I used to be a congregational rabbi. I remember a conversation with a much-respected member of the synagogue during a fierce communal controversy. He told me that he taught all his children never to become rabbis.
'It's not a nice job for a Jewish boy,' he told me.
It was not a particularly comforting statement at the time, but the sentiment is a feature of the life of a rabbi. No one should become a rabbi without knowing that with this work comes much travail and frustration ' along with great rewards. Like most rabbis, I have faced many challenges and have suffered bitter disappointments and painful setbacks in my work, yet I still love the 'calling' of the rabbinate.
I would like to use this column to reflect on some things I have learned about the role and importance of the work of the contemporary rabbi. I hope this brief essay will help Jews within and outside of congregations to reflect on the current and potential contributions that rabbis can make to our lives and to our community.
Most rabbis serve congregations. Many have wryly observed that Jews in congregations want their rabbi to be 'someone who attends every meeting and is at his desk working until midnight, someone who is 28 years old but has preached for 30 years, someone who has a burning desire for work with teenagers but spends all his time with senior citizens ' basically someone who does everything well and meets everyone's needs all the time.'
No wonder that one of the central religious metaphors of Judaism is the Torah's narrative of a harried leader trying to lead a rebellious congregation through the wilderness. On some level, people go into the rabbinate not so much as to imitate God, but to imitate Moses. After all, Moses is traditionally called 'Moshe Rabbeinu' ' Moses, our rabbi.
The congregational rabbinate is a daunting task because of the very wide range of expectations and needs a rabbi must fulfill. Financial realities, demographics and administrative demands compound the burden on rabbis. Many observers of contemporary Jewish life in America have noted in recent years the great increase of rabbinic burnout and statistical turnover in congregations because of these factors.
The rabbi in a congregational setting is burdened with a wide variety of tasks: teaching, scholarship, counseling, administration, supervision, officiating at lifecycle ceremonies, troubleshooting controversies.
This observation so aptly captures the dilemma of the contemporary rabbi. Can any rabbi in this position succeed, given what a rabbi is expected to do? Do we set up our rabbis to fail? Is the rabbi spread so thin that she cannot excel in the endeavors she was trained to do?
One of the reasons I started Panim Hadashot: New Faces of Judaism was to simplify and focus the work of the rabbi and to highlight a different role in his relationship to the community, but also to complement the role of the congregational rabbi.
The primary insight of Panim Hadashot is that that the rabbi ought to go to the Jews and not wait for the Jews to come to the rabbi. The first change I made was the context in which the rabbi works: the rabbi had to get beyond the synagogue walls.
My main work finds me in many different homes and contexts sharing Shabbat experiences and feasts. I lead or co-lead Shabbat seders or Shabbat learning sessions all over Seattle. The change of role of the rabbi comes along with changing the context of rabbinic work.
Some of the rabbinic work I do in Panim Hadashot is to serve Jews by being what I call a 'Shabbat animator.' I come into homes and sit around a table with family, friends, and new faces to share what Shabbat can be. An animator is someone who connects and binds people together through common values or practices.
Combined with my rabbinic learning and my background as a Camp Ramah counselor, I educate 'informally.' I work in the context of celebration and occasions for fellowship to introduce Jewish behavior, texts, song, food, and Jewish values.
Another dimension of this new role is coaching. Judaism is not a religion of spiritual specialists, but is built on the foundation of a community of shared practice. Rabbinic coaching is the skillful teaching and modeling of practices to other Jews as individuals, families, or groups who can take on the practice meaningfully for themselves.
A third distinct focus of this work is spiritual and ethical mentoring. It is closely related to coaching but is a form of rabbinic teaching that pays attention to kavanah ' intention, or the inner life. While mentoring is a feature of all forms of rabbinic work, it takes a greater role when a rabbi is engaged in outreach and working outside of traditional structures.
A lot of Jews find it difficult to connect their inner lives and issues with the Jewish institutions they belong to. A rabbi outside of those structures can help people to better navigate their way into Jewish communal life and gain access to those parts of tradition that may speak to their lives and challenges.
All of these roles refocus the rabbi as a teacher. Into all of these settings I weave texts, teachings, behaviors, practices and wisdom to move people toward integrating their secular lives and their Jewish aspirations. All rabbis teach, but the role of the rabbi affects the nature of the teaching. A rabbi who 'animates' teaches very differently than one who 'preaches.' A rabbi who teaches in homes teaches very differently than one who teaches from a study or from a pulpit.
Max Bialystock, the crazed producer in The Producers sings:
'Did I mention I'm betrayed?
I used to be the king
But now I am the fool
A captain without a ship
A rabbi without a shul!'
Even the popular culture portrays rabbis in very rigid, albeit humorous, ways. I am suggesting that our community consider and support new and different ways for rabbis to teach and transmit Torah and Judaism. Contemporary Judaism needs great teaching and committed effort from rabbis to reach far beyond the committed core and to make Judaism relevant and a force for good in our lives and in the difficult times we live in.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg is founder and rabbi of Panim Hadashot ' New Faces of Judaism. You can learn more about his work at http://www.panimhadashot.com.