Passing The Torch

It will be my privilege, on this coming Saturday night, to formally install my son, Hillel, as the rabbi of the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation in Florida. Technically, he’s been serving in that capacity since August 2011, but scheduling difficulties (i.e., getting the parents and other assorted family members in the right place at the right time) have delayed the formal ceremony until now.

Hillel’s ascension to the active pulpit rabbinate has, as you might imagine, generated all kinds of thoughts and feelings deep within me. The first- perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not- is that I should really title this article “Sharing the Torch,” instead of “Passing the Torch.” After all, I’m still in this business- more so now than ever, as I continue to serve my congregation here in Forest Hills, and prepare to assume the presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. I’m not quite ready to say, “Your turn, I’m done.” There is a lot of unfinished work left for me to do, and I still derive enormous satisfaction from my rabbinate.

But having my son follow so clearly in the path of my work is about much more than that. It is something of a joke in my family that we are almost our own region of the Rabbinical Assembly, with Hillel married to Sharon, another ordained rabbi, and my daughter Leora married to Yoni, yet another ordained rabbi and Navy chaplain serving in Okinawa. I am the older Father Bear rabbi of the family, and I haven’t been the only one for a long time.

But Hillel is the only one of those three rabbis who has- at this time, at least- assumed the responsibility of a congregation. It is easiest for me to look at him and his work and see myself thirty years ago.

The parallels are not perfect. I came into the pulpit as the Assistant Rabbi to an iconic American rabbi (Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, of blessed memory) in what was essentially a mega-synagogue. I never expected to assume the senior position. In fact, my wife and I had planned to live in Israel. Hillel, on the other hand, is very much the rabbi of his synagogue in Orlando, which is smaller and very different from the Forest Hills Jewish Center. I live in a densely populated Jewish area. The Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation, quite close to Disneyworld, is far more suburban in character than Forest Hills, and much less densely Jewish. Our jobs are different in scope, and in the nature of the challenges we face.

But the fundamentals of the rabbinate are pretty much universal. We serve Jews. We try to create a spiritually and programmatically dynamic Jewish community. In times of joy and of sorrow, we are there as pastors to either celebrate or console, and to endow life’s transitional moments with sanctity and meaning. The work is the work, regardless of setting…

When I tell people that my son the rabbi is married to a rabbi and my daughter is married to yet another, there is always a pause in the conversation. I can hear the wheels turning in their heads as they try to decide whether to laugh, congratulate me, make a joke, express admiration or consolation. They usually try to go for the laugh, and I think the most frequently asked question is what did I put in the water. I usually hasten to remind them that we have two other children who show no indication of seeking out the rabbinic life…

For the record, the truth is that my wife and I put nothing in the water- nothing at all. We tried very hard to create a home for our children where they could be as normal as possible within the context of the proverbial fishbowl in which they lived. On our good days, it seems clear to us that, in that regard, we were successful. In the generation that preceded us, being a “PK”- a Preacher’s Kid, was essentially a diagnosis. The enormous pressures of being in the public eye created more than a few rabbinic children who tried hard to escape from the Jewish community as quickly as they could. By and large, our children- whom I’m sure had more than few days when they wished that their father were something other than a rabbi- didn’t suffer from the PK diagnosis. In fact, it seems clear that there was enough that was Jewishly positive in their lives that extending their association with the practicing rabbinate was a real possibility. My wife and I are more than a little proud of that.

That said, it is still remarkable to contemplate our son assuming a pulpit of his own. In so many ways, of all of our children, Hillel was born to do this work. He is blessed with an outgoing and charming personality, a great love of Judaism, incredible synagogue skills, and a vision of the community that he would like to help create. He has all that he needs and much, much more to be successful.

But I find myself thinking again and again of the words that we recited at his brit: Zeh hakattan, gadol yihiyeh- this little one, will grow to be big. Somehow or other, when we weren’t looking, Hillel grew up. It is one of the universal parental experiences to have that moment when you look at your adult child and feel constrained to say, “How is this possible? I remember his first day of school!” (Which I do, of course…)

Seeing Hillel as a rabbi, hearing people calling out “Rabbi Skolnik” and realizing that they’re not talking to me, is more than a little surreal. But it is also a lot more than a little wonderful. I am both proud and glad to share the torch, and to have Hillel carry it his own unique way. She’ya’aleh v’yatzliach! May he enjoy enormous success in his rabbinate, and may he- and his congregation- grow together in Torah and good works.

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