When I look back on the fifty years since my ordination, I realize that I have been very fortunate indeed. My rabbinic positions, with one wonderful exception, have been most rewarding and all have been within the institutions of our Reform Movement, beginning with nine years at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus, three years as assistant dean, and then six more as associate dean.
In 1982, I accepted Rabbi Alex Schindler’s invitation to become the regional director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the URJ (then still known as the UAHC), covering congregations from San Luis Obispo, California to El Paso, Texas. When Rabbi Schindler was succeeded by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, I moved to New York and became the senior vice president of the URJ, retiring (or so I thought) in 2008. It was Al Pacino who said in The Godfather series, “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in” and, indeed, I was asked to serve as the interim director of rabbinic placement, a position I held from 2009 to 2011.
I may be the only CCAR member who has been on the payroll of all three Movement institutions organized by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise! In any case, I found each of those positions to be fulfilling, satisfying, and growthful—and each produced lifelong friendships with rabbinic colleagues. In each, I came to appreciate the importance of rabbinic-lay relationships, the component parts of rabbinic leadership, and that success in the rabbinate depends less on facility with challenging texts and more on essential menschlichkeit and good old-fashioned “people skills.”
At the outset of this essay, I referred to a “wonderful exception” to my institutional positions. Through a delightful bit of serendipity, in 1993 I was invited to lead High Holy Day services in a new, not-yet-fully organized group of Jews in Singapore. I went, thinking that it was a one-off opportunity for an unusual experience, never—never!—imagining that it would lead to a twenty-one-year tenure as the visiting rabbi in what would become the United Hebrew Congregation in that fascinating Southeast Asia city-state. Toward the end of those twenty-one years, I convinced the lay leaders that the community’s numeric and programmatic growth required the presence of a full-time, in-residence rabbi, and then had the joy of “installing” my successor. In retrospect, the experience of taking a congregation in its “infancy” through its “adolescence” into “adulthood” brought me a great sense of satisfaction and joy.
I should mention one other highlight of my years at the URJ, namely the opportunity to develop the newest of the Union’s sleepaway camps in Snohomish County, WA, not far from the city where I grew up (Bellingham, WA). Camp Kalsman, situated on 299 acres in a gorgeous setting, serves Reform Jewish families from Alaska to the Northern California border and from Western Washington through Idaho and Montana. I kvell when I have been able to visit—seeing youngsters benefit from a place where “Jewish identity formation” happens so beautifully! I also am amused to see the signpost naming the main road through the camp in my honor: Lenny Lane (with no apparent apology to The Beatles!).
All this being said, I do have some significant concerns regarding our Reform Movement and its congregations in the years ahead. It’s not clear to me these days that people care so much about what it means to be part of a “movement.” It’s also not clear about the potentially long-lasting effects of the Covid pandemic on our congregations. I worry about the growth of antisemitism and about distressing political developments in Israel. Worries to one side, I do enjoy retirement and I do look back on my fifty years in the rabbinate with great satisfaction and joy.
Rabbi Lennard R. Thal is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We celebrate him and all of the CCAR members who reached this milestone in 2023.