Way back in my early days as a rabbi, I wrote that the essence of my work is to be a fellow traveler on a shared journey. I’ve always believed that the secret to a long and fruitful relationship between clergy and congregation comes down to the authenticity that allows everyone to share passions, fears and hopes, shake off pretense and just be human together. Over the past 35 years, I think we’ve accomplished that – and a whole lot more.
But co-travelers on an extended spiritual journey must deal with forks in the road, and we are approaching one. When my current contract with Temple Beth El reaches its conclusion on June 30, 2024, I will transition to Rabbi Emeritus. When that happens, I’ll have served the congregation for longer than any active clergy in Beth El’s storied history. It is a standard for all of us to be proud of, especially at a time when such longevity is almost unheard of in American pulpit life. This stability has enabled us to forge multi-generational ties, and I cannot even begin to tell you what a blessing that has been for me, as well as for my family. So much love has been shared as the years have flown by, and there are so many cherished memories. I will forever be grateful for the richness you’ve added to my life.
An announcement nearly two years in advance might seem like a lot of notice, but these 650 days will give us all ample time to chart the future, and for me, a chance to explore new ways to make a difference as I move to the next chapter.
For me, the timing is perfect. Many of you know that my father’s sudden passing at age 60 has always weighed heavily on me; it denied him and my mother the chance to enjoy a well-deserved break from the 24/7 pressures of the cantorate and savor their Golden Years together. As I reach the age of 67 in 2024, this transition will enable me to recalibrate that fragile balance between work, family, and health while I’m (hopefully) still able to enjoy them all. That need for balance was driven home by the challenges of the Covid era, which has been very draining, particularly for clergy. We’ve done incredible things here at TBE during this period (I consider the first several months of the pandemic to have been, in some ways, our “finest hour”), but an endless pandemic is not something I signed up for when I entered the rabbinate. This corrosive plague has infected our society in ways that go far beyond our immune systems. But with the congregation having emerged from this maelstrom in surprisingly good shape, in large part because of the stability of having a long-term rabbi, this would seem like an ideal time to pass the baton and initiate a transition.
The role of “Rabbi Emeritus” is very different from what in other professions might be considered retirement. There is no parallel in corporate, professional, or academic life, especially for a relationship that has endured this long. It is not at all analogous to corporate severance. Severance comes from “to sever.” Emeritus, for clergy, is quite the opposite. In fact, the Hebrew title for a “Rabbi Emeritus” is…wait for it…. “Rabbi.” There is no Hebrew equivalent for “emeritus,” nor is there one for “retired rabbi.” The relationship is simply being redefined, and in some ways even enhanced. Not severed.
The leadership and I have spent many months envisioning what the years (and God-willing, decades) following June 2024 will mean for us. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent that wheel. Rabbi Goldman z’l remained an active presence in the lives of congregants long after stepping back as Senior Rabbi, and Hazzan Emeritus Rabinowitz continues to inspire and support congregants in countless ways, electronically, in print, and in person. They’ve fulfilled our need for personal grounding and historical continuity and have provided a blueprint for us to follow.
The two most important elements of my emeritus arrangement are that 1) I’ll work tirelessly to ensure a smooth transition and will gladly offer assistance to my successor or successors; and 2) I will continue to be available to families who seek my involvement, including participation at lifecycle events. I don’t yet know where we will be living – Mara and I will be vacating the parsonage – but wherever it is, I’ll be only an e-mail away and I’ll still have an office in the temple.
For now, our journey together continues, as it has for the past three and a half decades. These are tempestuous times, far too consequential for any of us to glide to the finish line during these next 650 days. The urgency of this moment in history compels us to redouble our efforts to repair our shattered world. I, for one, will never back away from that task.
Undoubtedly, this announcement will add an additional degree of uncertainty to an already-disquieting time. But together, we can work through a period that will be both challenging and exciting. Which is why it is so incumbent upon us all to continue to focus on refining our vision, and what we can do for the betterment of our congregation, the Jewish people and the world.
My best wishes for a sweet 5783!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
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