Forty Years in the Rabbinate
delivered by Rabbi Lee Friedlander at The Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore * 13 June 2015
This is so remarkable, that you are here, that I am here. My becoming a rabbi was nothing my family could have imagined. As secular Jews, my parents only experience with rabbis was the once a year visit to the cemetery before Rosh HaShana when they would pick up a down-in-the-heels Orthodox rabbi at the cemetery gate and slip him a couple of bucks to recite ayl malay at the graves of my maternal grandparents. My paternal grandmother, a ferbrente Communist who helped raise me, considered my decision to enter the rabbinate to be an act of betrayal against her. You might think, at least, that the principal of my boyhood yeshiva would have had some sense of pride in my decision, but a week before my graduation, he commented that “the ordination of Laybl Friedlander (that’s me) will mark the end of American Judaism as we know it.” I am pleased to say that he was right, thanks to the Reconstructionist movement, and to many of you here tonight.
Though I had flirted with the rabbinate as a kid growing up in my Irish Catholic Philadelphia neighborhood where priests had all the power, I hadn’t seriously pursued it as a career option until my junior year in college. Constant in my ritual observance (save for kashrut), I continued to don tallis and tefilin daily even when I began to sit in zazen with the Korean Zen master and professor of Buddhism, Dr. Ki Bum Seo. It was a year into my study of Zen and meditative practice on a morning when the imprints from my tefillin straps were still vivid on my left arm that Dr. Seo shoved me toward enlightenment with his question, “So you do know that you are a Jew?” He directed me to Maurice Friedman, Professor of Jewish thought, who introduced me to the writings of twentieth century Jewish existentialists, which included Martin Buber, A. J. Heschel, and Mordecai Kaplan. The semester after I entered graduate school to continue my studies with Friedman, Ira Eisenstein, with support from members of this congregation of which he was the rabbi, founded the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which was housed in an abandoned funeral home just north of Temple University – the original Fun Home. Eager to put Dr. Kaplan’s tenets into practice, and encouraged by the Selective Service Administration and by Dr. Friedman who served on the Admissions Committee of the College, I applied to matriculate January of 1969.
Ira was silent during my two hour long interview with the members of the Admissions Committee during which I was asked about my early studies in Talmud, my passion for Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, and my essays on Christian “Death of God” theology. I spoke, too, about having spent my pre-adolescent years in a yeshiva while coming home to feast on ham and cheese sandwiches at the insistence of my subversive grandmother. I sensed I had won the Committee over with my record of political arrests for protests against the corrupt Democratic political machine of Mayor Frank Rizzo and my counter-intuitive registration as a Republican, which gave me just the right edge. But when the chairman of the committee announced, “So if there are no further questions . . .” Ira raised his hand, cleared his throat, and asked about the glaring blemish on my college transcript. “Can you account for the C- in golf, Mr. Friedlander?” he queried. “I just wasn’t very good at it. But I never cheated, and I never dared miss a class.” Fortunately, Ira himself was not a golfer, and so I received a call later that day from Professor Friedman telling me that I was in.
Five and a half years later, my parents closed the store to attend my graduation. Ira had become quite fond of my dad who was as honest, forthright and uncensored as he was. “You know Lee was the best,” Ira lied to my father that afternoon. “He’ll make a great rabbi,” Ira assured him, to which my father responded, “He would have made a better accountant.” Anyone who has seen my checkbook or my sock drawer would agree with my dad.
I spent the first four years after graduation as the executive director of an unaffiliated synagogue where the rabbi of the congregation refused to let me use my title. I was more respected at my second congregation, a small Conservative shul, where my predecessor had been part time. His main source of income had come from his work as a garage mechanic. A former president told me that the congregation had failed to renew his contract not because of the quality of his rabbinic work, but because members felt that he was fleecing congregant members on the cost of repairs. I loved that community, but Ira, my mentor, convinced me to apply for his former position here at the Reconstructionist Synagogue.
The Search Committee proved to be unenthusiastic about my candidacy. After an initial meeting in November, I failed to hear from anyone until the following March when I was invited back to conduct a Friday night service. I gave an inaccessible address titled, “From Apotropaics to Mnemonics: A Jewish Study in Structural Anthropology.” Following services, I received many compliments . . . on my tie. And so I began to look for another job, but, much to my surprise, I was called by the Search Committee three months later while I was in negotiations with another congregation where members had applauded at the end of that interview service. (Disclosure: I mentioned neither apotropaics nor mnemonics at that service.)
The universe of Reconstructionist rabbis is very small and was smaller still thirty-four years ago. I knew my competitors for the position here – a graduate who would later become Executive Director of our rabbinical association and one of the intellectual lights of our movement, and another graduate who was also a professional mime. Although I was told at the time of the offer that the vote for my candidacy had been nearly unanimous, others revealed it to have been much more of a cliffhanger. It seems that many in the congregation went for the mime either intrigued by the possibility of having a silent rabbi in their employ, or, perhaps, in response to the verbose intellectual, thereby leaving me the candidate of compromise. But it seems to have worked out well enough for all of us these past thirty-four years together.
Thirty-four, plus six – forty years. Forty is, of course, a programmatic number used in biblical writings to mark a significant length of time – the days and nights of rain in the Flood story, the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai, the years of wandering by the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan. Yes, Moses shepherded his contentious crew for forty years without a ‘thank you’ from any of them or from God, and for his efforts, the Holy Blessed One denied him entrance into Canaan. How fortunate I was to have entered my Promised Land only six years after graduation.
In my occasional conversations with graduating seniors at our rabbinical college, I tell them that if they consider their task as rabbis to be curators of the millennial-old treasure that is Judaism, do not go into congregational work. To be a congregational rabbi, you have to love the Jewish People more than you love Judaism. But if you choose to travel the communal path, be aware that we Jews are, and have always been, a messy lot. We get our fingerprints all over the traditions that our ancestors held sacred. We mar and scar them, imprinting our own ideas and understandings on them and then milk them for all they are worth to satisfy our own needs. (We Reconstructionists call this evolution.) But know, too, I tell the seniors, as our Sages taught, a rabbi without a community is no rabbi. That was the difference between Moses and his brother, Aaron, and why Aaron’s leadership model (and not that of Moses) survived the post-Wilderness experience even to this day. Unlike Moses, Aaron never abandoned the People even for God. Aaron chose to be with the People, to remain in their midst, assured that God being God could take care of Himself. It’s that model of steadfastness and loyalty which has kept me here with you for the past three and a half decades.
My father hated his work, which took years off his life. “You only want to work with what you love,” he instructed me after I told him about my plan to enroll in rabbinical school. “If you think you’re going to love it, do it, and we’ll support you,” which he and my mom did. I do love Judaism, but I love you more. Each of you has taught me that you can’t love an abstraction, or an ideal, even if it is eternal. No, true love in found in the intersections of living, in the ‘when’ and in the ‘where’, in the questions and challenges, in the joys and sorrows, in the classroom and at the Oneg, and, tonight, in this communal celebration.
I dreamed a dream once that has become my reality, a reality that is far richer and deeper and broader and more fulfilling and more wondrous than I could have ever imagined, and it’s all because of you, because you let me in to be with you in your midst. Founders present and remembered, builders here and missed, Willow Streeters, Plandomers, treasured colleagues, synagogue personnel, teachers, and students, thank you all. Thank you, thank you for this Promised Land of ours, for the past many years, and for the decade to come.