Going Beyond Your Comfort Zone

One of the more complicated and persistent professional issues that congregational rabbis confront on an ongoing basis is how to establish boundaries that might govern relationships with congregants. What is the proper balance between friend, private person, and authority figure?

Synagogues that are seeking to hire a rabbi will invariably say that they are interested in someone warm, charismatic, dynamic, (I’m purposely leaving out “young” because, as I age, I resent the implication that someone older can’t be all of these things)… a real “people person.” Were I seeking a rabbi, I would want all of these things as well.

But, that said, rabbis need and deserve to have a private life that exists alongside their public one. There has to be a part of themselves that they don’t share- that is theirs alone, or theirs and their family’s. And, for better or worse, their ability to project appropriate authority is, to some degree, inextricably related to this issue.

During the almost ten years that I taught a senior seminar in professional skills in the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, this was a theme that I came back to again and again. Not only do you not need to share everything about yourself with your congregants, but you owe it to yourself and to those you love not to. I would even go so far as to say that it’s bad practice to share too much, or things that are too personal- especially about your family. Maintaining some credible distance between rabbi and congregants preserves both the dignity and the authority of the rabbi, and his/her ability to say no when the occasion warrants. When one is too familiar with one’s congregants, and that line of authority gets blurred beyond a critical if undefined point, it is not a good thing for either the congregant or the rabbi.

What makes this a difficult and persistent issue for rabbis is that, by and large, we rabbis actually do tend to be people who are by nature social, who enjoy social contact, and appreciate and value the friendships that can grow from a rewarding rabbinate. Navigating the very slippery line between being a real and close friend on the one hand, and maintaining a certain professional distance on the other, is rarely easy.

A generation or two ago, most congregational rabbis were far less likely to “let their hair down” with their congregants the way friends will sometimes do with each other. When I was a rabbinical student, some of my teachers spoke ominously to us of the dangers of getting too close to our congregants, and we chafed at the implication. We didn’t want to be “stained glass” rabbis who spoke in artificially lofty tones, and for whom, as the old joke went, God was a two-syllable word. We wanted to be ourselves, as we were, without pretense. And, no less important, we wanted to lessen to isolation that the spouse and children of a rabbi can often feel when making friends becomes a political issue more than a personal one.

By and large, I think that my colleagues and I have been true to what we aimed for. We are, on the whole, closer and more open to our congregants as friends than earlier generations of rabbis were. This is, I think, very much for the good, both for us and for our families. But the issue of having to establish and maintain some credible professional distance remains a real one, and no less important than it was years ago.

As a rabbi who has sent his entire pulpit career in one congregation, the Forest Hills Jewish Center, my challenge is qualitatively different from many if not most of my colleagues. The longitudinal arc of my friendships with members of my congregation literally spans generations. I increasingly find myself being privileged to officiate at the weddings of young men and women whom I named in synagogue, or whom I’ve known since infancy. That is, of course, a great honor and thrill in and of itself. But on a larger level, it also implies a depth and richness of relationship with their parents and families, with whom, over these thirty-plus years, my wife and I have grown from young couples into very middle age. This is not merely a question of friendship versus distance; it is a matter of common experience and history. Both the members of the congregation who are roughly my age, and the older members, who were, essentially, my current age when I first came to Forest Hills, are as much an integral part of my life as I am of theirs. Our lives and our stories are hopelessly intertwined. There’s something very wonderful about that…

I guess that, in the ultimate, the issue is not so much the degree of separation that a rabbi maintains from his/her community, but rather staying conscious of the fact that having a degree of separation is a good and important thing. Just like parents never stops being parents, even when their children are grown and on their own, so, too, a rabbi never stops being a rabbi, even when the congregants are good and true friends with whom one shares decades of history. The roles aren’t mutually exclusive… and both dimensions of the relationship are greatly rewarding.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.