Week One: Thoughts from a New Rabbi

Jul 17, 2013 by

Week One: Thoughts from a New Rabbi

Being a seasoned rabbi of nearly five weeks and an experienced member of a clergy team for five days, I can honestly say that I have learned a great deal in such a short period of time.  You always hear from veteran professionals in any field that the real schooling comes after you receive a degree.  You always are told that the real teachers are those individuals whom you encounter every day.  Whether they are co-workers, patients, clients, or congregants, they are the ones who teach you how to do what you have always wanted to do well. 

I’ve learned that my passion for Judaism and commitment to the rabbinate allows me to embrace what it takes to be a rabbi, but it doesn’t make me a rabbi.  What makes me a rabbi are those moments of connection with others, those endless hours of planning, processing, and programming, and those difficult times in which you must say “no” so that you can honor the importance of self-care.  

In my first week of a rabbi, I even offered to work on my day off, simply because, in part, the congregation was waiting for me to start moving forward with the planning and implementation of the year to come.  The calendar meeting was postponed until I arrived, the ritual committee wanted to discuss the coming year, and mailings that would have been sent out months ago were held off until the entire clergy team could give their input.  I had to come into work on my day off.  I needed to show that I was responsible, eager, and committed.  What I quickly learned was that the best way to show that I was responsible, eager, and committed was to actually take the day off.  I needed to enjoy sleeping in, wearing my shorts, going to lunch with my wife, and spending time with my dog.  Both my Senior Rabbi and Executive Director reminded me that I need to not only take care of myself, but to create boundaries now that will become difficult to set later.

 I’ve learned how important it is to collaborate with not just your fellow clergy, but your administrative assistants, bookkeepers, membership coordinators, program directors, and even custodial staff.  In order for our congregations to be communities of welcoming, centers of Jewish life, and places our congregants want to be, we must act with humility, show our love and compassion for others, and treat each other with the same dignity that we seek to be treated. 

As rabbis, young and seasoned, we all advocate for a Judaism that is vibrant and enduring.  Perhaps what I have learned the most in my first week as a rabbi is that we have so much we can learn from each other.  My rabbinate will never be your rabbinate, and my conception of what it means to be a rabbi will never be your conception – and nor should it be.  Yet, our visions can be integrated and we can grow and enrich our rabbinates because of each other.  The best mentors are those who strive to connect with those whom they are mentoring, and the best mentees are those who both listen to their mentors, but also challenge them to challenge you.

It’s been a week and I’ve learned so much in such a short period of time.  As we quickly approach the month of Elul in less than a month, I can only wonder what other reflections I’ll glean in the weeks to come.

Rabbi Phillip (PJ) Schwartz is the assistant rabbi of Temple Israel, Westport, CT.

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4 Comments

  1. Robert Orkand

    I was thrilled to read P.J.’s wonderful piece about his first week on the job at Temple Israel in Westport, CT, though reading it was somewhat of an out-of-body experience. You see, I just completed my first week as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel in Westport, CT! After 31 years there, and after 41 years in the rabbinate. I have discovered, as did P.J., that there is little to prepare us for those life-changing moments. Since we have left the parsonage and community in which we lived for 31 years, the changes for Joyce and me have been wrenching, no matter how much we talked about them and planned for them. There is a new home, a new community and new friends to make (hopefully). There is time to fill and time to enjoy in new ways. At the same time, thoughts of the “early” High Holy Days are followed by the realization that I don’t have to worry about that (sorry colleagues!). A summer filled with planning meetings can now be filled with new books to read and time with our granddaughter.

    And so, P.J., you began your rabbinic career as I ended mine. May you be cherished by those who cherished me, and though your years at Temple Israel will inevitably be very different than mine, may you find ways to touch the lives of those who will, without a doubt, touch yours.

    Bob Orkand

  2. As a recently retired rabbi, I wish you much luck and success in your rabbinate! I would change only one word in your article—-it’s not “even” the custodial staff, it’s “especially” the custodial staff AND your administrative assistant! (I began work in the days when the term was still “secretary”…shows how old I am!)….

    L’shalom,

    Mindy Portnoy

  3. you have learned so many valuable lessons in such a short time. I never quite mastered the “boundary” issues because I was always alone- the only Jewish professional with all the congregational needs eating away at me. I was even the Hazzan. In my last congregation- shortly before I retired, a member of the board said,”we only have 2 employees- the woman who cleans the building and the rabbi” and they meant that. You have learned much from everyone and I hope you have a long and very successful Rabbinate. I know mine was different, being the 2nd woman ordained by HUC and the first in New York. So go get ‘em and take time for your family and your dog-especially the dog! My memoir, “Rabbi, Your Cleavage is Showing” is in progress thanks to the Iowa Writing Workshop.

  4. Matt Cohen

    That’s a nice article, PJ. I only have one comment (which pertains to every rabbi and layperson alike). There is magic that happens every day in temple life. In particular, everything seems to just magically work, get set-up, cleaned, fixed,etc. That “magic” is the hard work of our maintenance staff and they are most deserving of our recognition and respect. It is very important that we bond with them, but not “even” them but rather “especially” them. It’s something we all need to be mindful of.

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