Unexpected Detours: The Rabbinic Career Path

Mar 28, 2013 by

One morning a few weeks ago, orange detour signs appeared on both ends of my street, making it a challenge to get to  my office.  Road closed – detour, they say, local traffic only.  This is going to be a pain, I thought, when I first saw the signs. I didn’t realize how fascinating it would become. I didn’t realize how much I would learn from the response of patients coming to my office A few people reported inching around the detour sign in hopes that they could get through to my office. One person gave up in advance and parked on a side street.  Another person called in a panic, announcing that she would not be returning for future appointments until the detour cleared.  A few people called in advance to find out whether it would be possible to get through.

Everyone reacted in character, I realized.  It was such a graphic example of how we respond to unanticipated obstacles.  Do we forge ahead? Do we skirt around? Do we avoid?  Do we become paralyzed?  I was reminded of the Midrashic rendition of the groups of fleeing Israelites when they arrived at the Red Sea.  Who wanted to return to Egypt? Who wanted to turn around and fight the Egyptians?  Who wanted to run off to a certain death in the desert? Who wanted to dive in? Like the Jewish people, we have all learned different ways, some healthy and some not, of negotiating the detours that have blocked our paths.

76154_456196075821_3347695_nVery few rabbis have a career with no detours.  I learned a long time ago that no matter the kind of rabbinate you think you are going to have, that is rarely the one you end up having.  Sometimes that is because external circumstances don’t correspond to your needs in that moment.  You want a solo position in the New York metropolitan area but so do 100 other rabbis.  You want to lead a JCRC but the position has fallen victim to Federation budget cuts.  You were hired to be an educator but now the congregation wants to expand the position to include youth group advisor.

Sometimes your personal needs become obstacles in your rabbinate.  You always thought you wanted to be a congregational rabbi but you need more personal time.  Your spouse or partner wants to move and there are no rabbinic positions available in the new location.  You love your small remote congregation but you are single and there is no one to date for hundreds of miles.  You have children now and the perfect job has taken a back seat to the requirement to earn a living.

Or maybe you yourself have changed.  You once loved the challenge of crafting a sermon every week but now you have come to dread it.  You never thought you would enjoy pastoral counseling, but sessions with your constituents have become the highlight of your day.  You love walking through the door of the hospital room but you can’t bear the thought of one more Tu Bishvat Seder.  You jump when the phone rings, praying that it isn’t another funeral. Or you realize that funerals are the most satisfying part of your work.    You have enjoyed working with college students but now you want to forge relationships with people who don’t leave every four years.

I remember joining a professional supervision group because I felt like something was missing in my rabbinate.  I wasn’t sure why, but I wasn’t having the rabbinic experience I had hoped to have.  It was a great relief to join a supervision group and get help with how to be with my congregants. I never intended to finish the program and become a psychoanalyst, but the more I got into the training, the more compelling it became.  The training not onlyenhanced my rabbinate and made me a happier rabbi,  it also made me realize I wanted something different. The training had changed me – or maybe I had already begun to change and the training encouraged it to happen.  I realized I could no longer stay doing what I had been doing. The obstacle in my path had become too great.  I was lucky that I didn’t have IMG_2756to do a complete career about face. I was able to move to a part-time pulpit as I finished training and began my practice.

We know now that few people will have only one career over a lifetime.  People who enter the rabbinate are no different.  When I had my HUC interview in Jerusalem in 1974, Dean Spicehandler looked at my college transcript and commented, “I see you changed your mind about your studies a number of times. What is to say that you won’t change your mind about the rabbinate, too?” In my naivite, I gave him an honest answer:  “Nothing, “ I said.  I think I also remember telling him that I would never be a congregational rabbi because I didn’t want to do funerals.

You can understand, then, why no one is more surprised than I that I have spent 33 years  in the pulpit rabbinate.  I don’t know what kind of rabbinate I anticipated having, but I know this wasn’t it.  There have been detours large and small along the way.  Some have challenged me more than others. But somehow, this path has led me where I needed to go.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis (www.rabbiellenlewis.com) has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals.  In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision.  After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata.  Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (www.jcnwj.org).  

Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies (www.cmps.edu) and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (www.acapnj.org).  She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org). She can be reached via email at rabbiellenlewis@rabbiellenlewis.com or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.

1 Comment

  1. Camille Shira Angel

    Thank you for this encouraging and timely piece.

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