On Becoming A Rabbi

0815becomingrabbiI didn’t always want to be a rabbi. I never had visions of myself standing on the bima, leading services, quoting Torah and Talmud, or counseling people. Yet, now, many years later I understand that somewhere, deep within my being, the desire was there. It just took almost a lifetime to recognize it.

While I wasn’t raised in a very observant home and we  never belonged to a synagogue, I always loved Judaism—the rituals, the Torah stories—a sense of being special. My father, a secular, cultural Jew, used to speak reverently about the ethics inherent in our tradition and our history. He came to love Judaism in his adult years. The only formal education he had was as a young boy in the cheder in his home town of Neshem, Russia. The 1905 pogroms ended that when the family left for America. But when he was in his forties, a close friend became his mentor and introduced him to the beauty and legacy of Judaism.

When I came home from Jewish summer camp and wanted to light candles, there was no objection, but no real motivation to continue once I stopped urging my mother to do so. At 11 years of age, I wanted to prepare for a bas mitzvah—but we didn’t have a conservative shul in our neighborhood or the money to invest. (I did have one though, 40 years later.) But through the years, I read and learned on my own. I became a fan of Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel and then ultimately Mordecai Kaplan.

After moving to California from New York, I decided to join a Reconstructionist synagogue–the first I had ever belonged to.  I became an active member, often leading services, teaching in Religious School, and serving as Vice president of the West Coast Region of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) for four years. But with all that, the idea of becoming a rabbi—of going back to school at an age when most retire–never seriously entered my mind.

Upon receiving a service award from the JRF I spoke briefly to the assemblage—after which my rabbi whispered, “In another life you could be a rabbi.” Wow!  I was tremendously flattered, and when I shared what he had said with two friends who were attending rabbinical school, they said, “Why another life? Why not in this life?”

My reaction was both astonishment and terror. Pshaw, I thought. I don’t have the time, or the money—and I wondered if my grey cells would be up to the challenge. For five years, my friends continued to urge me, but I would have none of it. And then I attended an open house at the Academy for Jewish Religion for an article I was writing. I was intrigued; a trans-denominational seminary, with students of all ages and a faculty as diverse as they were welcoming.

Everyone I interviewed asked me why I wasn’t applying—and I gave them my standard reasons—money, time. But the real reason was fear! I looked over the application and froze–three essays, transcripts from every school, three referrals, a psych interview, and on and on. I put the application away. Two years later, after attending my friends’ ordination, I began to question my initial reaction and wonder if I could really do that.

I pulled out the application and decided to slowly take the steps to complete it. In the meantime, I would enroll for one course—Hebrew 1. That was beginning of what would be a seven-year journey. But it was at our annual retreat, that first year, at the Monday morning Shacharit service that I knew it was where I wanted to be. I was filled with a sense of belonging I had never known.

Joseph Campbell always spoke and wrote about finding your bliss. And I used to ask myself—“What is my bliss?” I would review all work I had done, and while there were parts of each job I liked—none of them was “my bliss.” But at that Monday morning service, I knew. I also knew that it is the process of becoming a rabbi that was the bliss—the joy.

Now, five years later, I am only a year’s worth of classes away from my ordination and I have loved every minute. But why did it take so long?

About 30 years ago, my sister called to tell me that all my college books that had been stored in her basement in New York had been destroyed in a flood. However, she had insurance money and I needed to tell her which books I would like to purchase. Aside from the YALE desk dictionary, the complete works of Shakespeare and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, I asked for the tractates of the Steinsaltz Talmud, the Sefer Ha Aggadah and several other Jewish texts. When they arrived, I couldn’t make head or tail of them so I placed them on my bookshelves where I felt they looked rather good. Uncannily, twenty five years later, I began using them. Maybe somewhere deep down inside I did know what my bliss was.

What took so long was a combination of things: the era in which I grew up, parental and societal expectations, and fear. Not the spine tingling fear we feel when confronted with danger, but the nagging doubt that gnaws at the edges of our confidence. Perhaps that is what keeps many from venturing into new areas of endeavor. Going back to school can seem overwhelming—but I see it as part of one’s personal evolution. When I was young, going to school was like going to vocational school—to acquire a skill or credential so you can get a job. I am frequently asked what I will do once I am ordained.

It is my hope to share what I have learned and experienced. But for right now, my focus is the learning.

Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.

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