How I became a rabbi is easy to describe: I went to undergraduate school and rabbinic school; spent the requisite number of hours studying, writing papers and preparing for exams; and had a student pulpit for three years of “hands-on training.” But why I became a rabbi is something altogether different.
Growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., my family was involved with two different synagogues: a classic Reform congregation (with the biggest pipe organ in central New York and a professional non-Jewish choir) and an Orthodox congregation (where I sometimes ran between the upstairs and the downstairs). Interestingly, as I look back, as different as these two congregations may have been in form and function, at the time, I saw no difference between them … each experience was important to the other.
I do not remember when I thought about the rabbinate in any sort of existential manner. It was always just part of me. I do, however, recall the moment when I got serious: I was in high school and was called to a meeting at the local Jewish Community Center. The meeting was in a small room and most of us ended up sitting on the floor. In walked “the three rabbis” (Reform, Conservative and Orthodox), two of whom I knew somewhat personally. They asked one question: “What can we do for you?” I was completely overwhelmed. They cared about us? They were interested and invested in our Jewish identity? If we mattered that much to them, then maybe I should take a closer look at what really mattered to me. My college applications followed shortly thereafter with the intention of becoming a rabbi.
Now, as I look back, having served as a rabbi for more years than not, I am amazed at the way things have changed. The role of “the rabbi” is very different. The expectations are much more varied and vague, and we are no longer looked upon as the leaders or “exemplars” that we once were. However, though the role has changed, the challenges, excitement and inspiration have not. In some ways, because there have been so many changes I find myself even that much more impassioned to pursue this “calling,” wanting to be like any one of the rabbis who called us to that meeting so many years ago.
That there are moments when I wonder just what it is I am doing, and why, cannot be denied. It is especially challenging and hurtful when I realize that I did not live up to the expectations placed on me, though those expectations are always front and center. There are also moments that make all the others worth it. When I see that someone has increased their level of observance, or found a little more peace, all the other days seem a little brighter.
And yet, I know that I am very much an “antediluvian dinosaur” — the world is moving much faster than I am. I am tied to values that do not seem to be shared by the emerging powers, especially in the Jewish “community.” That is very frightening, and makes me concerned for the next generations of Jews.
However, what has already been is the best predictor of the future. And I am sure that time will prove that the best picture of where we should be going needs to be a reflection of from where we have come. The values of Torah, sacred service (worship) and peoplehood will prevail because they are intertwined — each important to the other. They are the only things that will ensure our survival.
Nu? Ma’ee nafka m’na. Who cares? My “story” leaves me with an important lesson, which can be summed up in two different sayings:
1) Our values are not what we say we believe, they are what we do.
2) Everything works out in the end … if things haven’t worked out, it is not the end, and we have a little more work to do.
Now I’m going to search through the cable box for a rerun of “This Old House.” I find that show fascinating, inspirational and very rabbinic. It is fascinating and inspirational because it shows what can be done when one has the determination to get it done. It is rabbinic because it reminds us of how anything can be made anew — restored to its former (or even greater!) luster. I will watch the show, but I will also be reminded that I am not allowed to start any home renovation project unless there is enough time left in the day to make at least six trips to Home Depot!
Rabbi Robert Eisen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Anshei Israel.