Non-Pulpit Rabbis Are Rabbis, Too

Why should the fact that I have a company that serves synagogues rather than in a synagogue make me an “other” in the Jewish professional community?

This week I attended the USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) conference for the first time. I am always hesitant to go to a “Denomination Conference,” because I never know what sort of reception or welcome I am going to receive. I actually had a double whammy of the USCJ conference, followed by my first URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial. This year I was comforted though, to know that I was not going to be alone at the conference. One of my fellow Rabbis Without Borders was not only at the conference as a non-pulpit rabbi, but he was across the row from me in the exhibitor’s hall.

The first night I was at the conference I was sitting at my table exhibiting and it was really quiet. A layperson came up to me and asked what it is that I do and I explained how Online Jewish Learning works with synagogues to supplement the learning that happens in the classroom so that synagogues can focus on what needs to happen in person in the limited time they have with students, and OJL can focus on the other skills-based learning such as Hebrew at home. The man chuckled to himself and said, “Well, why don’t we just do away with synagogues all together!” At the moment I could not think of a good or a witty response. What I wanted to say to him would have been inappropriate, so I said, “I said we supplement synagogue learning, we are not in place of it. We support communities and want to make them stronger!”

He just walked away. I did not feel victorious or good at all. At that very moment, my fellow RWB got up and came over to kvetch about an experience he had just had about not being a “real” pulpit rabbi. We spoke for a few minutes about what it feels like to be a non-pulpit rabbi and how the rest of the world often looks at that choice as being “less than” choosing to work in the pulpit. The Jewish world seems to have a perception that rabbis only work in synagogues. Rabbis do, however, work everywhere and isn’t that the point of being a Jewish leader? To spread Jewish values and holiness in all areas of life? In all types of communities?

I realized that RWB has helped to make me more confident, and more like I am a member of a community than any of the other groups or communities that I am a part of. Why should the fact that I have a company that serves synagogues rather than in a synagogue make me an “other” in the Jewish professional community? Having my RWB buddy across the aisle from me empowered me, rather than the usual feeling I get when I close off and quietly bide my time until the conference is over.

One of the sessions at the USCJ conference was “How do synagogues survive disruption?” I went to this session as a rabbi who runs a program that has indeed “disrupted” the market. As an innovator, I see the word disruption as a positive — something that sparks much-needed change and reflection in the traditional model of community. I do not think synagogues should be looking at how they can survive disruption, but rather how can they get on board with disruption and reflect and innovate within their communities while still holding true to their mission?

Synagogues need to embrace disruption, embrace change, re-imagine the way that they serve the ever-changing Jewish population so that they do survive, and also thrive in this world that is so deeply enmeshed in this disruption revolution.

I led a session called “Engaging Virtual Communities,” and was really nervous that no one would come. I do not know why I always doubt myself that I have something valuable to contribute to the greater Jewish community, but I am human, and I do this from time to time.  I was worried that I would have 2-3 people, of which two were friends that I begged to come. I could not have been more wrong.  The room was packed. Standing room only. I was really blown away by the open minds in the room. They may not want to use my program but were open to learning about it. I stood corrected.

What I did not realize was that I was the one who needed to be more open minded — who needed to see that my own community, the Conservative community, would be open to hearing my Torah, I just had to have the confidence to share it. I had to disrupt my own preconceived notions of how they would react.

It is hard to be someone that is pushing the envelope, disrupting the mainstream, doing something “Out of the box.” It is not as hard to do it, however, if you have a community surrounding you that are rooting for you, supporting you, and coaching you as you go forward on the journey. As I get ready to finish my first year of being with Rabbis Without Borders, I am incredibly grateful. I am grateful for the friendships, the advice, the support, and most importantly-the confidence it has given me to share my Torah with my colleagues, friends, community, and the greater world.

So thank you, RWB, for all you do for me, and for us. It is an honor to be part of this network-this cohort-this community-this family.

You can apply for the RWB 2018-2019 Cohort here: http://rabbiswithoutborders.org/for-rabbis/

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