Sunday, March 30, 2008

Full Circle, Halfway Home

The Jewish Week, November 1, 2002

I was walking on the Upper West Side just before Rosh Hashanah, reflecting on the fast-approaching midpoint of my career -- twenty years out of rabbinical school twenty years to retirement -- when I called to check my voice mail back in Stamford. There was a message from an old friend, the storyteller Peninnah Schram. So here I was, likely standing within shouting distance of Peninnah’s home, retrieving a message that she had called into my office 40 miles away.

Just as her phone message had come full circle, so had everything else: When I arrived in Stamford a decade and a half ago, I invited Peninnah to my congregation’s first weekend retreat. And these many years later, I can still recall listening to her magical tales through that lazy Shabbat afternoon, all the way to Havdalah.

So I called her back and Peninnah had an unusual request. Her son Mordechai had just taken on his first cantorial position and that day had performed his first funeral, a particularly difficult one. She wanted to lend him some support and asked if I might mail her a copy of an article called “A Young Rabbi” that I had written eons ago, shortly after I did my first funeral. Peninnah had shared it with friends over the years and hoped it might help Mordechai too. Prompted by this call out of the blue from an old friend, I was compelled to re-read the piece for the first time in years, and to re-discover my own words and feelings across a bridge spanning half a career.

“It is sad that so many Jewish communities seem to insist that their rabbis shed their youthful innocence as quickly as possible, not understanding that, once that innocence is lost, the childlike sense of wonder and basic human empathy so essential to the job are also left behind…Perhaps early career burnout would be less of a problem among rabbis – and other professionals – if they didn’t feel compelled to spend the first half of their careers trying to look older and the second half striving to regain the vitality of lost youth.”

I sent the article off to Peninnah, who had been by my side at the dawn of my career in Stamford, whose father, like mine, was a cantor; to give to her son, who is at the dawn of his career in New York and who is a cantor, in fact, on the Upper West Side, just a stone’s throw from where I happened to be when I was retrieving his mother’s message, and who in fact now occupies the pulpit of the West End Synagogue, which happened to have been vacated by the fabulous new cantor of my own congregation, Deborah Jacobson, who is now sparking a renaissance here, at the dawn of the Stamford portion of her career.

Got all that down?

Suddenly, this all was beginning to sound like a Peninnah Schram story, one of those heartwarming folk tales of simpler times, where everything seems to come full circle and, in the end, all the loose strands get neatly tied into a happily-ever-after bow.

For mid-career rabbis, things are typically much more complicated.

Much has been made recently of the difficulties of rabbinic life, most notably in the book, “The New Rabbi,” where journalist Stephen Fried highlights these complexities in discussing a rabbinic search process at a distinguished Philadelphia congregation. Beneath the book’s penetrating analysis and on-the-mark humor lurks a dark, unavoidable subtext: the American rabbinate is facing a crisis of morale matched only by the crisis of vision confronting many congregations. This congregation fails in its search because it has no idea where it wants to go. Consequently, the rabbi they are looking for isn’t so much a human being as a shredded fruit salad of contradictory skills and inflated expectations. There is no “happily ever after” in this searing expose.

A telling scene in the book has the author eavesdropping on an older couple conversing about their rabbis in the row behind him at a Shabbat service.

“I don’t like (Rabbi X).” “He’s too…well, something…”

“I like (Rabbi Y),” “He’s nice, friendly.”

“I don’t like him either. He’s too friendly. I don’t want a rabbi who’s friendly.”

That brief snippet points out the ludicrous state of affairs. Rabbis are expected to be: mature yet youthful, serious yet funny, principled yet conciliatory, sophisticated yet homespun, friendly yet firm, 24/7. It is not without reason that Fried’s research led him to the conclusion that the rabbinate (and not the American presidency) is the toughest job in the world. And no wonder, as Rabbi David Wolpe says in Fried’s book, “Vulnerable people in the rabbinate have a tough time.” The more human you are, the more exposed, the less chance you have of making it as a rabbi. If that is true, American Judaism is headed for disaster.

Until we turn to a new model of spiritual leadership, one that champions the idea of the rabbi as a vulnerable, striving-yet-imperfect human being, rabbis and congregations will continue to burn out prematurely. Peninnah’s request reminded me that life’s trajectory can be a thrilling ride, if we greet each day with fresh eyes. In Deuteronomy 26:16, it says, “The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules, and to observe them faithfully…” Rashi asks why it says “this day?” Why not every day? The commentator’s response: Every day, every time one fulfills a mitzvah, it should feel as if it is the first.

In several weeks my congregants and I will host Peninnah Schram once again, completing yet another circle, at what has now become our annual Shabbaton. And I’ll echo the prayers of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav:

“Teach me, Dear God, to make a fresh start; to break yesterday’s patterns; to stop telling myself I can’t – when I can; I’m not – when I am; and I’m stuck – when I’m eminently free.”

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