This middle of May I marked five years since being ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. In those five years I have held approximately 2.86 jobs: I was the full time Assistant Director at Camp Ramah in New England, while at the same time I worked as the part time rabbi-in-residence for the Student Conservative Rabbi at Harvard Hillel, while also teaching two classes at the South Area Schechter Day School. I am currently the Chief Conservative Rabbi of the State of Louisiana. In addition, I teach the Florence Melton Mini-School and I teach the Introduction to the Hebrew Bible at Tulane University. I figure that’s about 2.86 jobs, but the numbers are flexible. What’s interesting is that, as I look back at that short but sort of packed resume, I notice that I have been involved, since graduation, in just about every major area of Jewish education: camp, synagogue, school, Hillel, and formal adult education. I seem to be some sort of Jewish Education Hero.
Seriously (that hero thing is a joke, in case that didn’t come across in the reading) I thought that five years out was a good chance to reflect on what I learned in the Seminary, or at the very least what I took out of the seminary, and how that experience has influenced my ability to be successful in the various aspects of my rabbinate, or has led me to stumble in my attempts for success. First, I will give away the ending: I have generally felt that my time at JTS has served me extremely well in the various roles I have taken in the past five years. I guess if you want to stop reading now, you can. (Or, if you work for JTS Admissions, you can just excerpt that line for your brochure, and move on.)
First and foremost, there is this: JTS gave me the skills and the desire to read and engage with the traditional texts of the Jewish canon. The skills were hard in coming: I arrived at JTS (in the summer of 2000, if you can believe that) with very little in the way of basic skills. My Hebrew was “not impressive” (as one of deans who saw my Hebrew entrance exam put it to me less-than-delicately) and I had literally never seen a page of Talmud among many, many other things that I had never seen. (My first day of Talmud class the professor asked up to open to daf such-and-such, and I couldn’t, because I didn’t know that Hebrew letters were also used as numbers.) Over the next seven (!) years, I slowly and at times painfully acquired the skills I did not have. But the skills were really just a tiny part of JTS’ success, at least in my case. What I appreciate much more is that the atmosphere at JTS gave me the desire to engage with those texts, to see them as living documents, vital for the Jewish future (not just for the study of the Jewish past) and therefore worthy of study. When I think about what I enjoy most in my rabbinate, in all of my various roles, what I keep coming back to is preparing and (sometimes) successfully executing a text-based class. I love the moment (which only happen occasionally) when you read a line of text in a class from the Mishnah, or the Talmud, or RAMBAM, or RASHI and there’s just that hum in the room, or the little intake of break, or the murmur of assent or recognition: these texts can speak to us. They are hundreds, thousands of years old, and they are written in vastly different times and places, and all by men, and yet. And yet. They can reach us across those barriers. These texts have something important to say. Every once in awhile, I am lucky enough to facilitate one of those moments. There is nothing better. I love traditional Jewish texts, I love teaching traditional Jewish texts, and I cannot imagine my rabbinate without them. JTS gave me that, and for that gift, I am eternally grateful.
On the other hand: I have virtually no idea what a successful rabbinate should look like for a Conservative Rabbi in the early part of the twenty-first century. This uncertainty forms a part of every day of my working life (and I work weekends, so that’s every day) and I have no good tools by which to resolve this core instability. I simply do not know if I am successful or not. I don’t mean this as false modesty: I know I can deliver a reasonably good sermon, I know I am not terrible in pastoral moments, and I know (as I said) that I can teach a good class, at least sometimes. This is not about the tactical successes of the rabbinate; this is a question of grand strategy. What am I trying to accomplish? How will I know if I am succeeding in longer-term, longer-lasting goals? What are those goals? When we learned “practical skills” at JTS (things like homiletics, working with boards, reading a budget etc.) the focus was always on what I think of as tactics: being a good speaker, successful non-profit manager, or being able to provide pastoral care. I do not mean to denigrate these things, they are important. But are they the goal? What am I after in my life as a rabbi? This question has plagued me in all of my 2.86 jobs, and I do not feel that JTS was serious enough about this starting this conversation with me while I was in school. Of course I want to be good at the things that make a pulpit rabbi successful, but more than that, I want to understand what the definition of success should be. Not being fired? Being “liked” or “respected”? Being named the Top Fifty Rabbis in America list? Becoming the head rabbi of a humongous synagogue, or the Executive Director of some major organization? I think this is a discussion that could have fruitfully begun while I was still a student, still surrounded by colleagues and friends who were heading out into the world. Once the job(s) start(s) it is very hard to take time to think about such questions, and yet these are precisely the questions that keep me up at night. Beyond the tactics, do I have a strategy? I don’t expect that JTS can answer all those questions for me, but I would have liked a chance to ask them, to think them through, and to wonder if such questions can even be meaningfully answered. If they can’t, I would have liked to know that (or at least had a sense of that) before I went out into the world. On the days when I am not sure I having any success at all, it would be nice to know what others have done with those concerns, how they overcame them, or what happened if they could not. I know that when JTS talks about practical skills, this isn’t what they mean, but, five years out, I find I really could have used some help in this answering this most practical of questions: how can I know if I am doing any good at all?