Ethics General CCAR Reform Judaism

What is – and isn’t – a Rabbi’s Job?

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.

10 replies on “What is – and isn’t – a Rabbi’s Job?”

As someone who spent most of a 40 year rabbinic career in small congregations, I’d say you got it right. And, no, the “housekeeping” questions are not a gender thing–I got them, too. Comes from being the one who spends the most time in the building. It’s a tradeoff for the joy of really knowing your people and having them really know you. Worth it, I always thought. And, btw, when I worked in Hillel for a few years, I discovered that “setting up the chairs” was shorthand for “I didn’t go to rabbinical school for five years so i could do this, but if it doesn’t get done, the rest of it won’t matter.”

Your observation that ‘if it doesn’t get done the rest of it won’t matter’ is so important. Chairs, copies, clean floors etc. are the means to the end. And ultimately, if the copies aren’t made or the chairs aren’t set up, it’s all that much harder to teach and model torah. Thanks for the comment.

I remember a board meeting about 20 years ago, when our congregation had 150 members. The board meeting was on a Thursday night. The rabbi (a man, by the way) reported that someone had come in that morning and had noticed that the toilet seat in the ladies room was broken.

What to do? We had no other staff,and it was unclear which committee was responsible for maintenance. We could figure it out of course. With a few days of discussions, we would be able to find a volunteer who would to to the hardware store and replace the toilet seat. But Shabbat was coming, and there would be lots of people at the service.

In the end, the rabbi decided that replacing the toilet seat was, in fact, the rabbi’s work, There was no other way to get it fixed in time for Shabbat. The incident led to a long, wonderful discussion with the board, with lots of insight into where we were as a congregation. If something like this happened again, what did we want to do? Was this indeed the rabbi’s work? What were our priorities? Was it more important for the rabbi to do the “non-rabbinic” jobs that were necessary for Shabbat? Or was it more important for the rabbi to spend that same hour visiting th sick?

We grew from the experience. We found some men who could do routine maintenance and someone to coordinate them. Ultimately, there were two things that came out of the discussion. We decided that replacing the toilet seat was not rabbinic work. But we realized that replacing the toilet seat was, in fact, holy work. It the end, this was what allowed us to find the volunteers.

I don’t know if any of this helps. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: it’s not because you’re a woman. It’s because of the size of your congregation.

Such a good reminder about the need to have an ongoing conversation with Temple leadership about what the rabbi does do, doesn’t do, shouldn’t do etc. This is not a ‘rabbinic issue’ per se – and having dialogue with the leadership about the totality of the community needs is so essential. Thanks for the reminder.

My congregation is even smaller than yours; 65ish families, and I do a whole lot of work they did not teach us in Practical Rabbinics at HUC. I have unplugged toilets, mopped water when there is a leak, made a bedzillion copies, unjammed the copy machine, and I am one of two people who can change the heat and/or airconditioning. I even make coffee on occasion. Why? Because I am the only staff besides a 1/2 time secretary. And, as Neil pointed out, if it doesn’t get done, then neither can my rabbinic work.

What is somewhat troubling, is that people view my husband as an extension of me, and go to him to complain about the heat, or to ask where things are, or to tell him if someone is having a hard time. Luckily, he has a sense of humor and can laugh most of the time, but there are times when it annoys him. Anyone dealt with that?

And Neil, like you I would not trade the rewards for having a small congregation for the sometimes exasperating tasks that I do end up doing.

I don’t have that challenge (my husband is a rabbi and so we are rarely together at synagogue!). But the role and position of spouses – in small congregations in particular – is a fascinating subject.

As the rabbi of a smallish (225 families) congregation in Boise, Idaho, I’ll second Neil’s notes on gender: I have stacked many a chair, washed many a table, and done my share of dishes.

This is a big change from my grandfather’s time. He was the senior rabbi at a very large congregation and he mowed his own lawn in a suit, lest people see him as an ordinary human being.

I think the current, small congregation way is better. It grounds us–and helps our congregants to see us as people who are accessible to them, rather than, as Betsy notes, “The Rabbi” (parenthetical note: I think it’s also a seductive danger to us to think of ourselves as “The Rabbi”).

I love the writing of Kathleen Norris, who describes seeing the priest doing the dishes after communion and finds it a holy moment. Her words from “The Quotidian Mysteries” seem relevant here:

“It is a paradox of human life that in worship, as in human love, it is in the routine and the everyday that we find the possibilities for the greatest transformation. Both worship and housework often seem perfunctory. And both, by the grace of God, may be anything but. At its Latin root, perfunctory means “to get through with,”and we can easily see how liturgy, laundry and what has traditionally been conceived of as “women’s work” can be done in that indifferent spirit. But the joke is on us: what we think we are only “getting through” has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless – the endless repetitions of a litany or the motions of vacuuming a floor.”

I’m not familiar with Kathleen Norris’ work, but I love the quote. Very powerful. It’s a challenge though – how to see those small tasks as holy work and to help others see them that way. How transformative that could be for all of us. Thanks for introducing me to this work.

I struggled my whole career as a Rabbi with this type of congregation as well as with start-ups that began as a chavurah and morphed into something more- then my legal training helped them to organize, write by-laws and create a constitution of sorts, receive the 501(c)(3) as required, etc. I don’t have any wisdom about where or how to draw the lines. I have purchased toilet paper from Costco because I live in a town where there was one and the congregation was much further.I think you have to follow your heart and maybe your gut. If the Board says, “The only two employees we have is the cleaning woman and the rabbi,” then maybe there’s a problem. And you are right, no one ever taught me anything about the daily life in a small congregation and I was pre-internet and pre-blog etc. Let your heart and neshama be your guide.

I served only large congregations – 1500-2000 families during my entire career. That didn’t keep me from doing trhe same type of tasks as described. When younger and more agille, I stayed after the Purim Carnival to break down the booths and pack the supplies. Many a time I went to find toilet paper, tissues,, get coffee from the kitchen, etc. It helped me become not “The rabbi up there on the bema,” but more a part of the congregational family. I always kept in mind what Sylvan Schwarzman z”l taught us in his practical rabbinics seminar – which was not a for-credit class. He said, “You can teach Torah everywhere, by what you do and how you act. You can teach Torah by being with people and doing even the most menial tasks”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.