Rabbinic Reflections

What We Ask of Congregational Rabbis

Rabbi Karyn Kedar, on the expectations, paradoxes, and many joys of life as a congregational rabbi.

Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, rabbi emerita of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL, and CCAR Press author, reflects on the unique role of the congregational rabbi.

The season begins. Many of us are stepping into new roles, new positions, are stepping away, or have been asked to step aside. Summer is the season of settling in. We dream, we move to a new town, we adjust, we try to get some sleep, we plan, we reconnect with ourselves, or at least we try. As for me, I’ve just retired. Or, as I prefer to say, I am shifting into something new.

A lot is asked of rabbis, and we serve in a variety of ways; I know I have. For those of us who serve congregations, we find ourselves deep in paradoxical expectations. Our congregants whisper to us all the time saying, “I don’t know how you do it.” And then, silently, they ask that we find the way.

They ask that we captivate the two-year-old and gain the trust of the seventeen-year-old. They want us to be a brilliant teacher to adults and a seasoned educator to children.

To sit with them in lamentation, to be deep, to be wise, and to be close. To be set apart, rise above, and yet be a friend. To be laser-focused on individual needs and to see the larger picture. To have a family life and to be always available.

To be a collaborative prayer leader and an inspiring orator. To have charisma on the bimah, but not put on a show. To tend to the broken-hearted and to mesmerize a crowd. To be passionate about social justice, but not too much.

To be spiritual and to be practical. To be visionary and detailed. To be strong, but not too strong. To be astute in temple politics, but not political. To be a skilled fundraiser, with business savvy, deeply religious, and have an easily explained theology. To command authority, but not too much. To be collaborative and decisive. To take risks and to be careful.

To stand for something grand.

They ask a lot, and I cannot say if it is too much. At times, over the years, I wanted to crumble under the weight of it all. And yet sometimes, I think that it is the gnarled and paradoxical set of expectations that make the work fascinating. We are asked to live in a world of nuance and finesse.

In truth, we are artists of the sacred, navigating the contradictions, compensating for our weaknesses, and delighting in our strengths. We forgive ourselves for not being perfect and others for not being kind. We surround ourselves with good people, caring people, smart people, wise people, and people who will compassionately tell us the truth. We build a diverse team with diverse skill sets. We surround ourselves with partners in the sacred.

The work is hard and glorious. It is a great and awesome privilege. It is confusing, exhausting, and exhilarating. Prayer helps, discernment helps, friends help, and rest helps. Now is the season for shifting, settling in. We walk in a vast field of sacred service; may our feet be steady and our hearts strong.

Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar has had a varied career. Among her positions, she has been a teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, an outreach coordinator for the IMPJ, a regional director for the URJ, and most recently, the senior rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield, IL, where she is now rabbi emerita. She is a widely published author and poet. Her work includes the CCAR Press titles Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry, and Mindfulness Practice (2020) and Omer: A Counting (2014).

6 replies on “What We Ask of Congregational Rabbis”

A magnificent valedictory address as you retire, Karyn, and move on. I would encourage every newly ordained colleague to read it, and every active colleague to read it at significant intervals and anniversaries of their ordination. Wishing you well as you move on.

Karen, indeed, you did it all and did it all very well. I have known you a very long time since the days you attended Towson University and later the Baltimore Hebrew College. Most significantly, you taught in our Religious School as one of our most gifted teachers. Personally, you took care of our most precious gifts of all time, our children. I followed you step by step as you helped to meld the State of Israel into our Reform Movement internationally. I observed what an effective Regional Director you were in the URJ Great Lakes Region and in the Chicago Federation of Reform Congregations. If I had any doubts about your role as a Regional Director, they evaporated as I was honored to become your interim successor in that role. That is when your congregation, with you as its leader, thrived following the very charismatic, popular and longterm Senior Rabbi who preceded you. And to top it all off, you have been a prolific writer of spiritual poetry and spiritual instruction for colleagues as well as for Reform Jews throughout the world. I witnessed the kind of daughter and sister you were while aware of the primacy of your husband and children in your life. In this article, you have outlined the privileged glory and challenging danger of serving as a sacred Jewish vessel in the 21st century balancing the priestly/prophetic agenda before Ha-Kodesh Baruch Hu and trying to live a life. Yashar kochacha on your retirement! I am so proud to call you a “colleague.” Be well! Continue to give and receive blessing! Don

I love this Rabbi! Your “job description” is so eloquently written. I truly don’t know how you did it and did it so well!

Appreciate this inspirational message, as I contemplate my 80 th birthday, today, 8/1/22..shifts no roles in life !!
Love to hear from my friends…..paula drues

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