As my service as the CCAR Placement Director is winding down and my sojourn in New York is coming to a close, I find myself reflecting on my myriad learnings of this six-year calling. At this season especially I cannot help but connect some placement lessons to the High Holidays and to the viddui’im of Yom Kippur. We all have taught the steps in the process of teshuvah gemurah: 1) acknowledging wrongdoing; 2) feeling genuine remorse; 3) promising not to repeat the behavior and 4) when confronted with similar circumstances, actually not repeating the behavior. This simple four-step process is precisely what is necessary for a rabbi in rabbinic placement.
The first step for a rabbi in placement is to take an honest and sober assessment of oneself. What are my gifts? What are my challenges? In what situations have I succeeded and in what situations have I fallen short? This degree of chesbon hanefesh in our rabbinic life is perhaps the most difficult: holding the mirror up to ourselves and examining our rabbinates in excruciating detail.
Once we have identified our strengths and challenges, we need to come to terms with them. How has each strength and each challenge benefitted me? Hurt me? Enabled me to craft the rabbinate that I currently have or prevented me from realizing the rabbinate I wish to have? Are these strengths and challenges features of my personality, which is resistant to change, or are these skills, which I can learn and unlearn?
Third, if we really want to avoid repeating behavior that has impeded our growth as rabbis, where can we turn? How can we remedy self-sabotaging behavior or how can we build upon proven successes in our work? There are many avenues today to help fortify our commitment to self-improvement. We could go into therapy, we could engage a rabbinic coach, we could attend CCAR webinars and in-person seminars, we could seek out advanced classes at local colleges and universities. The opportunities to enhance our rabbinates are numerous, but first we must identify our needs and resolve to wrestle with them.
Finally, we know that our teshuvah, our process of self-improvement, is complete when we find ourselves in a situation that would have formerly tripped us up but that now we can negotiate smoothly. Our efforts at introspection and learning have made us better rabbis more content in our own rabbinates. Arriving at an honest appraisal of our rabbinates and the impact our rabbinates have on our communities and their participants is the firmest basis for entering placement.
Recently a synagogue president who sat on a search committee said to me, “The candidates who did best in our search were the ones who were most self-aware.” These aseret yemei teshuvah, done right, can bring deep self-awareness which is an essential step in advancing our rabbinates. I wish you all easy fasts and a Yom Kippur full of insight, discernment, and growth.
Rabbi Alan Henkin serves the Central Conference of American Rabbis as Director of Rabbinic Placement.