Reflections

Here is a reflection I wrote to accompany my resume, seeking to lead a smaller congregation in the years ahead.

I was 18 when I decided to become a rabbi.  Through NFTY and URJ camping, I had observed rabbis who were doing exactly what I wanted to do:  They developed personal relationships with congregants of all ages — and, most potently in my mind, with teens and young adults like me – inspiring what one of them called “the creative continuity of Judaism.”

Thirty years later, nurturing individual relationships is even more central to my drive to build Jewish community.  Focusing on informal education and bonding with youth and young adults, I find my longstanding passion energized and renewed by 21st Century challenges.

From the earliest days of my rabbinate, I have built relationships through pastoral interactions.  I am known for making myself available to congregants in need, no matter the location or the hour.  Whether I am guiding young parents to find their own meaning as they bring their newborn into the Covenant, or counseling those struggling with care for an aging parent, active listening and being fully present bring individuals and families of all kinds closer to synagogue community and the Jewish people.

When I was younger, though, God wasn’t part of my pastoral care.  For example, I once witnessed an encounter between my mentor, Rabbi David Goldstein, and a sixth grader.  The boy complained of a headache.  Rabbi Goldstein lovingly caressed his head and offered a prayer for the child to feel better and have a good day at Religious School.  Struggling to retain my composure until after the boy had left our presence, I poked fun at Rabbi Goldstein, asking why he hadn’t offered the child a Tylenol.

Years later, I learned that I had been wrong.  Yes, Tylenol might have been appropriate had the headache persisted; but a young couple, Marjorie and Brad, would help me to understand how, being a rabbi, I could bring God’s presence to the healing process.

I first met Marjorie and Brad, and built a relationship with them, when they prepared for Marjorie’s conversion in advance of their marriage.  Soon, though, Marjorie was deployed to Germany with the U.S. Army.  A couple of years later, Marjorie appeared at my office unannounced.  I could see sadness on her face, even though she was cradling an infant in her arms.  Marjorie explained that Brad was in the local military hospital, having been diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia.  Now, Marjorie feared, Brad would soon die.

Throughout that summer, I was at the hospital almost daily.  More times than I could count, I was called late at night, and I rushed to the hospital, with Brad near death.  At Brad’s encouragement, I began to pray at the bedside, even spontaneous prayer, which was new to me.  I asked God to partner with the medical personnel, and with Marjorie, to bring Brad healing.

Brad survived that summer.  On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the healing power of prayer.  During that service, Brad held that infant who had been in Marjorie’s arms in the spring.  Brad insisted that my prayers and my presence were responsible for his survival to see his baby named and blessed in the Temple that morning. As I told the congregation, I shared his faith, something of a conversion experience for me.  When Brad died the next spring, Marjorie asked me to come to Kansas City to bury him, and she told me that my prayers had helped her and Brad to find healing even in his death.

In the fifteen years that have followed, I have continued to pray for healing at countless bedsides, in my office, and even occasionally over the phone.  More broadly, I have seen God at work in my rabbinate and in my personal life.

My sermons and divre torah are more God-centered, often bringing my Torah study and pastoral experience together to bring a message of hope and healing to my congregation.

My life cycle officiation emphasizes bringing God’s presence under the chuppa and into the room where a baby has come into the world.  My eulogies connect the life just ended to the Eternal, to a meaning much greater than the limits of this lifetime.

I have found that the next generation, young adults in their 20s and 30s and the youth who come behind them, are seeking and finding God’s presence where their parents did not, and I have been blessed to accompany these young people on their journeys.  As I build critical relationships with this new generation, God is my Partner.

My most recent teaching has been as spiritual as it is intellectual.  I am known for my Socratic teaching method in Torah study.  However, as I have shared Mussar, Jewish ethical literature, I have begun and ended each session with chanting, previously outside my comfort zone.  Mussar is all about tikkun middot, repair of attributes that are both behavioral and spiritual.  Chanting invites God to join a Mussar community in self-examination with trust in one another and faith that God will help each individual and the group to build a better future.

I first came to Mussar for entirely practical reasons, namely to learn new text to teach to my congregation and to make the most of a planned visit by a scholar-in-residence.  Instead, I found in Mussar a path to my own spiritual repair.

I write this statement, seeking a new congregation after the abrupt end of a twenty year tenure in a synagogue I loved.  I am saddened by what happened at Temple Beth-El, and last spring was the most difficult time in my professional life.  My encounter with Mussar, though, granted me the humility to recognize that I did not understand as much as I should have known about my professional home of two decades.  And Mussar permitted me to cultivate equanimity, to endure upheaval without plunging into anxiety or depression.  God’s enduring presence has brought me healing.

Now, I am eager and ready for a new challenge, a new congregation, a more intimate environment where I may share the gifts that God has bestowed on me and the ability I saw in those rabbis I met at camp as a teenager:  bringing God’s presence to life through relationships.

I still believe that the rabbinate was a good career choice for me.  Now, I also know what I did not when I was 18:  God called me to this sacred service.

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