Joshua Cypess is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus and a graduate student at Brandeis University.  He can be reached at

In August 2008, I embarked on a leap of faith in my career and bid a (temporary) farewell to my life as a pulpit rabbi to start a doctoral program in Jewish Studies and Sociology at Brandeis.  I am no stranger to academia, so the transition was mostly smooth.  What I have struggled with is my new role as a 'civilian' in a synagogue; something I have not been in decades; even before I pursued the mantle of the rabbinate, I was a Gabbai or some other sort of functionary.  I'm dropping shul leadership 'cold turkey' - a necessary sacrifice if I hope to complete a Ph.D. as soon as I possibly can.

Over the past year, I've identified three specific difficulties of the role-change:

  1. Fears about whether I will be able to get back into the pulpit - both practically (lean years ahead), and psychologically.Will I keep my skills up?
  2. A difficult revelation that being a 'civilian' is much better for spending timewith my children.No more living in a fishbowl (who cares what a grad student's kids do?). Instead of eating my guts out every day to find a minyan (what I did in my last job), I can actually tuck my kids into bed at night.It's demoralizing to see, especially when my kids are young, that being a pulpit rabbi would have meant depriving them of time with their father.
  3. But the key leadership lesson, and struggle, has been my need to redefine the rabbinate without a pulpit.

To illustrate this third difficulty: I was invited to give a guest sermon this past Rosh Hashanah.  I've been giving this type of sermon for over a decade, but always as a communally appointed representative, starting as intern and finally as full rabbi of a shul. The purpose of this sermon, more than others, was hortatory: using the knowledge, expertise and especially the authority of the rabbi to preach moral lessons.  As a sitting rabbi, I've been able to depend on my authority to break through the listener's resistance to criticism.  This time, I did not have that moral shorthand.  In that sense, I needed to (re)-learn how to lead as a civilian.  I think this will ultimately give more insight as to how congregants can act and lead.  This will put me in good stead when I, b'ezrat Hashem, return to a pulpit.

My chosen shul, in many ways, is perfect for my liminal state: it was founded by rabbi-academics and there are many rabbi-professors in the pews.  The rabbi is a friend and Wexner fellow (Benjie Samuels) who is also pursuing his doctorate.  So my co-congregants have learned over the years how to treat a de-pulpited rabbi.  Their experience and their treatment of me may teach me how to treat myself.