Before ordination, our class in New York gathered for a luncheon. It would be one of the last opportunities to come together before we embarked on our respective rabbinic journeys. We were asked to speak about our goals and aspirations. As I listened to my colleagues, I realized that I had no clear vision. It reminded me of the question adults often ask a child: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
At that point, all I had was a one-way ticket to Israel. On October 6, 1973, the Yom Kippur War broke out. So much for plans! I ended up sitting by the side of wounded soldiers for several months at Hadassah hospital, helping them pass long hours between operations. It was an aspect of bikur cholim for which I hadn’t been prepared. Additionally, I began studies at the Hebrew University. Three years later, my wife, Tsippy, and I, returned to Cincinnati, where I was born there. I finished my doctorate in 1980, the same year my children were born. In retrospect, it was an amazing time in my life.
At this juncture, I again asked myself the question: “What now?” Do I teach at a university or find a pulpit? A professor at HUC-JIR gave me some advice: do both! In the pulpit, you can publish, you can write, you can teach, you can counsel, you can impact the people in your congregation and well beyond.
I heeded his advice. I spent three wonderful years in Baton Rouge, then returned to New York (where I had grown up as a child), and stayed at my synagogue for the next thirty-three years. New York offered so many opportunities.
Becoming active in the New York Board of Rabbis, I enjoyed the camaraderie of colleague from all denominations. The experience gave me the idea to create the North American Board of Rabbis (NABOR) which brought rabbis together from all across the U.S. We engaged political and religious leaders across Europe and in Israel. On a smaller scale, the Polish and German governments invited us several times to visit high schools and universities. On one occasion an Orthodox rabbi and I were flying to Poland when we heard the news that Pope John Paul II had died. Naturally we assumed that many of the scheduled events would be cancelled. Were we wrong! For hours, we answered questions in churches and universities before huge crowds.
Over the years, we worked with interfaith groups (Sufi Moslems, U.S. cardinals, and the Council of Churches) to raise consciousness and funding for the less fortunate on Thanksgiving. We received generous support from individuals and corporations.
Locally, before the widespread use of computers, we set up a job bank for unemployed members of synagogues on Long Island, as well as hosted gatherings for single Jews who wanted to meet other Jews (this was years before JDate).
We took groups of confirmation classes to Europe to be hosted by local families with kids their own age. They learned more about Judaism and Jewish history in Prague and Budapest than they would have in a classroom. In many instances, those bonds of friendship still exist today.
Another challenge for me were the children of former congregants with whom I had lost contact with after their bar or bat mitzvah. Would they be attending a synagogue for the High Holy Days? I started another project, Synagogue Connect, which offers free access for the High Holy Days to Jewish youth ages 18–30. Over 1200 synagogues from all denominations signed on! Besides some 900 synagogues in the U.S., there were synagogues from over thirty countries (Israel, Europe, South America, South Africa, Australia, Japan, and more) that joined as well. We were supported by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Today, Synagogue Connect is run by AEPi fraternity.
The journey in life took many detours: traveling to unusual destinations (like Mongolia), writing a novel, standup comedy, teaching rabbinic students, and so on.
So what do you want to do after you retire? I don’t know—maybe a little of this, and a little of that. Life doesn’t always go as planned and that can be a good thing as well.
Rabbi Ronald Brown is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We celebrate him and all of the CCAR members who reached this milestone in 2023.