The African proverb: it takes a village to raise a child pretty much describes my 50-year rabbinic career because of all the people who helped me get here.
My classmates were the first to rescue me when I arrived at HUC-JIR. Though New York City was only a few thousand miles from Austin, Texas, I felt like I had been dropped into an alien world. But my new classmates, all from the northeast, helped me find housing and jobs, welcomed me into their parent’s homes, showed me where to find Hebrew textbooks on the Lower East Side, and then spent five years explaining the meaning of course work that was totally foreign to my classical Reform, southern mindset.
Meanwhile Dr. Cohen and Dr. Borowitz z”l helped my HUC-JIR transition in significant ways. By teaching about power politics, Dr. Cohen helped me differentiate between the political and the spiritual in Jewish texts. This distinction made the “sacred pronouncements” in the texts more believable because I could finally understand theological narratives in their historical context. I think my students over the years appreciated this insight as much as I did.
The “God question” was also an early stumbling block to my rabbinic career, but here Dr. Borowitz z”l came to my aid. His existentialist explanation of knowing God in moments when we let God in, as opposed to having to prove God as a concept, immediately resonated with me. I liked the Buberian notion that personally experiencing God’s presence, despite the existential risk involved, was “proof” enough that God is real. This paradigm has been one of the most valuable accessories in my rabbinic tool kit.
Fortune further unexpectedly shined on me when I reached out to Rabbi Harry Danziger while navigating my assistantship at Temple Israel in Memphis. Harry had preceded me there, and, in addition to having been loved by all, was known for his extraordinary wisdom. Harry quickly became my friend and career-long mentor. He gave me sage advice and at a critical time in my rabbinate. He said two things: First, a rabbi’s greatest gift to people comes from just being there for them. The words and prayers are important, but a rabbi’s spiritual presence says more than words ever can. Second, if you first give your congregants time to feel comfortable with you, the rest of your time with them will take care of itself. This advice has served me well whenever I have moved or launched a new initiative. Harry was teaching Relational Judaism long before it became popular.
At Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi, congregants helped me refine my curriculum-building skills. They met with me once a month to develop lessons for a seventh through ninth grade, three-year, rotating religious school program. I introduced raw ideas and they massaged them into effective lesson plans until we felt they would work. And they did. I won the NATE Samuel Kaminker Memorial Curriculum Award for Outstanding Informal Education as a result, but my congregants deserve much of the credit for the cooperative effort. Best of all, I learned the value of partnering with lay leadership, which was particularly important in Jackson for another reason. I went there near the end of the Civil Rights struggle when the Jewish community still faced attacks from the Klan. I quickly learned that I had to coordinate my pronouncements with the best interests of the congregation lest I put my congregants at risk. This collaborative mindset then carried over into my rabbinate as a whole and has reaped benefits I never could have anticipated.
My introduction to Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa came by way of a behind the scenes recommendation from another classmate. It has been the gift that keeps giving. My congregants here opened their hearts to Donna and our family from day one. They gave us a forever home, where we could feel appreciated, supported, and loved.
To put it bluntly, I had no idea how to lead a large congregation. My leadership saw this and decided to patiently teach me, skill by skill, with each new president and executive committee adding a new one.
And then my lay leaders did something even more important. By providing a safe environment in which failure was an acceptable option, I learned to do the same for my expanding team and for all my congregants. My leaders though never spoke of failure. They referred instead to “accepting people and outcomes.” I adopted this phrase and attitude and am convinced that using it widely became the “secret sauce” propelling our growth.
It took me a full 50 years to grow into my rabbinate and I am incredibly grateful for the “village” that made my evolution possible.
Rabbi Richard J. Birnholz serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Florida. He is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.
We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.