50 Years in the Rabbinate

About the time I was ordained, Arnold Jacob Wolf alav ha-shalom, wrote a paper entitled, The Ideal Synagogue. I have saved it over the years. With modification it represents the dream of an ideal congregational rabbi I have harbored for half a century and even before.

What if there were a God? A God who was alive, concerned, somehow connected with the Jews. What, then, would the Synagogue be like? It would be a place of prayer directed toward the living God, where one could study God’s cryptic communiques to man and humbly try to enact God’s will in life …. No poor man, no victim, no brother in need would be unwelcome to entreat these Jews. All of these deeds of the congregation would be in the service of God. Service of self would not be the purpose of that congregation. Strenuous work in prayer, in study, and in acts of compassion would preempt time or energy for self-congratulation or for amusement. … Entering that congregation would mean submission, not to the Rabbi or the board, but to the One who called the world (and the synagogue) into being.

(That Synagogue would be a congregation) where all views are welcome if those who hold them do not run away but seek further, where an atheist is (only) one who lives everywhere as if there were no God.

The Rabbi of such a congregation will open the substance of his faith to public inspection and the accuracy of his knowledge will be on trial every day. His members .. will want his concern and will offer him their advice. He will learn more than he meant to learn. He will be pushed to extremities of creativity he finds dangerous and new. … He will see the awful emptiness of the contemporary American Jew and most of all, his own and his predestined failure will be in the service of the Utmost. … He will stand for something, some One – and encourage his people to become both free and committed.

Perhaps this congregation under God is Utopian. But Utopia is only what some call the Messiah. Messianic is what takes a long time, and Jewish is what we can do immediately.

My immediate Rabbinate has been far from this ideal, but it has been closer than many. Its best years, the greater majority, have been spent at congregations which hold active membership in both the Reform and Conservative Movements. In West Virginia and Utah I have come to learn that Judaism is a uniter of diverse Jews once they come to face and accept the commonalities of our Covenant.

Inspiring my rabbinate have been teachings of four of my Rabbis. I paraphrase them slightly:

Rabbi Maurice Pekarsky of the University of Chicago Hillel taught me: Judaism is a discipline for making a Jew into a better person.

Rabbi Petuchowsky of HUC-JIR taught me: You come here wanting to be a Rabbi, but first you have to learn how to be a Jew.

Rabbi Jacob Radar Marcus taught me: Remember, rabbis, you are in sales, not in management. God is the Manager.

Rabbi Sheldon Blank taught me: For Jews, hope is a duty.

All these teachings have led me into an active life teaching, preaching, leading worship, officiating at life cycle events from womb to tomb, representing the Jewish community to the non-Jewish world from Mormons to Muslims, counseling, administering, mentoring and nurturing potential Jews and non Jews who love Judaism, attending an infinity of meetings, helping to set policy, distributing tzedakah, executing the will of a bachelor philanthropist, and even janitoring. All in all, I’ve been neither a Rav nor a Rebbe, but proudly a Reform Rabbi who teaches Judaism to Conservative and Reform Jews in Salt Lake City.

In retirement, I have spent three wonderful seasons in Israeli Youth Villages and nearly four fulfilling years as Rabbi in Residence in Alaska. I taught world religions in a liberal arts college for eleven years. Twice, in between my successors, I’ve assumed full Rabbinic duties. I belong to two Havuot. Rochelle and I continue our lives together in Salt Lake City, the place that has become our home. I continue to teach teens and adults and officiate when asked in the Synagogue where we raised our two wonderful children. Close friends surround us here, and two plots await in the Salt Lake Jewish Cemetery.

In 1987, Rabbi Morris Hershman of the URJ told me: If you can raise a merger of convenience into a vision, you’ll be success. I’m still working at it.

Rabbi Fred Wenger is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate at the upcoming 2019 CCAR Convention.