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Rabbinic Mission

My Rabbinic Mission

by Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom

Who am I now, as a rabbi? What are my priorities? Where in the rabbinic calling do I find my mission and fulfillment?

My rabbinic diploma, which I received from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1972, entitles me to be a "rabbi, teacher and preacher." But it did not take me long to realize that these three words do not begin to define what congregations expect a modern rabbi to be. A rabbi is also comforter, consoler, and confidante; officiant at life cycle ceremonies; programmer and planner; administrator and CEO; visionary and seer; cheerleader and entrepreneur; entertainer and salesman; fundraiser and community leader; politician and power broker; figurehead and symbol. A rabbi is pastor, priest and prophet.

Over the course of my more than 30 years in the rabbinate, there have been times when one role or another was dominant. Sometimes I fancied myself a CEO and tried to gain control over the synagogue to remake it in my own image. Sometimes I had to be a fundraiser. Sometimes, community service was my main interest. All the while trying to be a rabbi, teacher and preacher -- in my spare time as it were. I have tried all the roles. Given the time, inclination and resources, I know I can do most of them. But to do any of them well, I must choose my priorities. Which ones do I like doing? Which ones are the ones I became a rabbi to do? Which ones can I do best? Which ones has experience taught me mean the most?

As I ponder these questions, I find that when all is said and done, it is to the three words that are on my diploma that I return. Nothing gives me more fulfillment, nothing is more authentic, nothing is a greater source of pride than when I am a rabbi, teacher and preacher.

What do these roles mean to me? What have I learned about them in twenty four years?

Rabbi as Pastor

During my years as a rabbi, I have come to a keen appreciation of the importance of being a rabbi-pastor. It is not a role that came to me easily, or naturally. I was reserved, hesitant to inject myself too much into other people's lives. I was young and inexperienced. Not only at being a rabbi. At life. I was afraid of overstepping. Of being rejected. I was more comfortable with the distanced role of the pulpit.

But as I have grown in experience and confidence, and risked showing more of myself, I have learned how helpful I can be as a rabbi-pastor in dealing with the intense existential loneliness that afflicts all of us. We are beset with anxiety and insecurity. We are terrorized by the fear of random violence. We are confused by changing values and how they effect us and our children. We are afraid of losing our jobs. We are bewildered by a medical system that has become impersonal and obstructs our access to medical care. We fear suffering in our old age with intractable afflictions. We are terrified of dying alone, imprisoned by "life support" that obscures the relentlessness of the angel of death, and isolates us from loving human contact. We feel more anonymous, vulnerable and helpless than ever before. We hunger for someone to notice us, say a kind word, and extend a comforting hand. Someone who will treat us like a human being.

I have seen the difference I can make as a rabbi when I take a patient's hand and recite a prayer for healing at the beside. I have felt their pain as I stand with them alone before the open ark while they pour out their heart before God. I know how much a call before Yom Tov means to a recently bereaved widow or widower, or someone who is ill. I have cried with families as I chanted Kol Nidre at their bedside on Erev Yom Kippur, knowing that they would not be able to come to the synagogue because of illness. At a funeral service or shiva, a wedding or a brit, the presence of the rabbi makes a difference.

I am touched at these times when I see how my involvement, and the ancient faith we share, can touch the soul and elevate the spirit at a moment of vulnerability, either because of pain or joy.

That is why the rabbi-pastor role is a priority. As rabbi-pastor, I make a difference in people's lives.

Rabbi as Teacher

I have always loved the rabbi as teacher role. It is thrilling to see the excitement of discovery on the faces of my students, and to hear the enthusiasm in their voices. Even more so when I know that something I have taught them has enhanced their lives spiritually, and led them to a new understanding or observance.

My subject matter has been diverse. I have tried to capitalize on current concerns and forms of expression to capture the audience. I have taught courses on Jewish spirituality, theology and the life cycle. I have dealt with men's issues, death and dying, biomedical ethics and human sexuality. I work hard at preparation and am rarely content to take a stock textbook and teach from it. It makes the experience fulfilling for me. But it also makes it harder because of the need for intense preparation and careful development of teaching materials.

The act of studying connects Jews to one another, and to our tradition and what it means to us. It brings us to God.

I need to teach more. The kind of teaching where we search for God together through text and dialogue. This, too, is a vital rabbinic priority.

Rabbi as Preacher

It is this type of teaching that I have adapted to my rabbi as preacher role. I rarely give a sermon the way I did when I became a rabbi, standing on the bima and addressing the congregation from on high. The interactive format that I have developed is more like teaching. It involves the congregation in an integral and intimate way in developing my message. That is not to say that I do not have a clear direction or point that I expect to make during the sermon. I know where I want to end up. But I don't get there alone. We get there through dialogue on a text or idea. Sometimes the discussion takes unanticipated twists and turns. We end up in an unexpected place. That's OK, too. The congregation is part of the preaching process. It becomes their lesson as well as mine. I learn, too. We learn from each other.

The topics of my sermons have changed. I used to preach a great deal about politics and world events. Now, my focus is more on life issues that are more personal. More religious. More spiritual. In 1972, I never would have led off a series of High Holy Day sermons with one about God, nor ended with one on immortality, as I did last year. But there is a spiritual hunger today. As we enter the post-assimilationist world, and prepare for the new millennium, we are looking for spiritual answers that the fastest pentium processor cannot give us.

I believe in the Shabbat service as the central expression of the character and mission of the synagogue. Over the years, I have guided it to be not only a vehicle for prayer and teaching, but a pastoral experience as well.

There is great power in the traditional life cycle ceremonial observances which take place during services. They just have to be made accessible to the congregation. The healing ritual which I have introduced has become a way of expressing our community's collective concern for its families who are struggling with the pain of illness and the uncertainty of recovery. The more personal and expanded observances for namings, ufrufs and Bar and Bat Mitzvah enable us to really be part of the simcha. I avoid saying only the generic prayers. I move people out of their seats and bring them closer to the Torah. I invite them to sing and clap. I create ways for them to participate. All of this has brought us closer together. It has made us a more supportive and appreciative community.

Nothing demonstrates this approach as well as the closing ritual of the service. The involvement of young children, the holding of hands across the aisles, the clapping and singing -- it is thrilling, uplifting. We walk out humming, tapping our feet, smiling . . . envying the kids as they munch on M&M's!

As a preacher and service leader, it has become my priority to make the experience fun. Memorable. Accessible. Participatory. I want people to walk away with a smile on their face. To find Shabbat morning a joyous experience. After all, tradition teaches that joy is essential to the Shabbat experience. It is part of God's gift to us.

Welcoming, Affirming and Empowering

The greatest challenge facing the modern synagogue is our need to welcome and affirm people, empower them to act, inspire them to know how competent, capable, and good they are. That's why I do not believe that guilt is an effective motivator. Nor do I believe calls to duty or communal responsibility are effective. Judaism can only survive if individuals choose to live it, because it touches something within them. They will not respond to calls that they perceive as demeaning and condescending, or that diminish their sense of self worth.

I want the synagogue to be a place that builds people up. Gives them confidence and hope.

As a rabbi, I want to inspire people to live Jewishly because they want to, because they love it, because they feel it in their soul. I want to nurture that Jewish soul, hungering for spiritual sustenance and love.

Being a rabbi-pastor, teacher and preacher is the way I do it.

It is my mission as a rabbi.

Rabbi Rosenbloom


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Affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism