At the end of the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (2016), Michael Phelps, 30, a highly decorated US competitive swimmer with 28 gold medals to his name, announced that this would be his last international competition. Mind you, this is the second retirement for Michael. The first one was after the 2012 London Games.
Some, like Michael, retire multiple times. Others retire but do not know what to do with themselves. And there are those like me, who call it quits without hesitation, after a satisfying career, but this one takes time and advanced planning.
Why and when people retire depend on various circumstances: e.g., health issues, moving to other communities, or sadly because they are terminated by their bosses. Others, however, choose to retire and often plan for it. I am among the fortunate ones who thought about ending my full-time career as a congregational Rabbi when I turned 65, about 13 years ago.
Throughout my life, I have always been associated with synagogue life. In my youth, even during Law School in Turkey, I acted as hazzan kavua (a permanent prayer-leader) in my Orthodox congregation in Istanbul. During my rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, I held student pulpits in McGehee, Ark.; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Kokomo, Ind. After ordination I served in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Philadelphia, Pa.; Chicago, IL and, finally at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA. But when I was about to turn 65, I decided it is time to stop.
The inspiration for retirement came from a rabbinic teaching. According to an ancient source, when Rabbis sat in the Sanhedrin (rabbinic court), they took their seats in a semi-circle fashion, with three rows of scholars facing the Chief Judge. When an opening occurred, they would move a judge from one row to a closer one from the front (Sanh. 4: 4). Later on, Rabbis, commenting on the significance of this move, stated, “It is better for people to say to you ‘go up,’ than for them to tell you to ‘go down’” (Midrash Rabba, Vayikra 1:5). What a wonderful insight, I said to myself. Having accomplished most of what I had intended to do in my professional life, I would retire at will, at the top of my career, instead of waiting for someone telling me, “Rabbi, you are getting older; it is time to take it easy!”
When Ines and I decided to take the plunge, we first went to a retirement seminar sponsored by the Pension Board of our rabbinic association (CCAR) to learn how to say good-bye. Then I approached my lay leadership and informed them of my plan. My president and board accepted our decision with regret, and offered us a wonderful retirement package, including health benefits, convention allowance and, most importantly, a “reserved” spot in the parking lot of our synagogue. This whole process took about a year.
After announcing my retirement to the congregation, we had a special celebration in May of 2003, which we enjoyed very much. On June 30, 2003, I turned in the keys to the office manager and walked away. Ines and I also decided to leave town and move to another suburb in the greater Boston area in order to allow my successor, Rabbi Jay Perlman, a total immersion in the life of the synagogue.
What to do after retirement? I now had more free time to spend with family. I taught, part-time, at Boston College, and now I am on the faculty of Framingham State University, much closer to my home in Ashland. MA, teaching Ethics to two different classes. Ines and I travel more, visit our children and grandchildren in California, and spend more time with our daughter and grand kids in our area. I help out Bet Shalom of Barcelona, an emerging liberal congregation in Spain. I also blog and lecture on a variety of topics. Recently, I learned how to play bocce!!!
I still keep an association with my former Temple. I am the “Rabbi Emeritus.” I give the sermon on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, a talk on Yom Kippur in the afternoon, and lead a discussion during an old-day Kallah (study session) for temple members. We, obviously, continue to see many of our friends in the Boston area, and our Rabbinic Study group of more than 30 years meets every Monday morning at our Temple building in Needham. But otherwise, I am not involved in any details of our congregational life. This is ably handled by other rabbinic colleagues.
This pattern has worked well for us. But it took thinking, planning, understanding and good will on both sides, mine and the temple leadership’s.
I highly recommend it to others who wish to follow a similar path.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. is celebrating 50 years as a CCAR Rabbi.