In October, 2012, I was privileged to take part in training for Interim Rabbis, offered by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. I am deeply moved by the sacred work of a interim Rabbis, notably including my new friend, Rabbi Darryl Crystal, at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio; and my friend of longer standing, Rabbi David Lipper, who is paving the way for me at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock. Still, I didn’t hope or expect to become an Interim Rabbi, as the lifestyle would be hard at best on school-aged children. All the same, Interim Rabbi training is all about transition. I knew that whatever congregation I might be called to lead would, by definition, be in transition, as are my family and I. In the process, I put aside the very real practical reasons why I should not be an Interim Rabbi, and I wrote this piece about the kind of Interim Rabbi I would hope to be:
Once upon a time, Senior Rabbis would engage new Assistants, then promptly leave on summer vacation. “Alone” as a new rabbi, I was called upon to officiate at five funerals in my first month.
I was somewhat intimidated, but was grateful that the families and community were comforted by my eulogies. How, I was asked, could I speak so personally about people I had never met or had encountered only in their dying days? Reflecting, I noted that the funerals were not “about” me. I had met with each family. I had asked questions about their loved ones, and I had listened. I came to know the departed as the family understood him or her. I did not pretend to know a person I had not, but I had the honor to come eulogize a person whose life journey now had made an impact on me through the words of the family.
My journey in the rabbinate has been marked by deep listening, by striving to hear what is really being said. When I am counseling a couple in advance of marriage, even when I have known one or both of the couple for many years, I am eager to learn who they are to each other, to discern how best I can help them prepare for marriage, and how I might uniquely reflect them in their wedding. In the hospital room, I must listen to discern whether prayer will most bring healing; at the same time, I strive to hear concerns that lead social service referral and follow-up.
The listening skills that are so important in the rabbi’s pastoral role are also central to rabbinic leadership. When I am meeting with the Temple’s Religious Practices Committee, I listen for what moves congregants in worship, and for clues about what distracts, as I seek to shape congregational prayer experiences with them. When participating in an Executive Committee meeting, I must hear the concerns of lay leadership – often reflecting the deeply-held hopes, fears, and dreams of a wide spectrum of congregants – before doing my part to shape the congregation’s future.
As a rabbi, I most profoundly listen for the word of God. When faced with a dilemma, and especially when hearing competing voices, I am called upon to take my time, to pray and to study, to open myself to being moved by God. I do not imagine that I have exclusive access to God, or that I “hear” God the way that I hear the people around me. The divine message may not be definitive, but I have faith that God will continue to guide me, if I will continue to listen, so I do.
Listening has led me to discern the gifts that I may bring to a congregation as Interim Rabbi, as well as the gifts I will receive in return.
Serving as an interim rabbi will doubtless include officiation at funerals of people I never met and at weddings of couples who are relatively new to me. My habit of leading with my ear, rather than my mouth, in pastoral care, will guide me to provide comfort in times of sorrow and to heighten the joy of a simcha.
Just as important, the listening skills I have honed over the years as a congregational rabbi will serve the sacred organizational task of the interim rabbi.
As interim rabbi, I am eager to hear the stories of the congregation. These stories will always include pride as well as pain.
Learning what congregants love about their synagogue, I will internalize the kind of interim rabbi they need me to be. From the inside, but as a rabbi who will be leaving from the day I arrive, I will be able to help lay leadership and professional staff esteem the qualities of the congregation that ought to be emphasized and nurtured into the future.
Hearing stories of people’s pain, I aim to facilitate healthy grieving. Congregations in transition will include some who are mourning, and others who are celebrating, the end of what was. Many will experience both emotions. And those who are grieving will be at a variety of stages, manifesting their losses in a variety of ways. Listening and caring, without being entangled in the past or the future, I will hear and affirm the full range of feelings and reactions, helping congregants to grow in their empathy and trust for one another.
The ability to listen and frame situations will also help me to assist lay leadership in its sacred transitional work. I may hear stories and opinions that longtime congregants may not tell one another. Honesty and confidentiality are my hallmarks.
The professional staff will be a critical focus of my work. Without ego on the line, I will hear their grief and their celebration, their excitement and their fears. Only then may I affirm their roles and supervise with encouragement, integrity, and empathy. The time between senior rabbis can be a period of creative development, and I will be eager to support and join the staff in that growth without restricting the flexibility of the new senior rabbi.
Like the congregation I will serve as interim rabbi, I am in transition. Leaving a congregation I have loved and served for 20 years, I have listened to my heart and sought to discern God’s plan for me. I believe that I bring unique gifts to the interim rabbinate. Giving myself fully to a congregation that is new to me, and hearing its dreams, I will better discern my own future path.
In Genesis, Pharaoh, in distress, calls upon Joseph, saying, “I have heard that you can hear a dream and interpret it.” Joseph responds: “Without me, God will see to Pharaoh’s well-being.” But then Joseph encourages Pharaoh to tell him the dream. Joseph is eager to be the vessel through which God’s healing will be conveyed.
Like Joseph, I will be eager to hear the dreams, including the nightmares, of the congregation I serve as Interim Rabbi. Like Joseph, I will understand that any healing I provide ultimately comes from God, not from me.
The analogy ends there, as Joseph does take an ongoing leadership role. As for me, after a time of congregational stress or transition, I will have been a successful guide when the congregation is eager to move forward, united, with confidence, without me.