Reflections on 25 Years in the Rabbinate

Last Thursday, I had the honour of receiving my Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, from my alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

HUC invites its graduates to apply for this honour on the 25th anniversary of their ordination or graduation from their graduate programs.

I wasn’t expecting to feel so incredibly moved and touched by having this honorary degree bestowed upon me.

However, my colleagues – the rabbis and cantors – who were receiving this degree with me, spent the day together, studying, reflecting and sharing our experiences from the past 25 years. We continued our celebratory day by eating a festive lunch together, reminiscing, taking photos and catching up. We were then joined by our family and friends for the actual ceremony and the conferring of the degrees. It was a very moving, joyous and wonderful event indeed.

We began in the late morning with a study session on the bima in the grand sanctuary of Temple Emanuel (New York City) led by HUC-JIR President, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D

Sanctuary of Temple Emanuel, New York City
Sanctuary of Temple Emanuel, New York City

We sat in a circle and studied a text from the Talmud about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who founded the great rabbincal academy at Yavneh immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. The text discussed his characteristics as a “rabbi”: he was always first to open the building and last to close. He never took time for himself to rest or for personal time. His community was always his first priority – above and beyond all else.

We discussed this model of rabbinic leadership. Was this a realistic model? Were we supposed to sublimate ourselves to the exclusion of all else for the sake of our communities? Is that a healthy rabbinic/cantorial model? Did Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai make any time for himself? For his family?

We all acknowledged that engaging in Jewish communal work as a professional entails more than working “9-5”. For many of us, we strive to find the perfect balance between the ideal “model” of rabbinic/cantorial/Jewish professional and making time for a satisfying personal life. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be able to take care of others, to be “fully present” for each and every member of our communities when it is most important.

Each of us then had the opportunity to reflect on our own experiences from the past 25 years. Some of us have remained close over the years, some of us have not seen each other since we were ordained.

Our colleagues and friends are living and working in very diverse environments from as far away as Israel, Australia, Canada and all across the United States. We practice in large congregations, small congregations and not-for-profit organizations. Some have even retired. Like our congregants, we too have experienced the joys and sorrows of all that life offers during these past two-and-a-half decades. Our hearts have filled with joy watching our children grow and blossom; we have felt the pain of divorce, the heartache of illness and death. For some of us, our professional journeys have always been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. For others, there have been challenges and frustrations that have made the journey more arduous.

Through it all, each of us is grounded in the desire to serve the Jewish people. Our commitment and love of our Jewish heritage compels us to continue along this path we began so long ago.

For the past 25 years, each of us has done so with full hearts, open spirits and to the very best of our abilities.

As Rabbi Panken reminded us, we have earned our Doctor of Divinity degrees through our years of dedicated and unstinting service.

I was more moved than one can possibly imagine.

I feel so privileged and honored to be partners with a community where I can celebrate the cycles of life, the festivals of our Jewish year and elevate the everyday ordinary moments and help imbue them with a sense of holiness. To me, my 25 years in the rabbinate have been a wonderful gift and a great blessing.

It was so special to celebrate the day with Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, Professor of Philosophy (and pre-eminent Reform philosopher of our time) who taught both my father, Rabbi Richard J. Sobel, z”l (HUC-JIR, NY ’66) while he was in rabbinical school and then me, two decades later:

Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz and me
Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz and me

And it was so wonderful to be sharing that special moment with my friends and classmates who started this journey with me 30 years ago.

I look forward to the next phase of this sacred journey!

My Doctor of Divinity, Honoris, Causa, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
My Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Accompanying Others on Their Sacred Journeys-The Life of a Rabbi

Birth is a beginning, 

And death a destination;

But life is a journey,

A going – a growing

From stage to stage. (by Alvin Fine)

“Death is a destination….” My text message ‘pinged’ at 2:30 am: “I just received a call from hospice that mother has passed.” I quickly woke up. If my friend and congregant was sending me a text at 2:30 am, it was ok to phone her back right away.

J’s mother was 97 years old. She had lived a long life. J was an only child and now it was up to her and her husband to make all the arrangements. We talked about what she wanted and needed to do. And we made plans to get together the next day.

Hands from a well-lived life.
Hands from a well-lived life.

The funeral was a graveside service with only family and close friends present. But the shiva was filled with family, friends and so many loved ones who came to support J, to share memories, stories and offer condolences. The house was filled to overflowing until almost 1:00 am.

It was truly a cathartic process for J, who felt embraced, strengthened and loved by her community and family.

“Birth is a beginning…” While I was planning the funeral for J’s mother, my good friends were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their baby who was one week overdue. He finally made his appearance as his friends and family rejoiced from around the world!

New mom, new dad and new baby feet. (Photo credit: G. Carimi).
New mom, new dad and new baby feet. (Photo credit: G. Carimi).

I was invited to officiate at his “Naming Ceremony” to be held at his grandparent’s home in Madison, Wisconsin (I am also friends with the baby’s grandparents). The family’s cantor, who officiated at the new dad’s Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation and I – who am the new dad’s first rabbi as an adult – were to co-officiate together. The baby’s aunt participated in the ceremony from Israel via Skype.

One day after the Shiva for J’s mother, I drove to Madison and we welcomed baby A into the Covenant of the Jewish people. His parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and aunt promised to love and nurture him and raise him in the traditions of our people. They wished him a life of Torah (learning), Chuppah (loving relationships) and Ma’asim Tovim (deeds of lovingkindness) as we bestowed upon him his Hebrew name, surrounded by friends, family and community from near and far.

From childhood to maturity

And youth to age.

From innocence to

awareness

And ignorance to knowing;

From foolishness to discretion

And then perhaps to wisdom.

From weakness to

strength

Or strength to

weakness –

And, often, back again.

From health to sickness

And back, we pray, to health again. (Alvin Fine)

“From health to sickness…” My text message ‘pinged’ again in the middle of the night at 1:41 am in between the death of J’s mother and the birth of G’s baby boy. “I have sad news to tell you. My mother-in-law had a stroke and then was quickly diagnosed with leukaemia. That’s not the worst part. She has bleeding in the brain and they don’t know if they can save her.”

 ….”and back, we pray, to health again.” The family didn’t want me to visit, because as she became lucid, they thought it would scare her if she saw me – her rabbi – at the hospital. She didn’t know how bad it was. She has now – thankfully – turned a corner and the worst is over. They are thinking that she will get through the immediate crisis. I am staying in touch several times a day by text and phone. As soon as the family is ready, I will visit. (I also have bronchitis, so a hospital visit at this time is not advisable).

..Life is a journey

A sacred pilgrimage 

Made stage by stage

From birth to death

to life everlasting. (Alvin Fine)

Such is the life of a rabbi. As each of us makes our own journey along the path of life, our Jewish tradition teaches us that it is our obligation to be present for each other on this journey: supporting each other, guiding each other and caring for each other.

My many years of rabbinical experience have taught me that the greatest privilege and weightiest challenges of the rabbinate are multifold: to help every individual find meaning and comfort at times of joy and sadness, to enable people to find a sense of k’dusha ­– the sacred – in the everyday, ordinary acts in which we participate, and finally to work to make our synagogues places of meaning, connection and purpose. It has always been my hope that I can point to the sacred potential in each moment that we experience along our life’s journey.

Whenever I visit a patient in a hospital, help parents welcome a new child into our Jewish tradition, connect with our Jewish youth and engage them in words of Torah, share in the joy of a wedding and hold the hand of someone who has suffered a loss – I am affirming why I chose to become a rabbi.

Life is a journey

A sacred pilgrimage