Rabbis Without Borders
Joshua Cypess is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus and a graduate student at Brandeis University. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.