I write on July 1, 2015, mindful that many colleagues begin new positions today, two years to the day after I commenced my tenure at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.
When I arrived, I found a transition-weary congregation, after eight months without a resident rabbi followed by a year with an outstanding interim rabbi. Staff and congregants had circled July 1, 2013, as the red-letter day when the “permanent” rabbi would arrive and transition would end.
I, though, was fresh from CCAR’s outstanding “First 100 Days” seminar for rabbis in transition. Steve Fox had told us that transition would continue at least for our first 18 months in our new positions, perhaps until our second contracts were signed. I emphasized to a receptive lay leadership that a new phase of transition was only beginning. I reminded everyone that even Rabbi Ira Sanders, z”l — whose tenure, including his emeritus service, had spanned six decades — wasn’t “permanent.” However, a key staff member had endured enough transition, giving notice only three weeks after I arrived. Another left after the fall holidays. At URJ’s terrific Shallat Seminar for rabbis and congregational presidents in transition, key lay leaders and I learned that our level of staff turnover or more was common and to be expected. Still, the loss of institutional memory in our office was often debilitating.
Our Transition Committee Chairs understood and would have been up to the challenge, but their committee had been constituted to fill in the gaps when the congregation didn’t have a resident rabbi. They were prepared to throw a party — several parties, actually, which were very helpful — once the new rabbi arrived. Then, though, the Transition Committee was determined to disband.
Much was awkward during the first year. In my twenty-third year as a congregational rabbi, I frequently felt like a novice. Lay partners and I often tripped over each other, with their deference to my rabbinic leadership often running counter to my eagerness to be true to the congregation’s traditions. I was new to certain roles that had been filled by others in a larger synagogue, and needed to develop new competencies. Often, services and programs felt like an uneasy mixture of my style and the congregation’s, not yet seamlessly meshed.
Complicating matters, the congregation wasn’t the only party going through a challenging transition. The loss of my previous position had been traumatic. Even though I had a year’s sabbatical before entering the new congregation, I was still reeling from losing my home of 21 years, where I expected to stay to the end of my career and beyond.
My own trauma was matched by my family’s dislocation. My wife and younger son adapted quickly and happily to Little Rock, but were giving up a great deal in the process. Our older son took longer, and that first year was rough. Meanwhile, my dad was nursing his dying wife in their home around the corner from where we had lived in our previous community. I was busy in Little Rock, but my mind was often directed to my father’s home and to grieving the loss of my step-mother of 29 years.
Personal adjustments were tough. Professional adaptation is more at the heart of this essay’s subject. During the first year, what may be called “post-traumatic stress” amplified my reaction to even the smallest and most limited criticism. Moreover, having done outstanding due diligence in the search process, my new lay leaders were well aware of my foibles and were understandably concerned when even faint hints of those issues arose.
What a difference the second year made!
In the second year, the less-new rabbi is no longer leading the congregation through any annual event for the first time. The congregation’s receptivity to what I had to offer was more easily combined with what I had learned about the congregation’s long-established patterns. Our staffing had stabilized, with a talented Administrator joining our team at the end of my first year.
At a personal level, I had begun — imperceptibly, at first — to let go of the traumas of the past. My family was now at home in Little Rock, including my father, in his own home on our very street.
Today, my wife and I are returning to Little Rock from a brief “kids at camp” getaway. By coincidence, we went to the same vacation spot three years ago at this season, shortly after I had resigned my previous pulpit. Perhaps “déjà vu” would be a better word than “coincidence:” During both of these trips, to a place we haven’t been any other time, others were moving me out of my office. The two moves couldn’t be more different. Three years ago, I was being moved out of an office I adored, where I had only three months earlier had every reason to believe I would spend the rest of my career. This summer, at my no-longer-new congregation, our offices are being remodeled for many reasons, not the least of them being to create a quieter and more private space for congregants to meet with me. Three years ago, at a retreat that was supposed to be relaxing, I was constantly on the phone, confronting compounding trauma. This week, even with a big move happening in the office, I didn’t make more than a handful of phone calls in four days, and none of them was frantic.
Ten days ago, at our congregation’s Annual Meeting, I was pleased to announce that I was ready to declare our mutual rabbinical transition complete. Yes, I was talking about a transition that many had imagined finished two years earlier. The truth is, though, that Steve Fox had been correct. Two years would be required for congregation and rabbi to feel fully at home with one another.
At that same meeting, the congregation approved the extension of my rabbinic term, for five years beyond the first three, in effect ratifying a contract already approved by the Board to take effect beginning next summer. Yes, after two years, transition is complete, for both rabbi and congregation.
Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.