One of my very favorite things about the pulpit rabbinate is that no two days are the same. Unlike the iconic 9-5 job, with well-defined hours and expectations, the rabbinate is more “free-form,” with hours that are, in theory and often in practice, 24/7. You’re always on call, because the kinds of needs that rabbis are expected to meet are not restricted to any one time of day.
Needless to say, that kind of job description means you’re never “really off,” and there are moments when that reality is draining. But it is also true that not being a slave to 9-5 hours is liberating. To some small degree, you get to create your own schedule. I’m always wary of saying that because, as often as not, your schedule as a rabbi creates itself, and drags you along with it, willing or unwilling. But it’s still nice knowing that your hours are more “flexible,” at least in theory.
Within that flexibility, the pulpit rabbinate also allows for the possibility that any given day will incorporate radically different kinds of experiences– another favorite aspect of my work. Last Friday was exactly such a day.
On Friday morning, I was privileged to be an invited guest at the Pope Francis’ Interfaith Gathering at the Ground Zero 9/11 Memorial here in New York City. In contrast to the mass at Madison Square Garden, where 18,000 people were present, this was a relatively small gathering– maybe five hundred people– with faith leaders from all of the major religious communities in New York in attendance, along with the city’s political leadership, and members of families who lost loved ones on 9/11.
On its own, the 9/11 Memorial, a dramatically powerful and evocative exhibit, has the power to make that gathering extraordinary. But the program itself on Friday was extraordinary, eloquent and moving in its simplicity, and a model of what an interfaith service at its best might be. The Pope spoke movingly and to great effect. His words, delivered shortly after meeting with 9/11 survivor family members, reminded all of us that terrorism is never an impersonal crime. There are always names and faces that carry its scar forever. When destruction is at its greatest, he said, you will also find the greatest selflessness.
Those kinds of messages are truly meta-religious. They are not the intellectual or spiritual property of any one faith tradition. What was particularly moving about the Friday morning service was that all of New York’s faith communities were present, and particularly primed to hear the Pope’s reminder that the life of spirit requires us all to regard every individual life as precious, and sacred. It was a morning I will not soon forget.
It having been Erev Shabbat, no sooner was the program over than I hurried back to Forest Hills for the next part of the day, which was radically different in emphasis and mood from the morning’s carefully scripted event. On Friday afternoon, before our regular Kabbalat Shabbat service welcoming in the Sabbath, our Nursery School and its parent population gathered for a musical “Pajama Shabbat,” with stories, singing, and of course, food!
Somewhere along the way, as I was singing yet another verse of “What Do You Like About Shabbat” and “We Put the Nerot on the Table,” I had to take a step back and reflect on the day that it had been. There was high drama and pathos in the morning, and wonderful silliness in the afternoon, followed by the soothing, familiar arrival of Shabbat.
Although its pieces were drawn in unusually clear juxtaposition with each other, I gradually came to understand what this rabbinic “day in the life” was all about, and what its clearly disparate parts shared. Both the service at Ground Zero and the Shabbat program with the Nursery School were places where God was to be found. Yes, God is everywhere, but one must, as Isaiah taught, seek God out where God is to be found. And God is surely more evident in some places than in others.
Amidst the rarest of rare Kumbaya-type moments at Ground Zero, where the power and aura of the Papacy brought so many different types of religious people together (and a few non-religious ones as well), God was, tangibly, in the room. One couldn’t be there and fail to be moved by the spiritual power of the moment.
But God was equally in the room in my synagogue in Forest Hills, when those delicious Nursery School children sang about the special soup they were preparing for Shabbat. The afternoon was the perfect antidote for the morning. The children were the living, breathing proof that terror cannot extinguish that spark of the divine that is in all of us, from oldest to youngest. The children had not yet learned how dangerous a place the world can be…
A day in the rabbinic life …
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.