News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Month One: Thoughts from a New Rabbi

I have frequently been telling others that now that I am a rabbi, my dreams have become a reality.  Yet, I’m not quite sure how real this reality feels.  There are days in which I still feel like the student Rabbi who visits his pulpit for the weekend, or the rabbinic intern who has a myriad of responsibilities that exposes him to all aspects of congregational life.  I sometimes have to be reminded that when someone refers to someone as “rabbi,” they very well could be talking about me.   Even with the numerous signs in my synagogue that addresses me as “Rabbi P.J. Schwartz,” I still think I am in the dream and this is not my reality.

During my second unit of CPE, we spoke a lot about the power of a title such as rabbi.  I always asked, “Where does P.J. fit in all of this?”  I have learned that being a rabbi and being P.J. are not separate things, but two aspects of who I am that are inextricably linked together.  In some sense, my name has become my title, and my title as become my name.  Believe it or not, I know which rabbi my administrative assistant is referring to when she speaks about my Senior or I.  “P.J.” and “Rabbi” have become interchangeable terms and I’m getting used to the idea that maybe I am no longer visiting my student pulpit or no longer an intern.

Transitions are difficult, and I can’t deny the fact that transitioning from student to working professional or in my case rabbinical student to Rabbi has been overwhelming and exciting, scary and thrilling, and nerve-wracking and affirming.  As my eyes begin to open, the dream begins to fade, and the reality sinks in, I am constantly reminded of the fact that we are in the month of Elul.  We are supposed to reflect upon our transitions, our growth, and our lesser strengths.  We are supposed to think about what it means to have a support team, reexamining how we manage our time, and explore what we can do to renew ourselves for the year to come.  I’ve always looked at my Judaism as a road map for how I should live.  In this case, my Judaism is guiding me, one day at time, as I fully integrate myself into this new role.  My excitement only grows as we head to the kickoff events of the year and I start to meet more congregants.  Soon enough, the hallways will be filled with kids from the Early Childhood Center and Religious School, my days will be filled with planning meetings, programs, and kids hopefully will be calling me Rabbi P.J.! (which, of course, is my solution to the name and title dilemma).

May my reflections inspire you to reflect in this month of Elul, and may the year to come be as sweet as you want it to be, inspirational as you need it to be, and awe-filled as it can be.

Rabbi PJ Schwartz is Assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel, in Westport, CT.

General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Week One: Thoughts from a New Rabbi

Being a seasoned rabbi of nearly five weeks and an experienced member of a clergy team for five days, I can honestly say that I have learned a great deal in such a short period of time.  You always hear from veteran professionals in any field that the real schooling comes after you receive a degree.  You always are told that the real teachers are those individuals whom you encounter every day.  Whether they are co-workers, patients, clients, or congregants, they are the ones who teach you how to do what you have always wanted to do well. 

I’ve learned that my passion for Judaism and commitment to the rabbinate allows me to embrace what it takes to be a rabbi, but it doesn’t make me a rabbi.  What makes me a rabbi are those moments of connection with others, those endless hours of planning, processing, and programming, and those difficult times in which you must say “no” so that you can honor the importance of self-care.  

In my first week of a rabbi, I even offered to work on my day off, simply because, in part, the congregation was waiting for me to start moving forward with the planning and implementation of the year to come.  The calendar meeting was postponed until I arrived, the ritual committee wanted to discuss the coming year, and mailings that would have been sent out months ago were held off until the entire clergy team could give their input.  I had to come into work on my day off.  I needed to show that I was responsible, eager, and committed.  What I quickly learned was that the best way to show that I was responsible, eager, and committed was to actually take the day off.  I needed to enjoy sleeping in, wearing my shorts, going to lunch with my wife, and spending time with my dog.  Both my Senior Rabbi and Executive Director reminded me that I need to not only take care of myself, but to create boundaries now that will become difficult to set later.

 I’ve learned how important it is to collaborate with not just your fellow clergy, but your administrative assistants, bookkeepers, membership coordinators, program directors, and even custodial staff.  In order for our congregations to be communities of welcoming, centers of Jewish life, and places our congregants want to be, we must act with humility, show our love and compassion for others, and treat each other with the same dignity that we seek to be treated. 

As rabbis, young and seasoned, we all advocate for a Judaism that is vibrant and enduring.  Perhaps what I have learned the most in my first week as a rabbi is that we have so much we can learn from each other.  My rabbinate will never be your rabbinate, and my conception of what it means to be a rabbi will never be your conception – and nor should it be.  Yet, our visions can be integrated and we can grow and enrich our rabbinates because of each other.  The best mentors are those who strive to connect with those whom they are mentoring, and the best mentees are those who both listen to their mentors, but also challenge them to challenge you.

It’s been a week and I’ve learned so much in such a short period of time.  As we quickly approach the month of Elul in less than a month, I can only wonder what other reflections I’ll glean in the weeks to come.

Rabbi Phillip (PJ) Schwartz is the assistant rabbi of Temple Israel, Westport, CT.