Just a few years back – or at least it feels that way – I started seventh grade at a small private school in West Los Angeles. The spring prior I graduated from the Jewish day school I’d attended since Mommy-n-Me, housed at the synagogue in which I’d spent most of my childhood. Though I remained deeply connected to my home community throughout high school, after sixth grade I decided it was time for a change. So, one hot September morning I began a new chapter at the 7th-12th-grade middle and high school where I would spend the next six years of my life.
To say the transition was rough is an understatement.
No longer was I one of the top dogs. Gone were the uniforms I’d grown accustomed to. Overnight, everything and everyone changed. The kids around me were now cooler, hipper, and obviously, older. Some of them even had cars. Classes were harder; it was middle school after all. I was an awkward new kid on the block, complete with braces, glasses, and a whole lot of tsuris about this new experience.
Thankfully, to help with the transition I had my very own “mystery partner” to introduce me to the greater student body. At the start of the school year, each seventh grader was assigned an older student as a secret buddy. The older student knew who the younger was, but for the younger it was left a mystery. This longstanding tradition took the form of passing notes, small gifts, and even singing telegrams to one another throughout fall semester. By winter break, identities were revealed, hugs exchanged, and we seventh graders felt much more connected to a greater student body; to a campus filled with “big kids.”
Now, nearly two decades later, I’m experiencing a modern-day version of the mystery partner: the CCAR’s mentoring program between graduating HUC-JIR rabbinical students like myself and established rabbis from all over the country. This program (which began in 2002 as a voluntary and is now required), stretches over three years; it begins our last year as students and carries us through two years in the rabbinate. This mentoring aims to help us soon-to-be new rabbis on the block transition out of the academy and into the field. And so far, it’s been a tremendously valuable experience.
To be fair, my mentor isn’t a mystery. I do, in fact, know who he is and where he’s based. Though we’ve never met in person, it feels as though the relationship has lasted years. When we met for the first time over the phone last spring it quickly became clear to me I’d lucked out with this match. Since that day I have felt a strong and unique level of support from an individual far away from my home base in Southern California. Though we’ve never met face-to-face, I know he’s got my back; that he is committed to helping me navigate this strange, surreal experience of preparing for ordination and all that lays beyond it.
In our sessions my mentor has demonstrated an extraordinary awareness of what it means to be a rav. He is warm, engaged, funny, and genuinely curious about me. He wants to know who I am as a person, what my experience at HUC has been like, and all that I anticipate – or don’t – in this next chapter of my life. In turn my mentor is open about his own story: about his rabbinate, family, personal interests and relationships, triumphs and struggles, and what being a rabbi has meant to him. His depth, generosity, and openness are remarkable. We make each other laugh, commiserate about shared challenges, and pose thoughtful questions to one another about what we hope to achieve in our careers and our lives.
My mentor is not the only person to whom I look for guidance and support. He joins a long list of individuals to whom I’ve grown close over the years: rabbis, cantors, educators, lay leaders, colleagues, and friends. While I feel incredibly blessed to have these people in my life, there’s something different about this specific mentorship. First, there’s no background: no context, no baggage. We have no history with one another, and if it weren’t for Google we wouldn’t even know what the other looks like. We’re two people who were matched together, who know a few of the same people but really come from two different places. The near-anonymity is liberating and refreshing.
Second, there’s no hidden agenda. We talk for the sake of professional and personal growth. He dedicates his time and energy toward helping me acclimate to the world of the rabbinate and in turn, I offer him food for thought on every topic under the sun. That I am still present in the HUC-JIR community is very much a form of connection and memory for him and reminds us both of the many gifts the College-Institute bestows on its students.
Finally, and most importantly, this mentorship provides a specific level of insight onto the roles we play in our lives. Each of us wears many hats: rabbi, husband, father, friend; rabbinical student, wife, daughter, teacher, etc. Day in and day out we engage with those around us while wearing one or more of those hats. We play our roles, deliver our monologues, and transition from one to the other with relative ease. Yet when it comes time for our conversations we remove those hats. We step into the roles of “mentor” and “mentee” and discuss, honestly and openly, the experience of wearing and sharing those very roles. It’s a level of reflection I did not know was possible until now, and I am so grateful that I get to experience it.
One year from now, I have no idea where I will be. I can only hope to have just completed my first High Holiday season as a full-time rabbi with a dynamic and vibrant community, settling down in a great place and exploring my new role. While I do not yet know where, when, or how any of this will come to fruition, I do know one thing for certain: that my mentor will be right there alongside me; pushing, encouraging, and challenging me to be the best rabbi I can be. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get a singing telegram, too.
Jacyln Fromer Cohen is a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles.