I never imagined that I would be a rabbi of a small congregation. And yet, for the past ten years I have been the rabbi of a congregation of 150ish families. (Sometimes it’s 135, sometimes 152 – one thing about the small congregation is that we tend to count obsessively.) There is much about life in a small congregation that I love. I love that I know everyone – not just their names, but oftentimes their stories too. I love that it’s easy to notice – and therefore reach out – when someone seems to disappear for a few weeks. I love that everyone feels like they own the place – people congregate in the kitchen, unlock, set up, and lock the building for b’nai mitzvah, take out the trash on their way out on Friday night. (Along with leading services on Shabbat morning, teaching book discussions and Hebrew classes, and deciding to take on projects like creating a misheberach tapestry).
I sometimes struggle with my role as a rabbi in a community with little paid staff and a do-it-yourself ethic. We spend an inordinate amount of time stacking, moving and setting up chairs. I have moved more chairs – put them into circles, straightened them, added more, taken some away – then I can count. Last Friday night, when cleaning up from the Oneg Shabbat, I was asked, “Rabbi, I think the vacuum cleaner bag is full. Do you know where the new ones are kept?” (Variations include, “Rabbi, there is a light burned out in the ladies room. Do you know where the light bulbs are?” “Rabbi, do you know how to un-jam the photocopier?”)
Although I don’t know how to un-jam the photocopier, I do know where the light bulbs and vacuum cleaner bags are kept and sometimes there I am on a Friday night rummaging through the supply cupboard. Other times, I smile and just say ‘’I don’t know” to these requests. Sometimes, if it’s been a particularly taxing week, I’ll say, “I’m sorry, I must have been having coffee when that class was taught at rabbinical school.”
Rabbi Torop (center) in the synagogue kitchen making pancakes
I often wonder why people think that being the rabbi means that I know the answers to any of these questions. Is it because I am the most identifiable ‘staff’ member? Is it because I am there more than anyone else? Have I failed to sufficiently practice tzimtzum – and so I find myself at the center of everything, even while believing that I don’t want to be? Is there a gender element as well?
Ten years into my relationship with this synagogue, I still feel ambivalent about all of this ‘non-rabbinic work’. On the one hand, there are only so many hours in the day and shouldn’t I spend them doing the things that I am uniquely able to do – teaching torah, preaching, pastoring? If I allow myself to be drawn into caretaking, not only is my ability to do other things diminished, but it makes it easier for others to step back, to abdicate responsibility.
On the other hand, what is ‘non-rabbinic work’? I don’t feel that I am above the jobs of cleaning and copying and shlepping just because I am ‘The Rabbi’. And surely, working hand in hand with members of our community, taking care of the basic needs as well as the loftier ones, is itself a form of teaching and role modeling? There is no one paid to do this work – we are all responsible – and figuring how to apportion the responsibilities, share the jobs, and pick up the pieces that get neglected is a challenge that is surely part of creating community. This is only one of many balancing acts that I struggle with in my small congregation – and if there was a class at rabbinical school in how to keep the proper balance, I must have been out having coffee when it was taught.
Rabbi Betsy Torop is a Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Brandon, Florida.