Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"All in a Rabbi's Day" Jewish Week (Sept 4, 2009)

by Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week

Late Friday night, the phone rang. When the caller ID blinked “Stamford Hospital,” I braced myself. It was the emergency room; a Jewish patient was asking to see a rabbi.

Rabbinic nightmare No. 1: An emergency on Shabbat.

With strict privacy guidelines in place, it’s usually easier to find out which ballplayers took steroids in 2003 than for clergy to learn about hospitalized congregants; but when I asked for the name, the nurse told me. When I heard it, I paused, then asked, guardedly, “Are you sure the family wanted you to contact any rabbi?”

It’s a fairly common name, and for the sake of confidentiality, I’ll use the Talmud’s version of “John Doe” and call him “Plony.”

Could this be the Plony, the former congregant who spent the better part of a decade trying to orchestrate my departure? When his efforts were thwarted he left the congregation, but last I heard, the man still carries a bowling ball-sized grudge.

Nightmare No. 2: Turning the Rabbinic Cheek.

After two decades, I’d like to think I’ve got a rock-solid connection with my congregation. But it’s axiomatic that there are always going to be 5 percent who will simply never be satisfied.

Plony was in the top percentile of that 5 percent.

So I was faced with a dilemma. If I failed to respond, I’d be neglecting a human being crying out for care. But the shock of my unannounced appearance in the ER could well kill him.

I knew that Obama’s Middle East peace plan would have a better chance of succeeding than my pastoral efforts, but I leaned toward going. This was an opportunity to rise above old grudges, swoop in and trigger a healing reconciliation. Maybe this time the spirit of forgiveness would prevail.

Rabbis tend to be very good at rising above things, and I’ve no doubt that my career choice has made me a more compassionate person and better disciplined Jew. I’ve learned that life is too short to allow old grudges to fester. I’ve come to understand how not to sweat the small stuff, even if “small stuff” includes a trifling matter like someone wanting to send me packing. That’s just part of the very complicated nature of the relationship between rabbis and congregants.

A recent issue of the journal Sh’ma features an exchange of letters between a pulpit rabbi and a nervous college graduate contemplating a rabbinic career, fearful that it would be spiritually and socially suffocating.

I remember that angst. When I entered college, the last thing I ever expected to be was a rabbi. It was my worst nightmare. I had seen how challenging such an existence had been for my father, a cantor, and for my family: life in a fishbowl, scrutinized from birth, talked about in the aisles of Marshalls; a succession of Sunday outings sacrificed for someone’s funeral.

I had heard it all. The rabbinate sends people to far-off places from which they never return. The rabbinate absolutely runs roughshod over marriages. As people come to see you through the lens of their expectations, the rabbi and his family begin to conform, quite subconsciously, to those same expectations. Before long, they are trapped inside a funhouse mirror, becoming grotesque parodies of what they had hoped to be.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I echo the sentiments expressed in Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin’s response to the graduate:

“Rest assured, there are rabbis who inspire their congregants to grow as human beings and as Jews; rabbis who are authentic in their own struggles with the tradition and with God; rabbis whose families are healthy and intact and loving. There are good rabbis who love what they do; and there are rabbis who are simply counting the days until retirement.”

Not only is it possible to survive in my profession, it is possible to grow — to be more authentic and loving precisely because of all the spiritual tests that we face. Not a day passes when I don’t feel grateful for the trust that my congregants have placed in me, and the responsibility that I bear. I know that, to a degree, the future of the entire Jewish enterprise rides on every choice I make. To some, that burden is a nightmare.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That’s what I was thinking as I held the phone in my hand. A human being was calling out for help, and somehow, the call had come to me.

Yes, Plony’s a jerk. But I answer to a higher authority.

I said to the nurse, “Um ... is there a family member there?’

“Yes. A son. Noah.”


I can’t tell you the son’s real name; but suffice to say that my Plony has no son with that name. Wherever Plony was, I now knew where he wasn’t.

I spoke with Noah for some time, assisting him through the array of dilemmas that he was facing. Fortunately, his father’s condition was stable and there was no need for me to rush to bedside. So everyone got a reprieve last Shabbat: both Noah and my own kids got to spend more precious time with their respective dads.

My first-born is headed for college, a jarring moment of irrevocable change, where parental dreams and nightmares intersect. Ironically, he’s going to Brown, the very place where, decades ago, my own life’s dreams took shape.

He’s considering several career paths. The rabbinate is not one of them.


That’s just what I thought.

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