A Rabbi? Who would want to do THAT?

My grandfather, of blessed memory, used to tell me about conversations he had with his dental patients concerning my plans to become a rabbi.  The reaction from his Christian patients was invariably, “How wonderful!”  The typical response from Jewish patients was, “Why would he ever want to do that?”

I wish I could go back and speak to those who wanted to know why I would ever want to do “that.” Now in my fourth decade in the rabbinate, there are so many answers I could give, so many ways in which this sacred calling has brought me more meaning, satisfaction, sense of higher purpose and deeper joy than I ever could have imagined.

In the beginning…
Looking back, there were a number of factors in my early years which generated my life’s passion for Judaism and community service and which shaped my rabbinate.  The death of my parents when I was a young child and my upbringing in the home of my grandparents were the most definitive experiences of my life. My brother and I were raised as fifth generation members of Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul. Ours was a synagogue-centered, community-service oriented life. We had close ties with the rabbis which included W. Gunther Plaut, Bernard Martin, Frederick Schwartz, James Michaels and Leigh Lerner. Each of them in some way helped create a strong foundation for my rabbinate, as did so many others whose paths I crossed through the years.

In the beginning, God…
As a Jew, I am on a journey to and with God; and as a rabbi, I am blessed with opportunities to share that journey with others as they share their journeys, their doubts and their challenges with me. For me, God is real. I find intimations of a loving transcendent Reality in the pull of a moral matrix which orients those who would so align themselves. I sense divinity in the energy that sustains the relationships which create worlds on the cosmic, subatomic, genetic and interpersonal levels. I hear the sacred Power of Life in the voice of the angels which bid each blade of grass to grow. That unifying Reality has many names, the most essential of which cannot be uttered, only breathed.

Eitz chayim he – Torah is an ever-growing tree of life…
At the core of Jewish living is Torah. Torah and life are inseparable. I view Torah as the Jewish People’s cumulative response to the questions posed by life’s mysteries: “Who am I? Who are we? What is the transcendent “big picture” and what is my place and purpose in it? Does something of me remain after I die?” And beyond these universal human questions, the particular and essential Jewish question asked in every age has been: “How do we live together in the presence of a Creator who calls us to justice, righteousness and holiness?” Through the centuries, Jews have offered and lived multiple and often conflicting responses. As a rabbi, I have tools which enable me to mine and share the richness of these responses and which guide me as I empower Jews of each generation to offer and live responses of their own. Whether on the pulpit, in the classroom, under a chuppah, in my office, sitting against a tree at camp, or playing soccer on the National Mall with a Confirmation class, I try to honor each opportunity to bring Torah to life.

The synagogue is the heart of the Jewish People…
The central institution of the Jewish people through which Judaism has been taught, lived and meaningfully perpetuated is the synagogue. As a rabbi, I have had the opportunity to realize a vision of what a synagogue community could and should be: an extended family devoted to learning and living Torah, nourishing the soul, pursuing tikkun olam (social justice and interpersonal righteousness) and celebrating in the midst of a diverse, welcoming and non-judgmental community. Such an institution adds meaning and joy to Jewish persons, strength to the Jewish People, and satisfaction to the Holy One of Being.  I have shared this vision in a way which has inspired many to want to be a part of it and support it spiritually and financially.

Serve Adonai in gladness, come before God in joyous song!
For me, worship provides opportunities to create a sacred community of seekers, aware of their connection with each other, with the tradition, wisdom and spirituality of Judaism, and with the transcendent Presence around, within and between. Those connections are best made when both left and right brains are engaged. The right brain yearns for joy and uplift; the left brain seeks depth, thoughtfulness and challenge. Both feel affirmed in community.  Joy and inspiration are best experienced through music, both “passive” and “participatory.”  Having grown up playing Sulzer and Lewandowski on the piano while being a high school friend of and early advocate for Debbie Friedman, my tastes in Jewish liturgical music embrace the rich spectrum of its many expressions. Depth and challenge are presented through the written and spoken word. My sermons are designed to connect the wisdom of our heritage with the real lives of those before me, providing Jewish answers to human questions. The writing of sermons is an art form, crafted with the tools of study, reflection, experience, creativity and humor.

Healing the broken-hearted and binding their wounds…
Having lost both of my parents to cancer before I was five years old, I have had a heightened sensitivity to persons facing illness and death, especially, but not exclusively, children. I see the act of bringing personal rabbinic presence to the bedside of the ill or to the living room of the bereaved as one of my most sacred privileges. Embodying God’s love and compassion in such settings provides one of the most potent opportunities to make a positive difference in people’s lives in the times of their greatest needs. Listening deeply to what people say and what they communicate without words allows me to craft eulogies which put the life of their dear one in a frame of understanding, compassion and meaning. Not infrequently has counselling combined with eulogy opened the door of healing for emotional wounds left by a less than positive relationship between the mourner and the mourned. For this reason, I always prepare a text of the eulogies I write, given that families often request a copy as a keepsake and to send to those not able to attend the funeral.

Do not separate yourself from the community…
I am deeply passionate about my work in the Jewish community and the community at large.  We heal more of the world’s brokenness when we join together. But beyond that, as a Jew and a rabbi, I am keenly aware that I represent my synagogue in the Jewish community and represent the Jewish community and the values of Judaism within the wider world. I take the responsibility as “symbolic exemplar” most seriously.  The rabbinate privileges me with opportunities to bring people together, to help them understand issues in light of the Jewish tradition, and to speak out with a rabbinic voice, advocating for justice, for compassion, for accountability, for Israel, and for love and reconciliation. I believe I am able to speak with moral conviction and credibility, not because the title of rabbi bestows it, but because the position allows and continually challenges me to earn it. My interfaith and inter-racial work has brought me great meaning and satisfaction through the years, as well as some of my dearest friends.

My Heart is in the East
Israel occupies a very special place in my heart. One of my most transformative experiences was the year in which I spent at the Hebrew University. It was the year of the Yom Kippur War. As part of an entertainment group, I spent time with members of the IDF in their training camps, in just about every hospital in the state, and, in the immediate aftermath of the war, in their outposts across the Sinai. I also spent time with the wives and children left behind. This experience seared into me an abiding love for the land, language, and especially the people of Israel and a commitment to the wellbeing of the Jewish state and ALL who live there. My vision for a Jewish, democratic and pluralistic state has been expressed through my labor within the CCAR where I had the privilege to give voice to our collective rabbinic commitment to Israel and to the Israeli Progressive Movement. From the pulpit, I have been an advocate for Israel, but not uncritically. I have tried to share both the Jewish and Palestinian narratives, each containing important elements of the truth, neither having a monopoly on it. In my eyes, the stance vis-à-vis Israel which I find must disturbing is indifference. I encourage my congregation to learn about Israel, visit Israel, and to support those causes whose vision of Israel and the pursuit of peace most align with theirs.

The end of the matter…
My core belief is that we are here to serve God by serving others. As a rabbi, I am blessed to serve individuals and families during the happiest of times and the most tragic of moments in a role available to no other professional or friend. Being totally present, I have an opportunity to touch the tzelem Elohim, the Godliness of each person, to frame her joys Jewishly, to soften his sorrows compassionately, and, with the wisdom of Torah, human understanding, and experience, to lend meaning, depth, healing and hope to life’s many journeys. In each of these encounters, I get a glimpse, if but for a moment, of why I am here.

So I ask you, dear reader, who would not want to do that?

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