It's been a pretty amazing weekend. It began with an incredible service of farewell for me Friday night, and concluded with a barbecue with my HaGesher (20s/30s Chavurah) friends. I've been trying to figure out how to talk and write about the experience of it all, and I'm very much at a loss for words. In many ways it's been more emotional than I'd been expecting: I realized I've been so focused on getting started at Beth Emeth that I haven't taken enough time to process what it's meant to work with such great people at Shir Ami and what it means for me to leave. And then there's the tribute stuff. As I said Friday, I'm not very good at hearing positive things said about me--I'm too much a New England Yankee, too focused on the work, and I haven't done enough to deserve (I think) any praise. I'm especially mindful of that fact as Rabbi Grumbacher, my soon-to-be emeritus rabbi, was receiving the same treatment for his tremendous 37 year career. A little perspective for this boychick!
But praise came: from youth group kids, board members, the local federation, my senior rabbi. It came in many forms: heartfelt speeches from lay leaders I had worked with intimately, the presence of my family, well-chosen music (I knew Cantor Elson had me in mind when he picked THREE Bonia Shur tunes), truly unexpected gifts and presentations (acknowledgements from the State Senate and the governor? Really?), an amazing oneg (and yes, I did get to have nibbles of some of it), sharing hugs and tears with people--adults, kids, peers--Marisa and I had built real relationships with over 6 years, in the form of donations in our honor and letters, cards and emails of well-wishing, in sharing laughs tonight at the barbecue, and (a gift I'm especially appreciative of) a 'yearbook' of sorts from my friends in HaGesher, with pictures and messages about what the last few years have meant to them and us.
I've been trying to figure out what it all means. I hope it doesn't mean my career has peaked after 6 years! What I keep coming back to--other than all the references to my ponytail (yes, I had one until 5 years ago. Get ready to Rock, Wilmington!)--is all the talk of relationship building. For me that is my favorite part of the job--being the 'couple yenta' as one put it. I call it 'micro-community building'--literally building community one relationship at a time, person by person. Not just creating relationships between myself and the individuals (though that's important too) but between individuals--giving those who come multiple points of contact. As I say repeatedly, if I have a legacy at Shir Ami it's that I didn't just create programs or taught classes or led services but created groups of friends who look forward to being together both at the synagogue and outside the synagogue.
Without sounding weird or egotistical (I hope), I'd like to share a Facebook message my friend and congregant (and HaGesher member) Steve Goldberg sent me. I think it'll help explain where I'm coming from and what I mean.
Author Terry Pratchett has written a series of books centered on his Discworld. They are a blend of fantasy, humor, and deep concepts. There are 36 books in the series so far, and I've read them all.
Occasionally, a character reminds me of someone.
Dwarf "religion" is a motif of the 34th book, "Thud!" Religious leaders of the dwarves are known as Grags. "Grag" translates roughly to renowned master of dwarfish lore.
The most orthodox of Grags (known as "deep-downers") keep to the mining caves they consider home. Most dwarves, even the secular, carry an axe. It is then a turn of perspective when the reader is introduced to Grag Bashfull Bashfullsson. (Bashfull is a typical dwarf name, as Snow White teaches us.)
Grag Bashfullsson is depicted as young for a dwarf, and very young for a Grag. He is first introduced as a go-between for the secular dwarf community of the city, and the protagonist, Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch. Vimes has a murder to solve, and the dwarf community has been obstructing his investigation. It is through Grag Bashfullsson that a dialogue is established.
Unlike the deep-downers, Grag Bashfullsson walks about in daylight like the secular dwarves of the city. When Vimes asks about this, Grag Bashfullsson explains that he feels it is enough to have the caves in his head. When questioned about his apparent lack of an axe, he says, "I believe it is enough to think about axes." He proves this later in the book, when he effectively incapacitates a villain non-lethally with a well placed chop similar to a martial arts move - as if his hand were his axe - when no other recourse is available.
These differences are insignificant compared to his most valuable contribution to the dwarf community. Unlike other Grags, who obsess over tradition, Grag Bashfullsson looks to see how the dwarfish community will move forward, with particular interest towards forging peace with trolls, known long-time blood enemies of the dwarves.
Young, wise, different, respected, and incredibly valuable to his community. You can see why I was reminded of you.
At the service in your honor, every speaker mentioned your (former) ponytail. Typically, when secular Jews think "rabbi" they don't immediately picture "ponytail." Thanks to my mother, I'm a little more used to thinking differently about rabbis. Even so, when I first met you, I thought, "This isn't what I expected. Seems nice, though."
As I began talking to you, I was pleasantly surprised at your sense of humor and awareness of pop culture. You held your own in witty banter against me, something that my mother still struggles to do. This isn't what I expected... and it was a good thing. I have enjoyed socializing with you at HaGesher events, as a friend and as a learned scholar from whom I could learn if I just listened. I wish I made more time to listen.
I remember when you reached out to me when my divorce was beginning. You offered to meet with me at a Starbucks. It sounded funny to me. I thought, "With his busy schedule, shouldn't I be coming to his office? Of all places, we're going to meet at Starbucks? Is Starbucks even Jewish?" Yet it made sense when I thought about it - talking in a comfortable, neutral atmosphere, rather than making an appointment to Meet With The Rabbi to discuss my problems.
I appreciated your sensitivity and understanding during our meeting. I don't remember all of the specific words that were said - much during that time is a blur - but I remember the feeling tone. You were compassionate without being preachy, and when I saw the dark humor of the situation, you were willing to reciprocate with humor of your own.
Now, as you are leaving, you no longer have a ponytail, but you are noted by every speaker honoring you for having had a ponytail. Not because the people you have touched focus on appearances only, but because your ponytail was a physical representation of your most valued asset - your unique way of reaching people, of affecting our lives.
This is why I say that you continue to wear your ponytail in your heart. Yes, it's a funny idea. More so because of the element of truth.
It is enough to think about axes.
I wish you and your family best wishes on your new adventure.
This is, in a nutshell, what it means for me to be a rabbi. Not to be a dwarf who carries around axes figurative or literal, but that I can, in building relationships with people, instill and inspire and teach some little bit of Torah in the process. That, through carrying Torah in my heart and showing it through my actions, I can encourage others to do the same.
Friday I talked about how the greatest reward for any rabbi is the opportunity to share just a little bit of Torah, to move the work of the congregation just a little bit further, to create meaningful relationships both with and between congregants--to literally walk amongst the people, not above or beyond. Tonight I told the HaGesher people that what made the difference for me was that being rabbi was never a 'job', but that Marisa and I could created real, normal relationships with people while still being their rabbi. I have been given amazing gifts through my work at Shir Ami, gifts that inspire me and I believe prepared me for the work ahead at Beth Emeth.
The first six years of my career have been amazing and a real blessing; I don't take any day of my 72 months here for granted. Now I'm ready to get started with the next six, and the six after that, and however many years God gives me to do this work I was called to do.