I usually blog as “The Boxing Rabbi” so forgive me if I stretch the metaphor. In my sport of choice, boxing, longevity is measured in very small numbers. Most fighters have careers that last only a few years. Some are successful for only a few months, and for virtually all except a select group, their career is completely over when they reach their mid-twenties. In addition, if one can manage to retire in good health, with minimal effects of repeated blows, and financially secure, it is a small miracle and one that few in this difficult sport ever achieve.
While the rabbinate is hardly akin to the fast-paced and physically brutal sport of boxing, it is undeniably taxing physically, mentally and spiritually, and its effects take a toll on the rabbi (and too often the rabbi’s family). Which is why I was so moved this past Tuesday morning when we gathered for the annual HUC-JIR breakfast at the CCAR Convention.
For those that have not yet attended this event, the highlight of the HUC-JIR breakfast is the “roll-call” of classes, beginning with the most recently ordained. To watch the progression of classes from those ordained in recent years, progressing back through the decades is both joyful and celebratory. But as we approach the moment to recognize colleagues ordained for forty and fifty and even fifty plus years, joy and celebration turns to awe and admiration.
As I have made my way through the congregational rabbinate, I have learned along the way that longevity in this profession is a combination of careful planning, deliberate self-care, wise choices, strong familial support, and yes, plain damn luck. Rather than fearing and dreading the end of our active rabbinate and retirement, we should embrace retirement as a necessary and vital stage in a rabbinic career, as much a part of the life arc of a rabbi as ordination and pulpit or organizational transitions. To know colleagues who have entered retirement whole in spirit, mind, body, and economic security is to know role models worthy of emulation, admiration, and inspiration. Sadly I have known too many colleagues who retire broken in spirit, continually bitter in mind and emotion, damaged in physical health, and even struggling financially. My heart aches in pain at every story of such a colleague. To bear witness this Tuesday morning to those rabbis who have achieved the end of their full time rabbinate healthy in mind, unbroken in spirit and hope, and even with myriad physical ailments greeting each new day with strength and determination is a joy and a privilege, and a testament to the ability of each one of us, given enough wisdom, guidance, support and some plain old luck, to make it there as well. To my older colleagues, graduates of HUC-JIR classes of decades earlier who have achieved so much and have embraced their retirement with the same skill and wisdom that they served the Jewish people, you are all “champions” in my book.
Doug Sagal is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Westfield, NJ.