Fifty years in the Reform Rabbinate
My first posting after ordination was as the assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth El in San Antonio, and among the many things I learned from Rabbi David Jacobson, z’l, was how important it was to keep in touch with as many members of the congregation as possible, and to visit each of the hospitals in San Antonio on Shabbat after services where a Jewish patient was to be found.
From Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, z’l, whose associate successor I was for thirteen years at Temple Israel of Long Beach, I learned much. He had created an extraordinary Confirmation year program which involved several weekends with trained facilitators (psychologists) to help students and their parents build better and lasting relationships, a program which I ‘enhanced’ He also engaged generations of Temple members in creating their own High Holy Day services. I then established a tradition of holding a Rosh Hashanah service in a local park for as many families as wished to come. The idea was an instant success, and is still being carried on in the same park today, almost 40 years later. And from him I also learned the appropriate behavior when your replacement is hired!
It was in Long Beach as well that I became very active in the Interfaith Community, leading several Interfaith sedarim each year, and organized an interfaith effort to reduce the level of teenage pregnancy in the city. And because Long Beach at the time had a number of Hospices for Aids patients, I did B’nai Mitzvot and some funerals that brought me into close touch with the psychic pain of people who were not only very sick, but rejected by their own families. And it was in Long Beach that I became part of the committee whose purpose was to integrate the Long Beach School District.
What have I learned?
I learned that I have a talent for dealing people whose lives have been ‘broken’ in some way. I can help them find the silver lining that surrounds most, but not all, clouds.
I have learned that laughter is among the healthiest ‘behaviors’ that human beings can have, and often reduces tension.
I have learned that happiness is a choice that we can make each morning, simply saying (and believing) that you will be happy that day.
I have learned what wonderful resources my colleagues are and how willing they are to respond to my inquiries. Even now, in retirement, I frequently communicate with colleagues when questions arise.
I have learned how many people, congregants and others, are willing to ‘embrace’ a new rabbi who is ready to listen to what they have to say, and who doesn’t judge them in any way, or make them feel guilty.
I have learned that there are many satisfactions about being a rabbi in a large congregation, and at least as many satisfactions about being the rabbi of a small congregation.
I have learned that studying the weekly Torah portion with congregants can be an exalting experience, since each year, the portion yields new insights.
I have learned that keeping anxiety (or anger) out of your speech builds bridges.
What have I accomplished?
I have brought scores of people tachat kanfey ha’she-chinah through the classes in “Choosing the Jewish faith” that I’ve taught in Long Beach and in Baltimore and in most of my other posting.
I have helped many, many born Jews to become more serious about their Jewish beliefs and practices, and more willing to make the synagogue an important part of their lives.
I have created meaningful liturgies for life cycle events.
I have made meaningful connections with other clergy in almost every community that I have served, especially in Long Beach and State College.
I helped to de-segregate the Long Beach school system by serving on a city-wide committee created specifically for that purpose
I encouraged members of my confirmation class to join me in the annual ‘Walk for Aids” in Long Beach. I created a weeklong program to address the challenges of cancer in the community, with the support of the ACS and half a dozen houses of worship. This happened in 2008 in Winchester, VA, my last posting. In Winchester I addressed nursing and pharmacy students about Jewish attitudes towards a variety of ethical issues.
I have helped people understand the difference between healing, which can be accomplished in almost any circumstance, and ‘curing’, which’ is a different matter entirely, and will not always be possible.
I have created a significant set of strategies to assist older people through the challenges of aging, and more strategies to help them acknowledge, and then perhaps even celebrate the last chapter of their lives sand the journey that follows death.
I have learned to accept my own failings and missteps, though I can still do better, I have learned to stop judging other people’s behavior, because I don’t know that I would have acted any differently than they have done, given their ‘situation.’
What I am looking forward to:
In addition to the ‘unscheduled hours, days, and weeks, that comprise retirement’ I’m looking forward to teaching the strategies I’ve learned for a ‘happy ending.’
Since the Biblical text ‘suggests’ that 70 years is what we are entitled to, and that reaching the age of 83 is a goal to be cherished since you have the privilege of celebrating a 2nd Bar/Bat Mitzvah, I look at each day as a Gift, and thank for being alive and alert enough to experience and enjoy it. If I make it to 83, I’ll celebrate my 2nd Bar Mitzvah, and then choose another date (marriage of a grandchild, perhaps).
Rabbi Jonathan Brown is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate.