Imagine you and I are seated together on an airplane. You, a complete stranger to me, try to strike up a conversation. I, a rabbi, try to do everything I can to avoid the subject of what I do………my “calling.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am very proud to be a rabbi. I feel blessed, privileged, and honored to maintain such an important communal position. It’s just that sometimes when I say “I’m a rabbi,” strange things happen. Like people get all weird. There is astonishment, shock, bewilderment, anger and sometimes even excessive glee. Some people ask me “Why don’t the Jews believe in Jesus?” Others rant about “how ALL RELIGION is evil.” Still others, upon hearing I am a rabbi, start covering their mouths after uttering a swear word. (I #$% hate that!)
The list of crazy possibilities of what might happen when I say “rabbi” is truly endless. And while these and other conversations may be interesting to my seat-mate, when I’m stuck in a flying metal can for three hours, such discussions do not always make for an enjoyable flight.
On the other hand, there have been many other times when blurting out to a stranger “I’m a rabbi” has led to meaningful, interesting, and heartfelt conversations. Like the time someone told me about how, as a radiologist he self-diagnosed a life threatening situation which would have certainly killed him within the hour had he not had access to the equipment and tests that indicated that he needed immediate emergency surgery. (That story still gives me chills!) Sometimes saying “I’m a rabbi” enables me to help a random person cope with a challenging life situation and sometimes I can help others see Judaism (or their own religion) in a more positive light. In such situations, an otherwise seemingly “chance” meeting seems “Beshert,” and it is me who learns something valuable from the encounter.
Often the question is asked of me:
“Why did you want to become a Rabbi?”
While this question is usually asked out of sincere interest and from a place of kindness, there are occasions when I wonder if what is really being asked is: “Why THE HECK did you want to become a rabbi?” Or to put it another way: “Why would anyone want to do something like that?” Because to my inquisitor, the notion of dedicating one’s life to God, Torah, and the Jewish people seems so ridiculous, so unfathomable, that no one in their right mind would make such a commitment.
In moments like these, when seated on an airplane next to someone who carries this approach, I have been known to avoid answering the question by creating a diversion: “HEY, LOOK THERE IS A MAN ON THE WING!!” Luckily, you, my dear airplane seat-mate, are not a person with such an attitude. And since you have read this far, you no longer are a stranger. So for you, I will tell my tale.
I became a rabbi in part as a response to growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan as one of the only Jewish kids in my public school. For me, a profoundly influential religious moment occurred when, in the midst of a holiday art project, my 3rd grade teacher announced the following: “Today we are now going to make Christmas wreaths. Everyone here is Christian, correct?” (This, in my PUBLIC school!) Upon hearing the teacher’s question, my fellow students, my dear friends, all turned their gazes upon me as I sat in the center of the room, trying not to be noticed. And then, with their pointer fingers extended toward me, they excitedly exclaimed:
“He’s not Christian! He’s a Hanukah!!”
Let’s just say that I was not pleased. After all, it had only been three days (THREE DAYS) since my mom had come into the class, told my friends the story of Hanukah, fattened them up with latkes and donuts, and basically bribed them to be nice to me with delicious chocolate gelt. Sure, letting my mom “out” me as a Jew was my choice, and I don’t think my friends meant me any harm. And yet, truth be told, the experience left me feeling like the loneliest Jew on the planet.
As time passed, thanks to my parents’ positive Jewish modeling and some good heart-to-heart talks, I eventually embraced and took pride in my Jewish identity. No longer did questions like: “Do you guys celebrate Thanksgiving?” or “Are you guys all rich?” or “Do Jews eat carrots?” make me bristle. Instead I started to enjoy answering such questions. Soon I began to see myself as an “ambassador to Judaism.” Being an ambassador meant that what I said and what I did really mattered. It also meant that I needed to know as much as I could about that which I was representing. No, I didn’t score any converts, (I didn’t try) but I didn’t get beat up either.
As good as this “ambassador” role was, I found myself often longing to be among others who understood me. I pined for people who knew the secret Jewish handshake, people who also had “Dayeinu” stuck in their heads, and people who, like me, knew the truth about Santa. In time, I found my “peeps” at Jewish summer camp, youth group, synagogue and in college. In a sense, it was this search for my people that led me to the Rabbinate. And what I found while searching for Goldsteins, Schwartzs and Cohens was a profound love of God, Torah, Jewish texts, rituals, music, ethics and values, Israel and more. At the same time, I realized that Judaism has something important to say about how we lead our lives.
BTW-the decision to become a rabbi didn’t come easily. I agonized for a long time, wondering if I was right for the job or if it was right for me. It seemed to me that I had the right personality to succeed, I just wasn’t so sure about God. After much soul searching, praying, and writing, I finally decided to apply to Rabbinical School and though I still have lots of questions, (Thank-God) I know I made the right choice.
There’s so much I love about being a rabbi: I love people and being a rabbi means getting paid to be a mensch. I love having the chance to encourage, teach, and to inspire others to do good in the world—like working at Temple Sholom’s weekly soup kitchen, or building a house in New Orleans to help flood victims. I love sharing with others Jewish texts which teach us to be more moral, holy and ethical people and help us to improve our relationships. Being a rabbi also means having the honored privilege to be invited into people’s lives during some of their most joyous moments—like standing under the chuppah with a couple while officiating a wedding—(How cool is that?) and it means extending a hand of support to a family in their darkest moments when the ground suddenly crumbles beneath their feet.
Quick story—recently in the midst of a happy celebration of my birthday in Michigan I received a heartbreaking phone call informing me of the tragic death of a young person. It was clear that I needed to return home immediately to comfort the family. As you can imagine, this call was the last thing I wanted to receive on my birthday. And yet, as strange as it may sound, this phone call, received on my birthday, served for me as a ringing reminder of why I was born, and what God has called me to do on this earth. (I hope I am doing a good job!)
Admittedly I don’t always succeed and sometimes I find myself awake at night thinking about what more could be done. What keeps me going is the sustaining comfort of our loving and caring God and my faith in the power of Jewish tradition and community. My own losses too have made me even more aware of how God, community and tradition can be a source of comfort in times of need. For example, I had only been at Temple Sholom a month when my own younger brother and only sibling died suddenly. I will never forget the kindness and caring of the Temple Sholom community who at this time barely knew me. To be a part of this Temple during those trying times felt to me and my family as though angels had descended upon our broken-hearted home and had enclosed us in the loving shelter of their wings.
Listen—I could go on and on about what I love about my “calling.” Were there more time, I might talk about having a relationship with God or how praying, studying and being an active part of a Jewish community can make such a positive difference in one’s life. I’m sure there are a hundred other topics I could discuss as well, but alas, I think the plane is landing soon.
Anyway, I haven’t yet had a chance to ask about you! What do you do? Why THE HECK do you do what you do? What stirs your soul? Please, please tell! I am interested, I mean come on, you read this whole long essay—you are so nice and patient….now talk!!