Rabbinic Reflections

‘Meet People Where They Are and Grow Together’: Rabbi Jerome David on 50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate

A true story: I was in the third grade, or maybe fourth, and I went to Shabbat services with my friend Gary at his Orthodox shul. We are both children of Holocaust survivors. While his family clung to tradition, mine tried to escape it. I was trying to follow the service, but to this day I remember that uncomfortable, sinking feeling of being totally lost and confused—being a stranger in a strange place. I also had this growing awareness that the older kids sitting near me were pointing at me, talking about me and laughing, or so it seemed.  Just then the gabai towered over me, grabbed my siddur, and turned it right-side up! “Here, try this,” he barked. 

I swore then I was not going to remain stupid in my own Judaism. My grandparents were killed because they were Jewish, and I didn’t know the first thing about it. I prevailed on my parents to join a synagogue—a Reform temple, where my rabbi served as a mentor and role model. At my bar mitzvah, the rabbi commented to the congregation, “We now know where our future rabbis are coming from.” A seed was planted. 

I’ve thought a lot about the trajectory of my own life, having recently returned from my high school reunion. 

I thought about how I could have predicted so little of it. If you would have told me when I was a fifteen-year-old kid at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio that I would be here with you, now, celebrating my fiftieth anniversary in the rabbinate, and fifty years at one congregation, I’m not sure what I would have said. 

Could I, arriving at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in the summer of 1974—my sideburns long, my Midwestern accent thick, my experience non-existent—could I have known that I would stay, not the two years prescribed by my initial contract, but fifty years in the end, through generations, through upheaval, through change, moving from Cooper River to the promised corner of Springdale and Kresson, unifying with M’kor Shalom and becoming Kol Ami?

In the words of our son, Rabbi Ben David, “We all have examples too. I know we do.” You didn’t think it would go this way. You weren’t expecting it either: the news, the sickness, the sadness, the surprises, the professional and personal transitions one after another. Who would ever have imagined? 

One unexpected consequence is how agreeing to pilot the Introduction to Judaism course in the winter of 1979 would turn into a lifelong passion. I’m still teaching the course and so many of my cherished graduates are members and leaders of our congregation. This journey remains a labor of love for me—not only have I instructed, I have learned volumes and have been truly inspired by my students.  

One might say that the prevailing philosophy of my rabbinate is to “meet people where they are and grow together.”  

I am still growing, reaching, climbing, and hoping. 

 Rabbi Jerome David is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

One reply on “‘Meet People Where They Are and Grow Together’: Rabbi Jerome David on 50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate”

That was beautiful, Rabbi. Steve and I have had discussions on your philosophy of meeting people where they are, it is so comforting and welcoming when you approach people in that way. Thank you for all the wonderful lessons you’ve taught us and for the future lessons you will continue to teach us. Judy Lubetkin

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