My daughter, this morning, asked if I now regret leaving my pulpit of 17 years. I left a comfortable position to try leading different congregations and to return to school to learn new skills to improve my abilities. Instead of looking forward to a 25th anniversary of my work, I chose to take on new pulpits and face new challenges. It has been difficult at times and so my daughter wondered if I considered the decision made seven years ago a mistake.
I left my pulpit in 2007 not because I had to. In fact, there were some members who were angry that I was leaving. I left a community that had been very good to me, a professional staff that worked together well and I left my own personal comfort zone because I felt that something was missing; that the world was changing and I did not understand what was happening. I thought that a different congregation would offer more opportunities to discover myself and what was changing in the Jewish world. I did not know that I would be facing an economic downturn and seven years of rabbinic upheaval. It has not been an easy time and I am thankful for the many colleagues and friends who have supported me through the past years.
But I have no regrets. In spite of the challenges, I found what I was searching for. I have seen congregations from new and different perspectives. I am no longer the kind of rabbi I once was. I can’t do “typical Conservative services” anymore. I don’t see congregations the way I was once trained to see them (and now they train new colleagues differently than the way we were once trained). What the Jewish community needs is not more of the same, but a new approach to understanding our faith. From my time of searching, I have matured in my leadership in ways I had never considered before my wanderings.
The first thing I have learned is that Conservative services are in fact changing. There are rabbis and cantors who are still invested in the old style, but there are also colleagues who are making prayer more meaningful and less boring. I know that when a congregation says that services are too long, it means they are not being engaged in the process of prayer; that Jews want to feel that they are a part of prayer and not just spectators. This is not a change rabbis should fear but one we should embrace.
I have learned that the number of people who attend a service is not as important as the number of people who are involved in the service. A small room, with movable chairs, a low or entirely missing bima, no formal lectern and a mediocre sound system can be a more inspiring service than one in a suburban “cathedral”. Anyplace where Jews come to be fully engaged, heart, soul and body is a successful community.
I have learned that I am a better rabbi when I am a teacher. There are some who would like me to tell them how to do everything in life, but then they go home and forget everything I said in my sermon. The real work of a rabbi is teaching the congregation how to lead the service without you; congregants can teach a lesson, explain the Torah reading and chant the service without professional help. What they want is to do these things themselves and to do them exceptionally well. They want me/they need me to teach them how to do these things better. My “ego” is stroked when my students do a good job, not when I “do” a good service. They don’t need me to call the page numbers or to tell them to sit down or stand up.
I have learned that the best place for a rabbi sometimes is not out front but at the door, welcoming new faces and old alike. In the same way I meet my personal guests at the door of my home, I should meet those who are coming to synagogue at the door and welcome them in. And not just the adults; I leaned to greet the children when they arrive to school during the week. I learned to get down on my knees and greet even the pre-school children when they come for their Shabbat service on Friday. Everyone needs to know that they are welcome here.
I have learned that synagogues are imposing buildings and sometimes strangers literally can’t find the door to come in. They don’t know where to park a car. They can’t find the main entrance. They can’t find the office entrance. They can’t find the Rabbi’s office. They don’t know where the daily minyan meets and the special door they often use when the building is closed. Even when they are inside they don’t know their way around and feel very lost. How can they discover their Judaism if they can’t find their way around the building?
I have learned that synagogues have lost their way as an organization. So many synagogue board members think of themselves as fundraising associations and have forgotten why they are raising the money. I have learned to get up each morning and consider how I will change the world and I don’t think about how I will pay for it until after breakfast. Synagogues need to be mission first. We need to envision all we can be and then figure out how to pay for it. We can’t raise money and then later decide how we will spend it. We don’t think of our family finances this way, why should we think of synagogue finances this way.
I have learned that in Judaism as in life, “one size does not fit all”. When we have different models of services and service to the community, we engage more people in all that we do. What is important is to catch a man or woman with a hot idea and be able to give them the chance to use synagogue resources to make a difference in the community. This is how a shul can connect a family for a lifetime; by helping them live their dreams. Not a dream of all the things they want, but a dream of how they can help others. When we help people find meaning in their lives, we make the synagogue a meaningful institution.
Finally, I learned that Judaism has been around for a long time. It has seen many different styles and configurations but it keeps coming back to the basics. Synagogues are about Torah (learning), Avoda (praying) and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of kindness and compassion); everything else is extra. History’s dustbin is filled with those who thought that it should be different. The changes in life are in how we approach learning, how we join together in prayer and how we serve others in need. Successful rabbis and synagogues never forget the fundamentals.
My life did not stop when I left my pulpit of 17 years. I have grown and changed over the years and I am a better Rabbi for all of it. Would I like to find a home, a synagogue and a community to spend the next 20 years and beyond? Sure! And I have faith that God will get me there at a time when I can do the most good; for my community, for the Jewish People and for God.