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Hard-Gained Wisdom: Rabbi Ed Treister on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

Rabbi Ed Treister shares the learning and fulfillment he’s gained in his half century as a Reform rabbi.

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi Ed Treister.

They say a person will have seven totally unrelated jobs in their working life. Most of us will have but one—rabbi. We ordainees of 1971 have been rabbis for fifty years. That’s a long run, fifty years. Who knew when we left Temple Ema­nu-El or the Plum Street Temple that the run would be cross-country—literally and figuratively—and not a paved road marathon. But at the fifty-year mark, there is a sense of accomplishment for no other reason than for having crossed the finish line.

I’ve learned a lot in the past fifty years. Most of it the hard way, but then those are the lessons that stay with you. There were other classes I attended—and repeated!—and still others where I never got their message. But here at the fifty-year finish line are some things I’ve gathered. Some of them I took in and benefited from and some, to my chagrin, I ignored. As to those lessons repeated or missed, all I can say is—pay attention!

1. There is a difference between being a rabbi and being in the rabbinate. Rabbi is who you are; the rabbinate is where you work. You’ll always be a rabbi even if you aren’t in the rabbinate. Be always mindful of how you tie your shoes. 

2. Carve out time to study and make it fixed. Shammai said it better than I. There’s only so much in the tank, and while your mileage may vary, at a certain point, you know you’re running on fumes. Not good for you, and not good for your people.

3. What you say and how you say it are the tools of your trade. Avtalyon said to be careful with your words. That has to include preparing your words well: well-thought-out, well-phrased, well-presented. Preparation shows: it shows you care about what you are saying and to whom you are saying it. Lincoln could do it off the back of an envelope; few of us are Lincolns.

4. Spend a lot of time with the kids in religious school and youth group. It is with them that you may have the greatest influence. They’ll remember what you taught them, and it will shape their character to an inestimable degree.

5. The rabbinate offers the rabbi opportunities to touch a lot of people in a variety of venues every single day. I can think of no other field, with the possible exceptions of broadcasting and publishing, that has that kind of reach. Take advantage of those moments.

6. The rabbinate is one of the last places where you can speak before an assembly without fear of interruption or challenge. Maybe a good thing, and then again, maybe not. 

7. The rabbinate offers the possibility for you to focus your energies towards goals that you establish. You can shift your focus as you see the need in you or in your community with relative ease. That’s real flexibility and freedom.

8. The rabbinate is a job with all the storms and stresses of being an employee. Often you’re viewed as a middle manager who is under the direction of other managers. It is an unsustainable position and you will need to define yourself for them by what you say and what you do.

9. The smaller the institution the greater the likelihood of transitions. The larger the institution the greater the likelihood of stability. Sailboats are easier to maneuver (and tip over) than steamships and that goes both for the rabbi and for the institution. Hamaskil yavin.

10. By the time you are ordained you will have at least nine letters after your name. You may even acquire more. Bear in mind that wisdom is not measured by degrees but by demeanor. Ed Friedman said it differently: at all times strive to be a non-anxious presence. 

There’s my ten. There are lots more. The point is being a rabbi is an opportunity to help people live meaningful, Jewishly value-laden lives. But being in the rabbinate also means dealing with highly diverse agendas, some that can be supportive, but others that can be highly destructive. In this long run, that is the rabbi’s career in the rabbinate. I wish you Godspeed.


Rabbi Edward Treister is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

2 replies on “Hard-Gained Wisdom: Rabbi Ed Treister on 50 Years in the Rabbinate”

#4! Thank you for all your teachings and consideration. I was one of 4 students in Temple Rodeph Shalom’s first Senior Graduation Class Confirmation of 1977. Congratulations on 50 years! Elaine Bergen

Hello Rabbi Treister,
I was delighted when Judy Kronick, a dear friend still, sent this to me. She received it from Elaine Bergen, her niece. My kids and I remember you well and with fondness. You were the first Rabbi with whom I felt completely at ease and our little Temple Rodeph Shalom was the first synagogue in which I was comfortable. You probably did not know this at the time, but I am Holocaust survivor and a hidden child. I was raised as a Catholic until the age of 8 and until I met you, had never felt that I belonged in a synagogue. You were a warm, bright, insightful, wise, and caring leader and I am sure that you continued to be all that and more after you left our community. My children, Debbie and Felisa also remember your influence with warmth. The image I have of you is after our Friday night services, when we had an adult education program, you would sit among your congregants on those folding chairs and always, there was at least one child asleep on your lap. Mazal-tov on a wonderful, rich 50 years during which, I am certain, you did much good.
Eva Kuper (Shizgal)

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