A Quarter Century, a Lifetime of Change

Twenty-five years ago I stood with three classmates from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and received the title “rabbi.” After five intense years of rabbinical school, following years of preparatory Jewish study, we had arrived. The emotional and spiritual power of ordination was about achieving a dream, but it also signaled a change in our status that would forever define our identities.  As rabbis we would now bear responsibility to care for the Jewish people and repair the world, with a unique status of authority.

This past weekend my classmates and I were joined by three more colleagues, as we were honored with our Doctor of Divinity (honoris causa) degrees.  As has become custom in much of the American rabbinate we were honored with these degrees by virtue of our worthy service to the Jewish people over these twenty five years.

I have been looking forward to this moment for years. I knew it would joyous — a celebration like a significant birthday or anniversary.  Many rabbis joke that the D.D., as we all call it, means “didn’t die.”  It is a testament to a rabbi’s survival.  Reminiscent of the rude awakening I received when I went to buy disability insurance as a young rabbi.  I learned that few insurers (at the time of my career’s beginning — only two) would insure rabbis because clergy have the highest rates of disability from stress related illnesses. I still find that statistic hard to believe based on my observations, but no matter, you get the point. We laugh about celebrating survival because we worry about not surviving.  We made it, whew!

But surely, as the year and the date approached for my own D.D., I came to appreciate how important it was to celebrate more than the passage of time. This was an opportunity for reflection on the experiences of these years, with the mistakes and achievements, accomplishments and disappointments.  My colleagues and I marveled at the enormity of everything we have experienced and done during this quarter century.  Our journeys have tracked a time of tremendous change in American Judaism.

What did we learn during these years? What would we have done differently? One of my colleagues wanted to know if I had to it to do over again, would I still have wanted to be a rabbi?  Without any hesitation, I said “yes”. My colleague did not.

Of course, it would take a book to document what I have learned. But the opportunity for reflection helped to surface important lessons. I thought of these as I watched with pride and joy the newly ordained rabbis at the RRC graduation. “Be ready”, I thought. “Everything you know and believe can be challenged in the years ahead.”  The world — and notably the Jewish world — is shifting around us in dramatic and unpredictable ways. All of my youthful assumptions about what Jewish life would be like at this time have been challenged, and some have unraveled. The stable Jewish community I envisioned in which synagogue affiliation would be central to Jewish life is now very unstable as affiliation rates drop and synagogues are far from being the only game in town. Knowing how to listen to the world around you — and to your own gut — is essential. It takes experience to acquire the wisdom to do this well.

What does it mean to be Doctor of Divinity?  It means to be a rabbi who notices and acts on the presence of God within the most mundane moments of life, elevating the sparks of holiness in our world. It means loving the Jewish people and all peoples with an open heart. And it means being ready for change.  It means integrating all that you have learned — the texts of our people, the texts of our culture and the texts of your mistakes and your accomplishments — so that you can be better at what you do, every day. It is, as the Psalmist taught, a chance to  “Number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90) Principles, values, knowledge and fluidity — if I have learned anything in these 25 years of service it is that these must guide us in a path of godliness.  This, I believe, is the leadership the Jewish community needs.  I am grateful for the privilege to serve.

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