Rabbinic Moments Of Reprieve: What Makes It All Worth It

For a variety of reasons. the pulpit rabbinate is a high-stress job.

First of all, and most obvious, I would think, you have to deal with more illness, cosmic unfairness, death and dying than almost anyone else except physicians. Being on call 24/7, and having to be strong and composed for others who are suffering and/or grieving exacts a tremendous toll in both the short and long run. Taking care of one’s own inner life as a rabbi is an under-appreciated challenge. The accumulated grief wears you down.

Second, being a clergyperson in a pulpit creates a host of lifestyle issues, many owing to the fact that rabbis and cantors, at least in the Conservative and Orthodox worlds, live within walking distance of where they work. Most working people leave their houses in the morning, commute to work, and then return home at the end of the day, usually a distance from the office or work setting

Not so congregational rabbis. My commute is the few blocks from my home to the synagogue where I work.

There are, of course, advantages to this. I neither have to sit in traffic in my car every day during rush hour, nor do I have to take crowded trains to and from my office feeling like a sardine. A big plus, to be sure.

On the other hand, you never really get to “go home.” In the pulpit rabbinate, home and work are essentially one and the same. When you shop for groceries, go to the gym, or take your dog for a walk, you are likely to see the same people that you do in synagogue, a class, or a board meeting. That is not, of course, necessarily a bad thing. After thirty years, I love knowing so many local merchants, and the overwhelming majority of both congregants and others whom I encounter are both pleasant and respectful of my privacy. But it is a “thing,” something that takes getting used to, and will occasionally be difficult. It is also why getting away from time to time is so important.

There are other stressors, of course, like the unrelenting pressure of delivering weekly sermons and words of Torah that are worthy of the people we teach. I’ve always told people that no one knows better than I do if a sermon that I delivered was less than it should be. I am my own worst critic. And there is no feeling quite like disappointing yourself. There will always be people to tell you what was good or bad, but what you yourself know to be true is what you have to learn to live with. Again — not always easy.

All this said — and very true — there are those moments that are so precious, and so meaningful, that they make the difficult aspects of the practicing rabbinate not only bearable, but also immeasurably rewarding. I live for those moments, and thankfully, they are not all that rare.

Both personally and professionally, learning that I was genuinely helpful during a particularly painful and trying time for a congregant or friend is more rewarding than I could possibly express.

I have a little collection of letters that I’ve received through the years from people who wanted to say a meaningful thank you, and took the trouble to write something that was more than a perfunctory note. Those letters have meant more to me than any communal honor I have achieved, and I treasure them.

The rabbinate as an institution is in tremendous flux, with lines of authority being challenged, and clergy roles themselves under serious re-examination. Newer, so-called independent minyanim by and large reject the traditional model of clergy that staffed American synagogues for decades. But helping people will never become obsolete. And knowing that I’ve made someone’s terrible time a little more bearable- or also that my participation enriched someone’s joyous time — well, I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.

And then there are the kids…

Creating meaningful connections with children, from Nursery School age all the way through college, is also extraordinarily rewarding. When I meet a Nursery School child on the street and he/she yells out from down the street “There’s the rabbi!” it makes my day. That’s a connection that’s about more than me. It’s also about the synagogue and the Jewish community. If we are able to build on that connection, then it’s game, set, match.

And when a parent from our Hebrew High School tells me that my connection to her son is an anchor for him in his life… priceless. Nothing in my work means more to me than having teenagers feel comfortable walking into my office, seeking me out to talk, and trusting in me enough to confide. That is a sacred trust, and I value it as such. A good session with my Hebrew High School students is more than a counter-balance to the inevitable stresses and strains of “the life.”

Last but most certainly not least, I derive enormous satisfaction from teaching Torah, and sharing with people why it means so much to me, and how it has shaped everything about my life. Helping someone learn to appreciate the splendors of Shabbat, bringing a Jew-by-choice to a serious appreciation of the richness of Jewish life- when all is said and done, everything I do is about teaching Torah, whether it be in a classroom or sanctuary, or anywhere else. It is a great privilege, and an awesome responsibility.

So yes- the rabbinate is indeed a high-stress job, but it’s been my professional life for the past thirty years. All things considered, I would have to say that I am a very lucky man.

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