First steps into the rabbinate…

When I first entered Yeshiva University, I participated in a course that provided the students a chance to understand different areas of the rabbinate; pulpit, education, chaplaincy, campus work, outreach, and institutional, just to name a few. For 18 years prior I had already known what I was going to do; I was going to be a Rabbi of a community, and I would focus on each and every single area that this course touched upon.

Four years later, the goal, the overall mission, has not changed.

Today, on the eve of taking a pulpit, I would like to share some thoughts of my journey, and the fears I have of being a communal leader. My family and I will be moving to Canberra, Australia where I will be the Rabbi of the National Jewish Memorial Centre in Canberra, Australia, a community that is small yet growing, devoted and extremely concerned with its own future as well as the future of Australia’s wider Jewish community.

The Journey

Growing up in New Zealand afforded me many different opportunities in our small community; I had the chance to be mentored by various different Rabbis in many different areas of communal and pastoral life. I served on the Board of Management as has previously been discussed on this blog, and was involved in many different organizations from early teenage years till my departure in 2010. Not everything was smooth sailing, there were conflicts and politics, and having since perused some emails that I received or sent, there were things that had I the chance, I would ask for a do-over. Everything in life is about learning; falling down and getting up, continuing on, and making sure that one learns from the mistakes he or she makes, or the stumbling blocks placed in front of him or her.

My biggest regret was that I did not realize the immediate necessity for my own personal growth and development in religious learning. There is currently only one Jewish Day School in Auckland, and that is more cultural than religious; all religious studies comes from either Bnei Akiva or personal interactions with clergy staff or friends and family. I remember periodically avoiding the weekly Talmud chaburah that took place at different people’s homes on Shabbat afternoon, and the Assistant Rabbi’s wife said to me that if I was serious about becoming a Rabbi, I would need to get serious about learning. I would push it off for another time. This was a big mistake, as in any skill, one needs to make sure that stagnation and complacency does not set in, because it is harder to restart the learning process than continue it albeit slowly.

I did not realize this lesson, nor did I realize how much I missed out on, until my first days at Yeshiva University.

The Learning

In June 2010, we made our way to New York City. There were many great things that happened in those early days, there were also many struggles. Suddenly I went from no formal learning, to eight hours a day. Credit must be given to my chavrusa (learning partner) and to my Rabbis who dealt with my ignorance and lack of skills when it came to navigating through Talmudic chapters and halachic (legal) volumes. Quickly I realized the need for serious engagement with our texts in order to succeed in my mission. I chose Yeshiva University primarily because of its high level of professional development classes, but what I found out was that my tutelage in New Zealand had already propelled me in this area, leaving me more time to work on my learning.

Four years have gone by, and I have definitely improved. I still have a long way to go, but it is an improvement nonetheless. Today I can open a text and work my way through it, whereas when I began I didn’t know what the text was.

The Interviews

Every part of our training has focused on the end goal; once we have the job. Very little was on the interview process. There were definitely workshops and seminars about how to interview or how to write a resume, and the placement office is actually a priceless service at Yeshiva University with such valuable guidance to offer. However, little emphasis was placed on the interview as setting the tone of your job.

For six months resumes were sent, interviews were had, phone conversations and skype meetings racked up minutes, flights and weekends, and the same continuous conversations occurred. Some days felt great, and others felt like dark clouds were looming overhead. This is obviously true for any job, but is heightened when your life is scrutinized in every detail beyond just your ability to complete the tasks at hand. It took my second major interview, for one of my mentors to point out that an interview is not about selling yourself as a rabbi but rather as their Rabbi. This changed my view point and forced me to change my thinking so that I presented myself as if I was already speaking about our community, our future, our goals; speaking about us, rather than them.

With this change, suddenly more analysis was taken to thinking whether the community would be a fit for us. Lists were narrowed down, and more serious evaluation was taken into each community, ultimately having that unique bond with just one.

The Fears

My wife turned up late to our wedding (meaning that she turned up after the photographer’s call time, not after the chuppah time), as is the case with many brides. She later told me that as she was arriving to the synagogue, her father took her around the block once more, and told her she didn’t have to go through with it if she didn’t want to, and that he had her snowboard packed in the back – the could just run away to the mountain. Thank God she didn’t hesitate and we were married that day.

I tell you this story, because in any big event in life, there are going to be fears. I would like to share you some of mine as I enter the rabbinate.

  • The weight of responsibility; my peers and I will be the face of Modern Orthodoxy, we will have a duty to our communities and our families, our Rabbis and our Yeshiva, but most importantly God and our people, to ensure that we are able to engage people with Torah and ensure that there is ahava (love) of both the Jewish people and God. What if we do not succeed? What if we make create disengagement and distance? What if I go against my personal goals, and push away rather than pull people in?
  • Lack of inspiration; our job is to inspire, what if we don’t. What if we cause a lack of inspiration?
  • Staying fresh; our world changes on a daily basis, people come and go, and we are meant to be the rock of our community. We are meant to symbolize the stability for our people, provide a link to our past, and act as a guide for our future. How do we maintain this latter position, while ensuring that we also stay up to date with the world and relevant to our congregants?
  • Burning out; being thrown in the deep end, no matter how much training one gets, no matter how many interns, and no matter how many pep-talks by mentors, actually hitting the ground running can create burnout. How do we make sure to avoid this, and how do we reinvigorate ourselves to push through any oncoming burnout?

These are a few fears, and while I hope that either they will not come to fruition, or that I am able to resolve the issues, they are framing my entry into the rabbinate. I view this as a positive; if we are to think we are invincible then trouble is more likely to follow, if we realize that issues can arise, we will work around them and ensure that they are resolved.

It is the beginning of a new chapter, and an exciting adventure. As Rabbi Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center said in his segment of the aforementioned class, we start off as baby rabbis and we take baby steps. I look forward to taking those first steps and becoming a part of my new community, realizing a long held dream, and engaging a new generation of our people in their heritage.

About the Author
Rabbi, community developer, father; living life and shaking it up!! Originally from New Zealand, lived in the Big Apple, short stint in Canberra and now residing in Sydney. Alon is the Rabbi of Or Chadash Synagogue and the Director of Programs at Shalom, as well as a doctoral student at LaTrobe University. He writes on the daily study of Daf Yomi on Instagram @insta_talmud Website: