More than a “Didn’t Deviate” Degree

On May 4, I was honored to celebrate with my classmates, as we received our honorary Doctorate of Divinity degrees from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, recognizing the 25th anniversary of our ordination there.

We rabbis joke that the “D.D.” degree stands more for “didn’t die” or “didn’t deviate,” than “Doctor of Divinity.” That cynicism may reveal some discomfort at receiving a doctorate we didn’t earn through academic work. However, it masks a couple of important realities.

First, the day was impactful in personal ways that were hard to expect and more difficult to describe. I was touched to mark the milestone with classmates who shared a significant piece of my rabbinic journey, including the Rosh Yeshivah and Dean who bestowed the doctorates upon us.

Second, and more importantly, the occasion is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of these twenty-five years, how much has changed and how much remains the same.

I became a rabbi because I craved the opportunity to inspire sacred living in covenant with the God of Israel through the performance of mitzvot. Though the ways in which I pursue that mission have changed with the years, my passion for it has never waned.

So, what has changed?

I pursue my mission ambitiously. I expect excellence of myself and of the congregation I serve. I am grateful for staff and volunteer colleagues at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock. They share a vision that we can unite a congregation and serve a community meaningfully, with God’s partnership. Still, my definition of “ambition” has changed with time. Once, like most men in the rabbinate before me, but fewer women, and not unlike other professionals; I saw “success” as quantifiable, at least to some degree. A “successful” rabbi was one who served a large congregation, headed a comprehensive staff, and had tremendous resources at his (or her) disposal. Now, I am grateful to explore how much can be done with less – maximizing resources, while recognizing their limit at the same time – and celebrating each person who is enriched by this covenant rather than in the “body count.”

More broadly, Jewish professionals of my generation have experienced a tremendous shift, from an emphasis on standards to placing a priority on engagement. For example, as recently as three years ago, I believed strongly that every child in the Religious School must be unambiguously Jewish. While I still affirm, of course, that a person cannot be both Christian and Jewish at the same time, the flexibility I inherited at Congregation B’nai Israel has taught me that we can serve God and our community best by opening the door at the front end. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, talks about “engagement before dues,” meaning that we must welcome folks to synagogue involvement before we talk to them about formal, paying membership. Translating that principle more broadly, we are here to engage people in Jewish life, and we mustn’t be deterred because they haven’t (yet) reached *our* desired destination for *their* Jewish journeys. On Shavuot Eve this year, five young people will confirm their faith at Congregation B’nai Israel. A sixth, who has attended Religious School at our congregation and at a Methodist Church in alternating years, has engaged fully and faithfully with our Confirmation program. He is slated to participate almost-fully in that Shavuot Eve Confirmation service with his class, even though he’s not (yet) ready for Confirmation.

These last five years have been the most profound period of my growth as a rabbi over a quarter century, despite or even because of their having included a traumatic professional upheaval. Having met Mussar, first through a former congregant who introduced me to Alan Morinis, I have come to appreciate that even the most negative experience can lead to a soul’s growth. I pray that I may continue to grow and learn throughout the years ahead.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.

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