers and quasi-celebrities we come to forget much of the heart of the rabbinate: the one to one interactions; the Torah shared and the relationships developed and sustained. It is about diligently and patiently bringing about positive change, goodness and Torah into the small part of the world that the rabbi lives and works in. This rarely would receive the accolades of a national ranking but this is the essential work.
Rabbis don’t belong on scorecards, whether from Newsweek or from anyone else. When we close the score books and open our hearts that is when the real work of our clergy can earnestly begin.
Hear from more LGBTQ clergy, including Ariel Naveh, on the Keshet blog.
Reading Ariel Naveh’s two-part story on the Keshet blog about being an openly gay rabbinical student, I remembered my own experience eight years ago as I prepared for ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I wondered what my life would be like as a rabbi who was gay. I stayed up late at night and worried: Would I get a job? I wondered would I find a place that would accept my partner and offer her the same benefits of an opposite-sex spouse. I wondered if I could even make it safely through rabbinical school. There were so many things to ponder I barely had time to consider what it meant to actually be a gay rabbi.
When I applied for and accepted my first pulpit in the summer of 2006, I was closeted. The senior rabbi, the head of the search committee and the president of the synagogue all were in the dark about it, and I was scared: scared of getting found out, scared of losing the many opportunities which had been laid before me. But I had no choice. At the time, and until 2007, the Conservative Movement did not allow openly gay students to be ordained, so my sexuality and the life I had built with my girlfriend at the time were hidden behind closed doors. I had a plan in mind: I would get settled, prove myself, and then come out six months into the job and share my life with the community.
You know what they say about the best laid plans. I started working and almost immediately quickly realized the community was one of tremendous honesty and kindness. I couldn’t keep secrets if we were to have a truly holy relationship as rabbi and community. So I came out, first to the senior rabbi and president and then very quickly to everyone else, and I mean everyone: the board, the staff, the religious school volunteer board. I had endless conversations about my sexuality. Looking back on it now, it might have been overkill, but at the time it was what everyone felt was necessary to be forthright and address whatever “issues” people had with the now openly gay rabbi.
It was, I think, the last time I spoke so much about my sexual identity. I remember when I told the then-president of the synagogue, who has since become a trusted friend and wise advisor, over lunch and without missing a beat she said, “Oh, okay – can we order the sushi now?” And that is kind of how I have always felt about this issue: Can we stop talking about this and get back to studying and teaching Torah, creating holy moments at your wedding, bar mitzvah, or when I share the journey at the end of someone’s life? Might we get back to doing the business of helping each other grow in Judaism and learning, in holiness and meaning?
Not everyone was happy with me, of course. A community member once interrupted my Talmud class to tell me I wasn’t talking enough about how hard it was to be gay, chiding me that I had a responsibility to help other gay people by being more vocal. Then there were the other folks – the ones who did not understand why my girlfriend and I held hands as we left services on Shabbat morning—why did I need to be so public? Too gay, not gay enough, either way I was always a troublemaker.
When I am teaching Torah, I am trying share sacred wisdom as a rabbi, period. When I am standing under the huppah with a couple as they join together in a holy union, I am trying to usher in Judaism sacred joy and sanctity. When I sit by a bedside as someone lays dying, I am trying to offer the tradition’s wisdom of comfort and care. I am being a rabbi – a sacred teacher of wisdom, a vessel of Divine holiness and care none of which have anything to do with being gay or straight.
Yet from a young age, I felt different. It took me almost two and a half decades to figure out why. Simply put, being gay feels to me (and has always felt to me) like being a round peg in a square hole – trying to fit in and sometimes squeezing, but never making the perfect fit. In my professional life I feel treated fairly and equally, but I live in a world where I understand what it means to not quite fit in. I know what it’s like to look around and wonder if you have an ally in the room, and what it means to be in a deep and narrow strait and not be sure if you have the strength to break forth to freedom. Perhaps this is where being a gay rabbi is really as much about my sexual identity as my profession – no one has to be able to prove to me how painful it is to be an outsider. I know it from the inside and out and as such have always tried to use this round peg to help others find their place in the wisdom and holiness of Jewish life.
I have a teacher and mentor who taught me the phrase, “it’s a Torah world.” She was trying to explain to us that in each day there is holy wisdom to be found in the world we live in, real life and everyday existence. Jewish wisdom can help people connect not only to the tradition with great sacredness but also to life’s most mundane moments in the deepest of ways. She was so right. It is a Torah world and in that world of holy seeking, being gay has nothing and everything to do with the kind of rabbi I strive to be.
It used to be that most Jews affiliated with a synagogue. My parents’ generation supported their synagogues and the organized Jewish community because they believed we were “one people”, responsible for each other. They honored their congregations’ rabbis and looked to them for guidance. Yet, these norms have now evolved into entirely new realities, with changing values and assumptions.
My young adult children live in a very different world from the one in which I was raised. Few of their generation choose to be members of synagogues, and they dislike rabbis who lecture them about what to believe or do. But they are just the crest of the wave that includes many of my boomer generation, who increasingly reject commitment to synagogues. They respect rabbis only when they inspire and serve them in intensely personal and meaningful ways, often ‘in the moment.’
It used to be that rabbis who served Jews independently (derisively called “rent-a-rabbis”) were not highly respected within the community. Yes, some individuals do call themselves rabbis yet lack communally recognized rabbinic ordination or appropriate knowledge and expertise.Yet, it is also the case that some very fine rabbis of upstanding credentials and experience are now functioning independently, serving unaffiliated Jews in a variety of ways.
Some rabbis consider this to be unfair competition with synagogues. Rightly so, they feel that Judaism is not a commodity that is bought and sold – it is a commitment to being part of the Jewish people, found within community.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
Synagogues will certainly remain essential for Jewish community. Along the way innovative leaders are creating new modes of Jewish belonging and inspirational spiritual experience for the Jewish people and fellow travelers.
Now rabbis who are providing personalized, independent rabbinic services are spiritual leaders who are meeting people where they are to help them find Jewish fulfillment and connections. With skilled rabbis helping Jews and fellow travelers to find their way within the Jewish community, so much more is possible. With professional rabbis offering this service to individuals and fellow travelers, there is room to build on the pride that 94% of surveyed Jews express at just being Jewish.
That is why I am excited to be going independent. Amidst Jewish communal hand wringing about the dramatic decline in affiliation rates, I am shifting into another gear as a rabbi. It is time to teach, guide, facilitate, officiate and lead from outside the box.
I will soon launch a new center for Jewish learning and experiences. Through it, I will also seek ways to collaborate with local rabbis and communities whenever possible. We are all in it together. ”The times, they are a’changin.” The Jewish people and our fellow travelers need us.
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
Two articles posted earlier this week made reference to an individual who had been born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, but had had an upbringing that compelled her to choose a Jewish path, ending in her ordination as a Reform rabbi but - the articles implied (or stated outright in one case)—she did not convert to Judaism. As it turns out, both articles* were incorrect on this point, but what was interesting to me was the question that the articles raised with regard to the possibility of such a thing happening, and the responses to that.
Most people have reacted to this article in one of two ways: a sort of galloping schadenfreude — “haha! told you those Reformim were up to no good, they’re not really Jews at all!” (not to mention the general inability to distinguish between Reform Judaism and other kinds of non-Orthodox Judaism. I’m not sure they even know what Reconstructionists are) and on the other end of the spectrum an open rage that traditionalists don’t accept the children of a non-Jewish mother as Jewish, often coupled with the idea that this means those traditionalists are racist.
As a Conservative Jew, the movement to which I belong explicitly does not accept the Reform position of patrilineality. As a Conservative rabbi, I have bumped up against the enormously painful problems generated by the American Reform movement’s promotion of patrilineal descent, over and over again (American because outside the USA, patrilineality is not generally accepted, even in the Reform movements).
I understand how enormously painful this is to many people: I understand that for many people, what I’m going to write will make them angry, and I accept that and offer my apologies in advance.
First of all, those who denounce the Orthodox and Yori Yanover (the author of the article in TheJewishPress.com) as racist, because they are opposed to patrilineal descent are wrong. I presume that some Orthodox, like some of every group, are racist, but it is not racist to maintain that before a person can be called a Jew, they should convert to Judaism, unless their mother is Jewish (which of course includes women who have converted to Judaism). Yanover, himself, says— and I believe him—
“In the shuls I attended on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, spotting an African or a Hispanic face was always such a source of pleasure. As a tiny nation and an even tinier religious group, we prize every gentile who embraces our faith and goes through the sometimes grueling process of becoming one of us.”
Putting aside the extremely problematic assumption that if they’re Hispanic or African, they’re obviously a convert, this isn’t rejection of someone from Judaism because of race.
As it happens, converting isn’t all that difficult, halakhicly (according to Jewish law) speaking. We can debate whether it’s a problem that different Orthodox sects won’t accept perfectly valid conversions from other sects or from Conservative rabbis, but the fact of the matter is that it’s basically a simple thing to do. But it is necessary.
If one wishes to become a doctor, it’s not enough to be the most fabulously gifted natural talent as a healer on earth. It’s not even enough to have done lots of home study. And it’s certainly not enough to be a doctor in your heart, or have a wonderful bedside manner, or to really love medicine, or to have someone call you “doctor.” In this country, you have to go to medical school, pass exams, do a residency and join a professional guild. Until then, you may be many things, you may even be a tremendous healer, but you are not a doctor. In other countries, the rules may be different. They may just be hoops, but you still have to jump through them.
Anyone who works as a non-Reform rabbi in the Jewish community runs up against the patrilineal descent problem all the time. And it is staggeringly painful for someone to hear that despite being dedicated to their faith and practice, it’s not enough. But it’s also something which is easy to fix – unlike, say, sexual orientation, which is a comparison I often hear (if “the Conservatives” can reinterpret how we deal with gay men, why can’t we change them for the children of Jewish fathers).
The answer is partly that Jewish law is fiercely stringent with regard to what we sometimes call “status issues:” Marriage, divorce, conversion. These are flashpoints for halakha, and they are flashpoints for successful continued existence as a people and a religion. They are also, unfortunately, matters which are deeply in the heart and desperately important.
But additionally, the Reform movement—however well meaning when it decided that either parent transmitted Judaism equally-—was not working from a halakhic framework.
I deeply admire and respect many Reform colleagues. I, myself, grew up Reform, and my parents belong to a Reform shul. Which is why I find this rift so enormously difficult. In my own family, I have had to reconvert family members who underwent Reform conversions because there was no mikvah (immersion in the ritual pool) involved in the conversion in order to be involved as a rabbi in their weddings. I have had to turn down the request of old family friends to be involved in their weddings because the future husband had been married before and refused to get a get – a Jewish writ of divorce. And I have had to tell people, people I love and care about, that if they cannot stomach the idea of completing the minimal requirements of a conversion, I cannot be involved in their wedding.
I find it extremely difficult to ask people whenever I am involved in a lifecycle event where status matters, “did you convert; did your mother convert; who did the conversion; what was the process…” and all the other questions that I have to ask. I hate having to tell some of those people that there is still a hoop they have to jump through if they want me to be involved. I try to make it as painless as possible, but I understand exactly how painful it is when someone tells me their mother isn’t Jewish, but they have always thought that they were Jewish, and I understand that it feels insulting to them to ask them to convert. I am horrified that I now also have to track down who is the rabbi of a convert to find out if their rabbi was Jewish.
I never went by the theory that since some Reform rabbis don’t fulfill the requirements for conversion, one should consider Reform converts all to be invalid. I do not accept Yanover’s conclusion that “we should remain steadfast in not calling any of these people and the nice things they do ‘Jewish’ in any way at all.” I always asked about the process and just went around filling in the missing pieces—if necessary. And if nothing was missing, then it was fine. I consider Reform Judaism to be Judaism, and Reform rabbi to be rabbis. But I am at a loss as to what to do when presented with the identity issues that are now extremely prevalent.
I have no idea what the answer to this problem is. But I will say, that when I do a conversion, as a Conservative, female rabbi, I always tell my students that if I do the conversion there will be problems with their status in other movements, and in Israel. And I always offer to make other arrangements for them—and explain what all the various problems that could arise are, and different ways that they could deal with some or all of them.
To me, it would be utterly dishonest and completely unethical for a person whom I taught to go out into the world not knowing that some people would not consider them Jewish, and that for various different reasons, circumstances could require them to convert again, and that it is not a judgement on them, and that they shouldn’t consider it an insult to me or to them if it should be necessary.
It is as essential a part of the conversion process, for me, to teach that, as it is to teach them the differences between the movements, to explain why I consider the movement to which I belong -in its theory, and its expectations, at least, even if not everyone fulfills those expectations- to be halakhic, to explain why even though lots of Jews who are born Jewish don’t observe halakha, I won’t finish the conversion process unless I see the student has a commitment to kashrut, shabbat, and other ritual observances as well as to joining a Jewish community and synagogue,a sense of peoplehood, and a Jewish idea of God.
And ultimately, I have to at least partially echo Yanover, in that I find it problematic to discount the halakha and the halakhic process as divine (I’m willing to debate in what ways). I find all of this terribly difficult, personally—I truly have no idea how to bridge the gap between a commitment to the view of Judaism as a divine mission with obligations, and not insulting people whom I care about very much. In fact, I’d love to hear from people who have found ways to do that very thing.
*Author’s correction: An earlier version of this article was posted by beginning with a link to articles about a Reform rabbi about whom incorrect information was cited. After two people whom I respect pointed out that even having her name linked with this discussion was a form of lashon hara, I decided to remove that part of the article – and truthfully, she isn’t really relevant to the discussion, but was only a jumping off point.
I’m going to remove her name altogether, as well as the links to the articles with the incorrect information. I apologize to her for the original linkage.
There is an old joke about the rabbinic search committee who in looking for a rabbi wanted someone who was creative, dynamic, fresh out of seminary, and had thirty years of experience.
Obviously, this is an impossible combination. The traditional image of a rabbi is an older man with a long white beard and glasses. The word “rabbi” itself evokes a sense of someone with wisdom, learning, and years of knowledge behind him. Yet this image of a rabbi is at odds with the reality of the state of the rabbinate today. Today, rabbis are male, female, young, old, and some even specialize in different areas, pastoral counseling, organizational management, or academic learning to name a few. The nature of the rabbinate and what one expects from a rabbi has changed dramatically in the past 50 years.
In most cases, I would argue that this is a good thing. However, there is one aspect of the changing perception of rabbis which concerns me. And that is the thought that the younger the rabbi, the better. I have the great pleasure of working with rabbis at all ages and stages of their rabbinates. I know extremely talented new young rabbis and extremely talented seasoned older rabbis. There are advantages to being on either end of this spectrum. But with each passing year it seems as if our youth obsessed American culture is leading our communities to discount the wisdom and expertise of older rabbis.
I should define my terms. A “younger rabbi” is someone in his or her 20s or 30s. And an “older rabbi” is anyone over 50 years. The 40s seem to be, for the moment, a middle ground, but the age of an “older” rabbi does seem to be trending downward in to this realm as well.
In the past week, I read an article by Michal Kohane in which she takes to task the Jewish Community for ignoring the Jewish population over 40. While her article makes several assertions I do not agree with. I do think that her central point, that as a community, we have become obsessed with youth to the detriment of the older population, has some validity. I certainly see it in the professional sphere. As a colleague of mine said in a meeting this week, “If you are a rabbi over 50, and you lose your job, good luck finding another. It is almost impossible.” Given this reality, another rabbinic colleague said that the time has come for rabbis to get used to the idea that they will need to launch a second career later in their lives. There just are not enough communities or jobs interested in hiring them.
While there are some rabbis who burn out and should retire form the rabbinate in their 50s, there are many, many more who still have much to offer. I wish I knew of a way to combat the ageism I am seeing in the Jewish community. I firmly believe that each individual needs to be judged on his or her merits. A rabbi who is committed to on-going learning of traditional texts, current events, and leadership skills can be an innovative leader throughout his or her life.
How can we hold multiple visions of rabbis in our head at one time? Young,/old, male/female, gay/straight, black/white/Asian all kinds of people make inspiring rabbis. Let us honor them all.
Well, that was an unexpected weekend! For those of you who do not live in the Northeast, we just got walloped by a monster snowstorm. At my own home in Connecticut, we have 38 inches of snow and we are only beginning to dig our way out.
But I think there was something special about Nemo (the name given for this storm), aside from the stupendous amount of snow it delivered: Nemo became a dramatic metaphor for Shabbat. According to tradition, there are two primary components of the Sabbath: shamor and zakhor. This dual structure emerges from the rabbinic attempt to reconcile the fact that the verb shamor (keep, observe) is used in reference to Shabbat in the version of the Ten Commandments found in Deuteronomy 5:11 whereas zakhor (remember, internalize) is used in reference to Shabbat in the version of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20:8. Shamor is the more active of the two, corresponding to the rituals and practices we do (or, often more importantly, cessation from doing) on Shabbat itself that mark Shabbat as different from the rest of the week. Nemo gave all of us in the Northeast a sense of what being Shomer Shabbat entails. For more than 24 hours, from Friday afternoon until Saturday night, we were deluged with snow so thick and relentless that everyone had to stay at home. No one could leave to go to work, shop, or do anything else. The fascinating paradox of shamor is that restriction can actually lead to liberation. Being prohibited from engaging in our daily affairs during Nemo’s fury freed us up to spend new-found time with family and friends, to take time to communicate and interact with one another in ways that our frenetic lives often make difficult.
The shamor aspect of Shabbat usually gets the majority of attention. But the zakhor component is equally important within Judaism. Zakhor corresponds to the obligation to internalize Shabbat’s meaning, to locate Shabbat as the center of our temporal consciousness. From preparing for Shabbat ahead of time to reciting the kiddush during our meals, we take time to be mindful of Shabbat’s inherent sanctity. A major rabbinic contribution to this feature was insisting that “oneg,” or delight, be a part of our Shabbat experience. Rejecting the option of an ascetic Shabbat (which the anti-rabbinic Karaites would later endorse), rabbinic Judaism embraced a Shabbat of majesty and exuberance through food, attire, song, and all the other ways in which we celebrate Shabbat. Standing outside, watching my children flop around in the thick snow while attempting to throw snowballs at my wife, I found myself re-capturing that sense of pure, unfiltered joy. The smiles and squeals of delight, like a Hasidic Friday night meal, lasted for hours. We were left with the sense of exuberant exhaustion you might feel after laughing for a really, really long time.
I won’t be sad when the temperature rises above freezing, my children finally get back to school, and life once more returns to normal. But I hope that the lesson I took from Nemo—that Shabbat should be about the liberation of obligation and a sense of infinite joy—will continue to reverberate within my Shabbat experience long after the snow melts away.
The New Year of 5773 is upon us. Rosh Hashanah (the head of the year) is known by several names including Yom HaZikaron (the Day of Remembrance), Yom Teruah (a day of sounding [the shofar]), and Yom HaDin (the Day of Judgement), and Yoma Arikhta (a single long day).
“A single long day.” An odd description for our new year. Is Rosh Hashanah a one-day holiday? Is it a two-day holiday? Or, as the rabbis suggest, is it simply one, very long day?
To better understand why some Jews observe one day of Rosh Hashanah and other festivals while others observe two days, it helps to have a basic understanding of the Jewish calendar. Of course, the word ‘basic’ ought not to be used with such a complex subject as calendrical issues are some of the most difficult to grasp. Perhaps straightforward is a better choice and a very straightforward explanation of why extra festival days are observed may be found here.
At the start of our holy days, it is custom to recite the Shehecheyanu, the blessing that thanks God for enabling us to reach this season. And since the additional day that is added to the beginning of our festivals might actually be the accurate first day (again, please see here for the straightforward explanation), we say that blessing on the second day as well. However, if Rosh Hashanah is really one long day, does the Shehecheyanu need to be recited on the second night? The answer is yes. Sort-of.
Yes, we say the Shehecheyanu on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. But because the Rabbis regarded the two days as one continuous day, and they didn’t like to waste blessings, the custom arose of either eating a new fruit or wearing new clothing on the second day — both experiences that require the recitation of the Shehecheyanu.
So today, may you enjoy the sweetness of a fruit new to you or new for this season. May you enjoy your new shul clothes. And may this one, very long day be filled with awe as we enter this new year.
What does the synagogue of the future look like? Today synagogue affiliation rates are dropping, as are affiliation rates across all religious denominations in America. This fact combined with the current economic climate is causing many synagogues to close or merge. Rabbis and lay leaders across the country are trying to reinvigorate their synagogues and attract new members. Much of the conversation focuses on the rabbi. What skills do rabbis need today to lead a successful synagogue? How do rabbis acquire those skills? What new roles can rabbis find outside of the synagogue walls?
Hayim Herring’s new book Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today strives to answer these questions. Rabbi Herring does an admiral job of describing the changing context of American synagogue life and exploring the issues synagogues must look at to strengthen their core functioning. He advocates using social networking and collaborative programs to increase a congregation’s reach. His assessment of how to create a strong organizational system is right on target. He then goes on to address the question of the rabbi.
Here, I think Rabbi Herring gets a lot right, but also makes a few missteps. I agree whole heartedly with his assertion that rabbis today need to be passionate leaders who can speak to the issues of the day and enhance our understanding of our world by using Jewish wisdom. I also agree that today’s rabbis need to be entrepreneurs. The Rabbis Without Borders program, which I direct, focuses on giving rabbis the skills they need to be entrepreneurs. We need rabbis who are thinking out of the box and using Torah in new and creative ways which will help people make meaning in their lives. I was turning each page of the book, saying to myself, “yes, yes, you got it right,” I then hit a page which surprised me.
The heading on this page is “Reducing Some Current Rabbinic Roles.” The first role listed is: pastoral counseling. What? I was so shocked I had to stop reading for a few minutes to absorb the thought. Rabbis should do less pastoral counseling? Rabbi Herring writes, “This is one area where they can scale back. Rabbis can partner with Jewish Family Service (JFS) counseling staff or develop a “train the trainer” approach, and train Jewish metal health professionals to provide a Jewish spiritual dimension to their counseling.”
I must respectfully disagree with Rabbi Herring on this point. Not all rabbis have a talent for pastoral counseling, and those who do not, are well advised to refer people elsewhere. However, pastoral counseling is an incredibly strong tool for a rabbi to use in making a significant impact in both an individual and a communities life. I experienced this first hand when I was the Director of the MetroWest Jewish Health and Healing Center in West Orange NJ. The program was a join program between the JCC, JFS, and local chaplaincy group. In my role, I was available for pastoral counseling for the community at large. After introducing myself to the area rabbis, and leading a few workshops with the social workers at JFS so that they could understand my role and how it differed from theirs, I expected referrals to start coming in, which they did. Social workers are not trained to handle spiritual matters. In fact they are advised to steer clear of them. Even after conducting in service trainings with them, most of the JFS social workers were uncomfortable adding a spiritual assessment to their intake or addressing spiritual issues in their session. Several started referring clients to me for counseling. Together we were able to serve many individuals and help them work though mental and spiritual issues. In addition, rabbis, who did not feel comfortable counseling also, referred their congregants to me. My partnership with the area rabbis also worked well. I could serve their congregants needs, but not steal them away since I did not lead my own congregation.
But the greatest surprise came from the number of unaffiliated people who called me for counseling. A good 80%-90% of the people I saw for counseling were unaffiliated Jews. These were people who needed to a rabbi about an issue which brings up spiritual questions like bereavement or illness and had nowhere else to turn. Because I was based in a JCC, and not a synagogue I was easily accessible. Once I met with someone a whole host of questions and needs would be presented. I was able to skillfully introduce people to Jewish prayers, texts, stories, and meditations which could help them. Clients were amazed that Judaism had so much to offer. And in many cases, after meeting with me they expressed a desire to learn more and be connected to the community. I was then able to match them up with synagogue communities, or other leaning opportunities.
Pastoral counseling is a means to growing the larger Jewish community. There are some questions about the meaning of life and death which cannot be found through a Google search. Pastoral counseling is a unique skill and training which some rabbis and other clergy possess which is markedly different from what a mental health professional can offer. Rather than dismissing pastoral counseling as a skill rabbis can do without, I would instead argue that rabbis should receive better training in pastoral counseling and chaplaincy. When a rabbi is able to connect with an individual at a time of need, then that individual will have an emotional connection to that rabbi and by extension the Jewish community which will last a lifetime. We need to find entrepreneurial ways for rabbis to offer more pastoral counseling not less.
When I was in rabbinical school in the mid to late 1990s the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical School, did not knowingly admit or ordain gay or lesbian rabbis. I say “knowingly” because there were some students in the closet. Being a supporter of gay ordination, I did everything I could to try to move the process forward.
I will never forget the day that myself and another student met with the then Chancellor Ismar Schorsch. The two of us began to passionately speak about the Jewish values which informed our belief that gays and lesbians should be ordained. After only a few sentences had left our mouths, the Chancellor interrupted and said, “Let me stop you there. Gays and Lesbians will not be ordained at JTS while I am still Chancellor. It is not going to happen.” Then, he escorted us out of his office.
The experience left me a little shaken and very sad. I could not believe that he would not even listen to us. He had no interest in even discussing the topic. None! I hated that I was attending a school which did not uphold one of my core values. The Bible tells us time and again “Welcome the strangers in your midst because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” I hold the value of welcoming, inclusivity and acceptance as one of the highest Jewish values. As a Jew growing up in Austin, Texas, I often felt like a stranger. As a woman studying to be a rabbi, I often felt like a stranger. I think most people feel like a stranger at some point in their lives. In my mind a Judaism that is not open, welcoming and accepting is not a Judaism that I want to practice.
Chancellor Schorsch retired in 2006. One year later, The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) voted to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis. I was thrilled and excited by this change. Aaron Weininger, a Rabbi Without Borders Student Fellow, became the first openly gay student admitted to The Seminary. And last year Rachel Isaacs became the first out lesbian to be ordained by JTS. (She transferred in to JTS and graduated a year ahead of Aaron who will be ordained this May.)
While I celebrated this progress, I heard from rabbinical school students that The Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Israel, the Conservative Movements Rabbinical School in Israel would not admit gay students. This posed a problem since all JTS students are required to spend a year studying at The Schechter Institute as part of their rabbinical school training. The gay and lesbian students were again being made to feel like strangers, unwelcome in the Movement and Institutions they wanted to study in. Gay and lesbian JTS students had to find somewhere else to study for their year in Israel. To my mind, this was an unacceptable situation. I lamented the fact that while admitting gay student JTS did not seem to be capable of thinking through all of the various needs of these students and could not find ways to support them.
Then, just last week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, The Schechter Institute board voted to admit gay and lesbian students. The significance of this decision coming in Holocaust Remembrance Day cannot be understated. Both Jews and homosexuals were singled out by Hitler to be exterminated. Jews wore a yellow star while homosexuals were forced to wear a pink triangle. Gay Jews were of course twice cursed. I would like to think that the vote of the Schechter board, coming on the day it did, was an acknowledgement that past discrimination against homosexual students was wrong. I would like to think that Jews, gays, women, and other minorities are all in the same boat. We must look out for one another, support one another, and advance each other’s goals. To do any less would be an abdication of our responsibility as Jews.
While this decision is momentous, I know that the fight for full acceptance of gay rabbis is not over. Many synagogues will not hire a gay rabbi and some other rabbis will not accept gay rabbis as equal colleagues. Women rabbis still face this issue and JTS began ordaining women over twenty five years ago!
I strongly believe that the Conservative Movement needs to stand behind each and every rabbi they ordain. The Movement has a responsibility to these rabbis to support them in their job searches and career growth. Lay leaders and Jewish professionals across the country need to have conversations about diversity and acceptance. If we cannot practice this in our own intuitions how are we to promote acceptance of difference, particularly religious difference, with a clear conscience. How can we fight against anti Semitism the world over if we do not accept the minorities within our own communities?
“Never Forget!” is said each and every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We must remember those who died due to discrimination and prejudice and we must make sure that we ourselves do not employ discriminatory practices. Each one of us was created in the image of God. We are all holy beings no matter the color of our skin, our gender, or who we love. God loves each one of us and we need to love ourselves.
Yashar Koach (Right on!) to the Schechter Institute for making this decision. Let’s continue to support each individual who wants to study, teach and lead the Jewish people.