My father did not have much advice for me, but there was one message that I remember. He told me to choose work that I loved, and then it wouldn’t seem like work. I am sure that in his business career, he never really had a job he loved. My rabbi, Herman Schaalman, talked to me about the rabbinate for many years, and in the end I decided to try out Hebrew Union College. Both of these mentors were right.
When I think back on my career, I focus on the many varieties of rabbinic experience, on the different ways I have served. My first rabbinic job was National Director of Admissions and Director of Student Services at HUC-JIR, an administrative post in Cincinnati. I have served three very different congregations, I and was a part-time chaplain at several hospitals along the way. I have had the opportunity to teach in congregations, in universities and seminaries, and in the community. I have advocated for social justice and supported important causes, as we all have. I have led committees and boards in the communities I served, in the Reform Movement, and in my religious communities. I have had the time to study, to write, to present academic papers, and to create new knowledge. All this has been deeply gratifying and enriching for me.
I am so grateful to have had the honor of serving and leading in the Jewish community. It has been a privilege to know so many colleagues and to work with them in strengthening the Jewish people. And I have witnessed great changes in the rabbinate and in the Jewish community over the years. The impact of women in the rabbinate, and the great diversity of today’s rabbinate, enriches all of us. It has been so gratifying to see young people drawn to rabbinic service, including my son, and I have been privileged to guide some of them.
I often think we do not recognize the impact we make on the people we lead and serve. We are planting seeds: seeds of Jewish life; seeds of pursuing justice; seeds we hope will grow and flourish.
I remember Mike, who first came to see me when he was in high school, telling me that he wanted to have a bar mitzvah. Only one of his parents was Jewish, and the family had no religion. They never belonged to a congregation, and Mike never attended religious school. He wanted to be Jewish, and his hope to have a bar mitzvah was deeply sincere. There was something else—Mike had a terrible stutter, which became worse under stress. We worked together, and I marveled that his stutter disappeared when he chanted. As he chanted Torah, his parents and family were so deeply moved at his transformation and at his determination and commitment. Would that all our impediments could be removed by studying Torah!
Once at a Union Biennial, a man I did not remember approached me. He needed to thank me, he said, for officiating at the funeral of his mother. It was a routine lifecycle service, to be sure. But he went on to explain, “We had terrible disagreements in our family for years, and I was so afraid that this animosity would mar the service and detract from the love and honor we needed to feel for our mother.” What he thanked me for was not the service, but the meeting with the family, where they were able to come together to grieve and celebrate her life.
It was years later that this man approached me, and it is often many years later that we learn of our impact or success. All of us have stories to share, I am sure, and all of us recall on this anniversary the peaks and valleys of our rabbinic careers. How good it is to remember and to share these sacred reminiscences.
Rabbi Fred N. Reiner is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.