In the opening months of my tenure at my new congregation, I said to a group of lay leaders, “I am the interim rabbi.” No, I didn’t mean that I would move on at the end of a year, like the outstanding intentional interim colleague who served so well in that capacity before my arrival. Still, I meant what I said.
There was a time that such a thought would have shocked me. I served more than twenty years in one congregation, beginning a year after ordination. I expected to serve there until retirement, then actively as rabbi emeritus until burial in that Temple’s cemetery. I envisioned my rabbinate as intimately bound to that singular synagogue.
The future I envisioned was not to be. After a traumatic upheaval, I submitted my resignation; then, however awkwardly, by mutual agreement, I continued to serve in limited ways during a year’s sabbatical. Over the course of those months, I came to the realization — at first painful, and ultimately comforting — that the congregation and I would be just fine without one another.
I began to divide the ways of that congregation into three categories: 1) Practices that predated my rabbinate there; 2) Aspects that colleagues, congregants and I had built together; and 3) Innovations that sprang into being after me, before I was even fully out the door.
My division of that congregation’s world, though, was false. Even if I was there much too long to have been what we derisively term an “unintentional interim,” I had been the interim rabbi. We all are. Congregations have stories that begin before we arrive and continue after we leave. Even our most lasting and well-remembered impact would likely have happened, in one form or another, had somebody else been in “our” pulpit. בלעדי, Yoseph said, “Without me, God (and unseen forces of history) will see to (the congregation’s) welfare.”
This realization requires a humility, a ביטול היש, that challenges everyone, perhaps particularly rabbis. Its acceptance, though, may lead to a healthier, happier rabbinate, not to mention more successful congregational transitions.
Whether we serve five years or fifty, we can help our congregants become the Jews they can best become, facilitate meaning and service in our communities, and summon the Divine Presence. If we see ourselves as interim rabbi, for four years or forty, we can leave our congregations healthy. Read that last sentence again; it’s an intentional double entendre: Both we and our congregations need to be healthy at the end of our tenures.
When an interim rabbi leaves, at the end of one year or a full career, s/he can find a new, fulfilling life, potentially including meaningful rabbinical service, outside that congregation. When an interim rabbi leaves, after two years or twenty, the congregation can be primed to welcome a new rabbinical leader, to continue its history into its future, from strength to greater strength.
Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.