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Ode to the Congregational Rabbinate: A Response to the Pew Study

In recent days there has been a disturbing trend in Jewish communal life.   The synagogue is both charged with the future of Judaism and blamed for its decline.  Even in these tempestuous times, I believe, the synagogue is where we continue to nurture and sustain Jewish life.

I recently celebrated ten years in the pulpit and I can tell you that my triumphant moments have not come in single instances of programmatic creativity or sermonic brilliance.  Lasting relationships forged over a decade of shared joy and sorrow are the foundation of my service to the congregation and to the Jewish people.

Rabbi William Braude, the former senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El of blessed memory was a great mind in our tradition.  He marched for civil rights and was a brilliant scholar–you probably have a Midrash collection translated by him on your shelf.  With all of his accomplishments, he never forgot what was most important. Rabbi Braude would often say that, as rabbis, our job is to keep a small flame flickering.

RabbiMack-withTorahWe keep the flame alive when we stand grave side with a widow in a snowstorm with barely a minyan.  Or when we shed a tear at the graduation for a student we have known since consecration.  Or when we rejoice in the new baby of a couple we married.  It is the quiet moments when we connect with our people that actually keep the Jewish people alive. We can call it “engagement” or “relational Judaism,” but the simple (or not so simple) reality of caring for our flocks on a daily basis is what builds meaningful community.

While marching at the statehouse, posting on facebook, or writing books can be nourishing for us–I am not convinced that these activities alone sustain the Jewish people. It is note writing, phone call returning, and  bar and bat mitzvah student meetings that really make a difference.  It may seem mundane in the moment and it certainly isn’t sexy, but it is essential.

A recent article about “boring” High Holy day services caught my attention because it railed against congregational rabbis in our most grueling season.   Amazingly, no one seemed to leap to our defense (probably because rabbis themselves were all too busy writing boring sermons.)

The Pew Study and its aftermath and the New York Times article on the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution simply seem to fuel the fire against congregational rabbis who dutifully serve our people.

There are organizations and newspapers that spill much digital ink ranking the most prominent Rabbis in various lists throughout the year. While this may garner Facebook posts and Tweets galore in the moment, I don’t believe that it does much for the future of the Jewish people in the long run.

Instead, I would like to give a shout out to my unnamed colleagues, classmates and friends.  Let us recognize the committed congregational rabbis who serve our people in the trenches with love and faith.  The rabbis who are there for our people, day in and day out.  The rabbis who are on the bima Shabbat after Shabbat and who still happily greet their community at the oneg.  The rabbis who will answer the call in the hour of need–be it in the hospital, the synagogue or the grocery store.  The rabbis who know your name and that your husband just lost his job or your son was accepted to Yale or your mother was just diagnosed with cancer–and care deeply about you and your loved one.

Those are the rabbis who keep that small flame flickering for the next generation.  Kol hakavod.  I am proud to serve with you.

 Rabbi Sarah Mack serves Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island.

6 replies on “Ode to the Congregational Rabbinate: A Response to the Pew Study”

The author writes: “Instead, I would like to give a shout out to my unnamed colleagues. . . ”
OK, I am generally happy to be on the receiving end of a positive shout out. But not so much here.

I don’t like the “instead.” Why must it be either or–criticism or shout outs? I read the piece on boring High Holy Day services and think that the author is right. Mostly our High Holy Day services are boring to our congregants. And I think the Pew study has a lot to teach us, too. As I read it, I don’t despair but I do see that we need to do a much better job of reaching out to younger Jews.

In short, like everyone else, we rabbis get too comfortable with the status quo and the way things have been done in the past.

We need constructive criticism of the sort offered by the Tablet article and the Pew study. We need it to push us to be better, even if we are doing all the noble things that the writer of the blog congratulates us for doing. Yes, it is good to dutifully serve our people, being there for them on the bimah and in the hospitals and all the ways that we work very hard to be there for them.

But it isn’t enough. We also have to grow and learn and find new ways to do things that do not work.

Thank you, Sarah (it’s good to read your work again!)–at the Hebrew Union College are reminded daily of the talented, passionate, thoughtful, knowledgeable people who are preparing to become rabbis, who yearn to do what you describe on a daily basis–and who see criticism as a way to engage a person and the tradition. I appreciate your celebration of them.

I agree that it is personal connections that help drive a strong sense of faith and belonging within a Jewish community. While it seems clear that Rabbi Mack does her best to form these connections with her congregants, I have witnessed too many detached Jewish leaders in my formative years. The long boring sermons. The ancient, inaccessible music. The lack of connection to our daily lives. To be blunt, we could use charisma on the bimah. To be fair, I realize faith needs to be nourished at home and shared with our children if we want Judaism to survive this steep decline. I still wrestle with my faith, but, for the moment, my wife and I felt it was important to put our daughter in Sunday School. So, it’s really on all of us, if we want to save our faith.

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