Teaching Converts: A Job for Retired Rabbis

Retirees face common struggles. Sometimes those struggles involve health or money. Aside from those crucial issues, one large challenge for a retiree is to find meaning, some purpose to what can sometimes seem as endless days.

I have never been a rabbi, but I can imagine the difficulty a retired rabbi might have in giving up an occupation marked by so hectic a daily schedule that is routinely punctuated by having to apply a lifetime of learning and wisdom to sometimes deeply grateful and sometimes indifferent or desperate people. It seems to me like a difficult identity to surrender.

As it happens, the Jewish community really needs retired rabbis to engage in a profoundly meaningful activity. Only rabbis can oversee and guide converts to Judaism. Sometimes rabbis also teach or counsel those who wish to attach themselves to the Jewish faith, but in all cases it is the rabbi who is ultimately responsible for the conversion itself.
All converts enter Judaism through the gateway of religion, and rabbis are there to explain Judaism’s rituals, holy days, extraordinary history of tragedy and triumph, of so many sunrises and sunsets marked by laughter and tears. Rabbis can authoritatively explain the requirements of formal conversion to those who wish to join the Jewish people on its historic spiritual journey.

The problem is that many congregational rabbis are, to understate the matter, very busy. They must serve their congregants so if a potential convert from outside the congregation seeks their time and energy, they must balance the needs of the congregation with the needs of the potential convert. Since potential converts are frequently uncertain about the conversion process, perhaps a bit scared about meeting the rabbi but nonetheless filled with hope, these people on the doorstep of the house of Judaism need exactly the time that congregational rabbis don’t have in abundance.

There is an irony in all this. For if congregations could attract more converts, the congregation would grow and be religiously stronger. Converts, after all, are characteristically very active in Jewish life. They are eager to learn, and so they take classes, faithfully attend services, raise their children as Jewish, and in general contribute greatly to Jewish life.

And that is where retired rabbis enter the conversion picture. These rabbis, at least in theory, have much more free time. Wherever they go to retire, they carry around an accumulated lifetime of Jewish learning. They can help congregational rabbis by getting referrals from those overworked rabbis or assisting them. Or retired rabbis could welcome students on their own. They could band together with congregational and other retired rabbis to form conversion classes at a local congregation, Jewish Community Center, or other site. If they wish they can create a website, video, blog, or in other ways participate in social media to let people know about their availability. They can contact local reporters where they live to write stories about their efforts. The opportunities abound. The need for the Jewish community to get new members is great. The meaning of bringing new souls under the wings of the Shechinah is profound.

Let us hope, for the sake of all of us, that more retired rabbis will find such an effort deeply meaningful. They, who already have given so much to the Jewish community, can still give even more.

About the Author
I am the author of a variety of books about Jewish life including "The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America." My most recent book is "Converts to Judaism: Stories from Biblical Times to Today" published by Rowman & Littlefield.
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