Jewfem Blog

How I learned what it means to be a rabbi -- warts and all

On my first two days of rabbinical school, I arrived late. Two days in a row, despite starting my day at 5AM to arrive at HUC by 8:30, I failed this most basic task of getting there on time. The first day, I completely miscalculated the traffic, and was cursing myself for half an hour on the 2-kilometer stretch of the 443 from the Pisgat Zeev exit to Ramot. The next day, I left half an hour earlier, and *only* arrived ten minutes late. Only. I spent most of that drive practicing my apology to the head of the school.

I walked in on the first day, towards the end of the tefilla, the morning prayer service, and gave an embarrassed nod to him, Rabbi Ofek Meir, who was sitting in the front row. He smiled gently, with a clear gesture of reassurance. He was smiling and breathing – as opposed to me. I was not smiling and not breathing.

On the second day, walking in earlier in the service when Ofek was smack in the middle of leading a soulful rendition of the Shema blessings using his gifts with the guitar, I stood at the door for a few moments to catch my breath and take it in. There, I began to fully appreciate the extraordinary moment I was in. it wasn’t just the beautiful singing and musical accompaniment that filled the room. It was something deeper, a genuine spiritual intention that was contained in this space. My excitement at the thought of being here for the next four years swelled, and began to overwhelm all else. This is tefilla without any power dynamics mixed in, I thought. This is what it sounds like when there is no coercion, no judgment, no exclusion.

After the tefilla, I walked over to Ofek and tried to apologize again for being late. He wouldn’t hear it. “You come from Modi’in, right?” It was as if he knew what I was going through before I did. He reassured me and said it was really fine. “Fine for you, “ I said, “but not for me.” He smiled. It really was all okay to him.

This entire exchange was completely new for me. What is the word for this? Acceptance. Ah, yes, acceptance. The idea of accepting a person as they are, of accepting myself as I am – such a basic thing, it is often so elusive. Acceptance is not something that the Jewish community often trains itself in. At least not in the places where I have been circulating until now.  

I was remembering my first day at work, 19 years ago, at a Jewish communal foundation. It was my first job after completing my Master’s degree in Jewish education. It was also my first attempt at holding down a job with three little children at home under the age of five. I was eager, anxious, and green.

I walked into the front door, on this glorious first day, and greeted the secretary with a perhaps-too-loud, “Good morning!!!” She responded with an emphatic “SHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I stopped in my tracks. She looked around at the other secretaries and whispered to someone, “Haven’t you had the talk with her yet?” The Talk. They had forgotten to give me The Talk.

What was the essence of the talk? Do not make noise. Do not speak before being asked to speak. Do not give an opinion about anything unless asked. Be on time. If a meeting is called for 9AM, be sitting at the table at 8:55. And most importantly, do everything exactly the way The Director liked it. The correct colored binders must be placed in exactly the right place on the table in the board room, aligned with the edge of the table, pens color coordinated, and not a divider out of place. The previous day, a secretary had been fired for using the wrong scotch tape on the tabs of the dividers of the meeting books. Things like that. No, I’m not kidding. That really happened.  

I stayed in that organization for nearly four years. I don’t know how. Or why. But it left its mark on me.

I have been involved in many organizations where who you are as a person is not important or relevant. Your performance, your obedience, your perkiness, your agreeability, your appearance, your dutifulness, and your ability to do what you are asked without any pushback or noise are the only things that matter. Being yourself is not an asset, it is a liability. 

Many years later, when I was hired for a leadership position in a Jewish institution, I experienced another telling reminder about how invisible we sometimes are. Only, this time, it was a feminist organization, which made it particularly painful for me. I had to do a process called a “360”, in which the people in charge of you (in this case, the board), do a series of interviews with people who know you in order to get a broad portrait of who you are. The four “directions” of this 360-degree view are former employees, former supervisors, former co-workers or partners, and people who know you personally. I gave the board a list of people they could interview, and they went through it all – except for the fourth section, people who knew me personally. I asked my chair why she skipped that section. “We don’t really care about what you’re like as a person,” she said with no restraint or seeming awareness of the implications. We don’t care about who you are as a person. Those words echoed in my head the entire time I was at that job. The idea that I am doing this big job for people who overtly admit that they have no interest in who I am as a person was quite a burden to bear.

I suppose that I assumed that the people at HUC would be the same. I wasn’t even conscious about those assumptions. Yet, even from the interview process – an intense, difficult and draining process for me because I really had to face my deepest flaws – it was clear that I was in a different space here. The people at HUC actually WANT you to be fully yourself. They want to know, they want you to bring up your struggles, weaknesses and flaws. They want you to spend four years working on yourself, on who you really are as a person. They do everything they can to create an environment in which you will be supported in all directions as you process your life. I have to admit, I have never been in a place like that. It is positively terrifying. And releasing.

This is what it means to be a rabbi. It is a spiritual journey, and it is about facilitating the spiritual journeys of others. What an incredible gift it is to be doing this. Finally, finally, I can truly breathe. And maybe I don’t have to be afraid of being who I really am, warts and all. Because I am in the right place. I am in a space where our humanity is accepted, and welcomed, as we are. Wow.  

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