Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reflecting on 9 years in the rabbinate

This weekend marks the 9th anniversary of my ordination as rabbi. On May 31st 2003 I and my classmates (19 of us in total) ascended the IM Wise Plum St. Temple to receive our charge to serve the Jewish people, the 120th such class to do so. It was an awesome, terribly humbling and overwhelming experience that still inspires me. 

9 years is sort of a weird anniversary to reflect upon, I'll admit. And mostly I want to focus not on the ordination service itself, but the night before, Friday the 30th. That night, I and my classmates were at Rockdale Temple on Ridge Rd., to celebrate Shabbat and hear the words of our teacher, Mark Washofsky. I'll readily admit I don't remember much of what he said (though, as always, he was entertaining--I do remember the laughter). What I do remember vividly was his charge to us--to remember our congregants who didn't know the tradition, and to always make the tradition accessible to them. To build those relationships with the members of our community--not only our relationship with them, but their relationship with Judaism. 

I remember thinking at the time, "well, duh", as only a soon-to-be ordained 27 year old could think. Now 9 years in, I think about that idea a lot. The more I serve the more I realize that, despite needing and craving for that relationship, so many people find themselves distant from their Judaism. Like bashful suitors, we blush and turn away when Judaism approaches. We get all tongue-tied and twisted up inside. Maybe it's because we think we don't know enough, maybe it's because of a previous, painful encounter (and there are no shortage of those, sadly). Maybe we simply don't know how to start the conversation. And so we gaze at the Judaism that should be ours from across the room, and continue to feel distant. 

I bring this up even as we as a people are rubbing our hands with anxiety again (some more) about the state of the Jewish population, but also as increasing leaders in our community are calling for new ways of looking at to the problem itself, not just new solutions. More and more Jewish communal leaders are reframing the challenge from one of numbers (declining Jewish involvement in synagogues, JCCs; shrinking and aging population in general, etc.) to one of meaning and connection. We move the metrics from "how many people joined and/or came to the program" to asking: did  people changed their behavior (lit Shabbat candles more often, for example); made meaningful connections with people, perhaps even informally; did people feel something? Sure, it's a harder metric to evaluate--it's much easier to count heads--but sometimes the easy metric isn't necessarily the right one. Or, to paraphrase my dad, while you always count the house, that doesn't mean you adjust your service (or sermon) based on the house. Whether it's 30 people or 3 who come, you do what you can to create connections and meaning.

This week we begin the book of Numbers, and parashat bamidbar tells us two things: 1. the people are in the wilderness, and 2. they need to be counted, as if in a census. We gloss over this portion pretty quickly; it comes at the beginning of summer, and it's not very 'action' oriented, especially compared with Shelach Lecha (The Spies), Korach (Rebellion) Balak (Bilaam's blessing), or Pinchas (Zealotry in spear-hurtling form). And especially this year, as Bamidbar anticipates Shavuot, it would be easy to focus only on the receiving of the Torah. But in this moment, it's worth reflecting. Increasingly we feel like we're in the wilderness, and we nervously count our numbers. But we are called to count ourselves for a purpose: to enter the land and receive our birthright. How appropriate that our birthright--Torah--comes to us as we bid Shabbat farewell. 9 years ago Dr. Washofsky preached of the importance of facilitating that connection for people. And if we do our work the way we're supposed to, we serve as God's matchmakers in the best sense, helping to start that conversation with the tradition, and hopefully a lifelong love affair with Judaism. Not a bad thing to reflect on halfway to chai. 

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