The First Time I Was a Rabbi

The first time I was a rabbi happened in a small town in West Virginia. It was not what I had expected. I’m pretty sure it was 1965 but I am certain it was Yom Kippur because Jan Peerce, the great operatic tenor, sang Kol Nidre.

I had just found out I was going to be the rabbi there only a few days earlier.

At the time, I was in my second-year of rabbinic school (age 22) and didn’t even rate a High Holyday student pulpit. That year there were only a few but I had missed the cut-off in the student-pulpit lottery.

Then, just two days before Yom Kippur, the student who had been assigned to conduct High Holyday services in Logan, West Virginia was taken ill and confined to bed. Since I was next on the list, within only a few hours, I found myself standing in the hallway outside a sick classmate’s bedroom taking notes:

You take the Norfolk & Western to Huntington. Then you rent a car and drive through the mountains to Logan. There will be a room reserved for you at the hotel. When you get in, phone a mister so-and-so and tell him you’re the replacement rabbi. He’ll tell you where the synagogue is. Services begin at 7.

He gave me his prayer book, marked with all the cues for the organist and the choir, and explained that, when it came time for the chanting of the Kol Nidre prayer, I should reach under the lectern where, hopefully, there would be a phonograph ready to play a recording of Jan Peerce (nee: Jacob Pincus Perelmuth) singing Kol Nidre.

“Have you decided what you’re preaching on yet?” my classmate asked.

Preaching? It hadn’t yet even dawned on me that I was supposed to give a sermon!

Nervous would be an understatement. I was terrified.

Within two days, on the holiest day of the year, I found myself standing up on the bima leading a congregation in prayer. Everything went pretty much according to plan until we got to the shema. (I am not making this up.)

Before I could invite the congregation to rise—as per the dramaturgical instructions written in my prayer book—I felt a slight rumbling in the floor of the building and heard a distant roaring sound. Then the chandeliers began slowly swinging back and forth. At first, I thought it might be an earthquake. But the rumbling and the roar steadily increased. Soon, the whole building shook. The noise was deafening. Maybe I was having a mystical experience. I can only imagine what the expression on my face must have looked like.

But—and this is the crazy part—no one else in the congregation seemed to take any notice at all. Some began casually whispering to one another. Others simply closed their eyes and seemed to be meditating. Excuse me but does anyone else hear this loud roar? Pardon me, but are we concerned that the building is violently shaking? Perhaps I had slipped into an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story and a village whose inhabitants had become inured to the earth shaking and the heavens roaring whenever they declared God’s unity.

Thankfully, a member of the congregation, recognizing my dismay, came up onto the stage with a whispered explanation: A few feet behind the back wall of the synagogue—he inconspicuously gestured, right behind the five-member choir—was the main line of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad’s coal division and, as it happened, every now and then, a two hundred car-long coal train passed by.

Fifteen minutes later, when the rumble and roar faded off into the distance, we continued our worship: Hear, O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

That winter, in my Hebrew Bible class, we read I Kings 19:12. “And after the roar there was the thin, barely audible sound of almost breathing.”

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate at the upcoming 2019 CCAR Convention. 


Fifty Years in the Reform Rabbinate

Let me begin this blog by saying that I grew up in Cincinnati, for many years the beating heart of Reform Judaism in America, attended religious high school classes at HUC, and had the Rosh Yeshivah of HUC-JIR in my family (Nelson Glueck, z’l, was my uncle. Despite all of that, I did not consider becoming a rabbi until my senior year in college. Even then, was not committed to becoming a Reform rabbi. Somehow or other, Bill Cutter, a fellow Eli, cherished friend and 3 years later an usher at my wedding, visited me and urged me to enroll at HUC-JIR. Meanwhile, I had applied to Columbia and Cornell to obtain an advanced degree in English literature in pursuit of a doctorate!

What prompted me to direct my attention to the Hebrew Union College and eventual ordination as a rabbi was my recognition that teaching was my specialty, and rather than teach an academic career, why not teach from the well-spring of my own tradition, about the people and faith I was raised in and thoroughly enjoyed. I considered applying to JTS, but was not willing to commit to the regimen of kashrut and Shabbat observance which had not been part of my upbringing. I briefly considered the Reconstructionist movement, but I knew very little about it, and didn’t particularly want to be studying in Philadelphia. In the end, I enrolled at HUC-JIR, and because I wanted to spend a year with the American Friends of the Hebrew University program in Jerusalem, my return to Cincinnati was delayed until the fall of 1962.

That said, let me address the primary assignment here: what have I learned in the course of my 50 years of service to Reform Judaism, which includes a year as a Chaplain resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital, six years as a prison chaplain to Jewish inmates, and nearly six years as the Spiritual Director of an Assisted Living and Memory Care facility?

I have learned what wonderful resources my colleagues are and how willing they are to respond to my inquiries. Even now, in retirement, I frequently communicate with colleagues when questions arise.

I have learned how many people, congregants and others, are willing to embrace a new rabbi who is ready to listen to what they have to say, and who doesn’t judge them in any way, or make them feel guilty.

I have learned how difficult it is in some settings to persuade a Temple Board to “do the right thing,” and how important it is to be cool-headed when others are upset.

I have learned that there are many satisfactions about being a rabbi in a large congregation, and at least as many satisfactions about being the rabbi of a small congregation.

I have learned how important it is to keep in touch with everyone in the community you serve, as much as is physically possible to do so, and attend to the needs of congregants facing medical or other issues.

I have learned that studying the weekly Torah portion with congregants can be an exalting experience, and that each year, the portion yields new insights.

What have I accomplished?

I have helped many, many people to become more serious about their Jewish beliefs and practices and more willing to make the synagogue an important part of their lives.

I have created meaningful liturgies for hatching, matching, and dispatching Jewish individuals and families.

I have made meaningful connections with other clergy in almost every community that I have served, especially in Long Beach and State College.
I led Passover Sedarim in Catholic and Protestant settings every year. I was also involved with the AIDS community in a city with several AIDS hospices, performing Bar Mitzvahs and conducting funerals for this beleaguered community, often rejected by their own families.

I helped to de-segregate the Long Beach school system by serving on a citywide committee specifically for that purpose. And while I was in Long Beach I was very active in interfaith work, and in addressing the challenge of teenage pregnancy. I also was closely connected with the local Hospice program, and involved with the conversion of scores of applicants.
During my “final” pulpit assignment in Winchester, Virginia, working with clergy, the pharmacy and nursing department of Shenandoah University as well as the American Cancer Society, I created a weeklong program to address the challenges of cancer in the community. It was a profound learning experience for me, the acme of my professional life beyond the pulpit.

I have helped people understand the difference between healing, which can be accomplished in almost any circumstance, and “curing,” which is a different matter entirely, and will not always be possible.

I have created a significant set of strategies to assist older people through the challenges of aging, and more strategies to help them acknowledge, and then celebrate the last chapter of their lives sand the journey that follows death.

I have learned to accept my own failings and missteps, and, though I can still do better, I have learned to stop judging other people’s behavior, because I don’t know that I would have acted any differently than they have done, given their situation.

What I am looking forward to:

The first thing I am looking forward to is spending more quality time with my four children, their spouses, and my grandchildren, who live in Alexandria, VA and Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Everything else is second to that. And I remain active in several clubs, local interfaith work, and doing a lot of reading of biographies of famous people. I also have a subscription with the Folger Shakespeare library to attend at least 3 plays a year in D.C., plus lots of musical events at our local University, and our really terrific Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.

And now that I have become a retired Reform rabbi, I look forward to each day’s opportunities and challenges, and meeting annually with other NAORRR members where we can continue to address both personal and Reform Jewish priorities. I keep in touch, by phone or email, or both, with scores of people I’ve met along the way, always being exalted in the conversations. I look forward to making people laugh, because laughter is good for the soul and the body.

I have developed a series of strategies to deal with aging, and a year ago presented a shiur on “strategies to achieve a happy ending”. My approach now is as follows: when the malach ha-mavet knocks on my door, I will invite him/her in for schnapps!

Rabbi Jonathan Brown is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate.