Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger: Gratitude for 50 Years Spent Teaching and Preaching

With rabbis on both sides of my family, growing up spending weeks each summer at UAHC camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and involvement in local and regional NFTY, I do not remember ever wanting to be anything but a rabbi. So, I saved a year by attending HUC-JIR’s undergraduate program, taking courses at HUC-JIR while majoring in English Literature at the University of Cincinnati, then entering the second year of HUC-JIR.

The summer before my final year at HUC-JIR, Ann and I married. The fine folks of my student pulpit in Jonesboro, Arkansas thought we were adorable as they wined and dined us from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur. Then we settled down to married life, which, for me included writing a dissertation on Reform Jewish theology with Dr. Jakob Petuchowsky.

Then we were off to an assistant rabbi position with Joseph Asher at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco for three years, and to another great place as solo rabbi for eight and a half years (nine football seasons) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Aren’t you afraid to preach to all those academics?” a few friends asked. Perhaps I should have been, but I quickly found that the academics were great people, each a specialist in some narrow field and anxious to respect their rabbi as a Jewish specialist!

In each step in my career Ann has been an invaluable partner, with creative ideas for congregations, and, at least as important, a memory for names and relationships far superior to mine. When we decided we were ready to move on to a larger pulpit, we ended up in a city with a marvelous cultural life, Fort Worth, Texas, where we have lived for thirty-eight years and raised two wonderful children. Moreover, the Beth-El community was proud to have their rabbi play leadership roles in the city as well as work on growing the temple and, ultimately, building a marvelous new building, and endowments. Brite Divinity School at TCU welcomed my teaching a course every couple of years, and I made time to write articles for the CCAR Journal and other publications.

When asked over the years what I liked about the congregational rabbinate I generally spoke of the great variety of the work: not only preaching, teaching, and being there with people at life’s highs and lows, but administration, programming, leadership development, counseling, youth work, and engagement in the community. Always, both because I feel most authentic as a rabbi when studying and because I enjoy it, writing has brought satisfaction, whether sermons and articles or, in recent years, two books.

Some twenty years ago the fine folks of Beth-El asked if I would like to take some months off as a sabbatical leave. I had the chutzpah to respond that what I needed was not a single chunk of time, but a month or two each summer to pursue various writing projects where good Jewish libraries were available. They graciously agreed. Soon Ann and I were enjoying the delights of New York City, and I was happily ensconced most days in the HUC-JIR library.  Serendipitously, I had contacted a JTS professor of Jewish philosophy, Neil Gillman, for some reading suggestions. It turned out that we shared an interest in the significance of the current revolution in cognitive studies and neuroscience for theology. Each summer I would make pilgrimage to JTS, and later to Gillman’s apartment, and in the role of friend and mentor he pushed and prodded as I shared chapters. Later he told his publisher, Jewish Lights, that I needed to be taken seriously. I am not under any illusions about going down in history as a revolutionary Jewish thinker, but I dare to think I have made some original contributions to the stream of Jewish thinking in Our Religious Brains (Jewish Lights, 2012) and Why Call It God?: Theology for the Age of Science (Wipf & Stock, 2020).

No rush to wrap it up, but when mortality catches up with me, I will continue to be grateful to God, the rabbinate, family, and friends for a satisfying and, I dare say, meaningful life.

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate. He retired in 2016.

We look forward to celebrating 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 2022. CCAR rabbis can register here.