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.