Twenty Years a Rabbi

May 11, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


Sitting in the Rabbinical Assembly convention this past week in Montreal – I was reminded of a distinction my father made to me and my brothers growing up. There are some people in this world who celebrate achievements – academic, athletic, professional, or otherwise – and then there are other people satisfied celebrating the mere passage of time. My father made it clear that he chooses to celebrate achievement, not time – a stance that pretty much sucked the wind out of every childhood birthday party, but has thankfully softened now that my dad has been transformed into a doting, birthday-card-sending grandfather to my children.

For those who don’t know, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) is the international association of Conservative rabbis. The RA is the voice of the Conservative Movement, providing support, professional guidance, continuing education, and – when a rabbi is in need of job – placement services. All your rabbis are proud dues paying members of the RA, and most years, some combination of us attend the annual convention for Torah study, professional development, collegiality, and to be updated on the direction of our movement. The buzz this year revolved around the appointment of a new CEO for the RA: my classmate Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, an inspired choice picked from a JTS class which I am sure Rabbi Zuckerman will agree was stocked with a once-in-a-generation glut of talent.

For me, this year’s convention prompted a combination of nostalgia and reflection, because it was exactly twenty years ago, May 1999, in this exact spot – the bimah of Park Avenue Synagogue – that I was ordained as a rabbi. Whether for reasons of construction or the size of our class, graduation could not be held at The Jewish Theological Seminary, and we all schlepped here. It was the first and, as fate would have it, not the last time I would stand on this bimah as a rabbi. “Twenty years,” I reminisced, sitting in Montreal surrounded by colleagues both junior and senior to me, recalling the distinction my father made all those years ago. An anniversary of my service to the Jewish people – over half of those years to this community. A passage of time? Yes. An achievement worthy of celebration? Depends on whom you ask. Or as the saying goes, “It’s still too early to tell.”

I received neither a fountain pen nor a watch from the RA. So on behalf of . . . myself, this morning I want to present myself with a gift, the gift of indulging publicly in my thoughts, sharing them with you, my community, on twenty years of being a rabbi. Is the rabbinate what I thought it would be? Did my training prepare me to serve the needs of American Jewry? Is the rabbinate the sort of career, I would recommend to a young man or woman? How do I feel on this week marking twenty years into this career? Now this isn’t therapy, and I don’t have a scotch in front of me, and if there is one truism about being a rabbi, it is to keep your cantor happy, and we still have musaf to daven. So for the sake of concision, I will divide the coming minutes into three interrelated headings, each one worthy of a sermon: 1) The Movement, 2) The Condition of American Jewry and 3) The Job Itself. If you prefer catchy titles: 1)“Denominations in Decline,” 2) “Not Your Parents’ Judaism” and 3) “They Didn’t Teach Me This in Rabbinical School.”

Number One: Denominations in Decline

When I went to rabbinical school, I did not consider going anywhere other than JTS. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, I participated in my USY youth group, I went to a Solomon Schechter school with some Camp Ramah sprinkled in. But more than the institutions, there was the ideology. To be a Conservative Jew meant to wrestle with questions of tradition and change, to bring a historic sensibility to Jewish texts, and to recognize that because these texts and traditions emerged in times different than our own, modern Jews had both the opportunity and obligation to interpret those texts and traditions anew, keeping some, discarding others – renewing the old and making the new sacred. When I went to JTS, there was a commitment to something called Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scientific study of Judaism, a kind of scholarship in service of religion. One studied Jewish history because in appreciating Jewish history, one sets the stage for the Jewish future. There was a specific ideology undergirding Conservative Judaism; hours and hours were spent studying its founders: Schechter, Zunz, Frankel, and others. Conservative Judaism stood for something different than a Reform Judaism all about personal autonomy or an Orthodox Judaism all about preserving tradition. Movement labels mattered – to students, to schools and to communities.

Today, the Conservative Movement and all denominations are in decline. People aren’t joining synagogues or attending summer camps based on ideology. Jews aren’t wondering who did or didn’t write the Bible and the implications of that question for Jewish practice; whether swordfish is or isn’t kosher, whether the matriarchs should or shouldn’t be added to the Amidah, and who gets to decide. You join a community because the early childhood center is good, because the cantor has a lovely voice, or because your friends go there. And it isn’t just the Conservative Movement; every movement is in decline. These denominations were founded in the nineteenth century, shaped Jewish life in the twentieth century, and have yet to find their stride twenty years into this new century. At last week’s conference, I attended a panel discussion led by the deans of all four movement seminaries, none of whose students believe that we live in a time when movement labels matter. And if that is what is being taught to future leaders, then it is just a matter of time before it is lived in the pews by American Jews. If denominations were a stock, my advice: “Go short.”

Number Two: This Is Not Your Parent’s Judaism

In retrospect, I am not sure what I was thinking went I went to rabbinical school. Probably on some level I thought I would become a congregational or Hillel rabbi, which, except for a lifelong flirtation with the academy, is what I have done. I would work in a community, Jews would join that community, and one day I would be put out to pasture as emeritus. That was the model I grew up with; that is the model of my grandfather’s career; and that is pretty much what is happening to me. But what everyone in this room needs to appreciate is that the story of Park Avenue Synagogue is not the story of American Jewry. I compare notes with my talented colleagues, many of whom have changed jobs two, three, four times, many of whose synagogues have consolidated or closed. And while some of this has to do with the natural ebb and flow of Jewish demography, at the root of it all is a profound revolution in all the assumptions of community formation. Because whether it is Barnes and Noble, Blockbuster Video, or movie theatres, ours is the age of disintermediation. We get our content online, we order our stuff from Amazon, the malls that I grew up walking around are closing, and network television is a language my children do not speak. And synagogues? We are part of that story of disintermediation. The idea of joining a synagogue, paying membership dues, and playing by all the rules – when I can have a bespoke religious life and form community online – is quaint and dated.

If you dig deeper, there are even more profound changes afoot. We live in a time and place of freedoms unimaginable to our predecessors; a post-ethnic America where identity is generated bottom-up, not top-down, or, as sociologists describe it, identities are of consent, not descent. Not just religion, but gender, sexuality, and so many other markers of identity are self-made and self-declared. The option to opt out of living Jewishly is all of ours for the taking. How we spend our time, where we live, the causes we commit to, the communities we join, the person with whom we fall in love – these are all choices to be made by us. American Jews do not practice their Judaism the way their parents did, certainly not just because their parents did. This is a state of affairs that calls for a different kind of rabbinic leadership. A leadership that is able to nimbly negotiate the structures of the past and the future. A leadership that is able to hustle for every soul, presenting itself as both authentic and non-judgmental. An entrepreneurial kind of leadership poised to meet American Jewry where they are and inspire them to aspire to passion-filled Jewish living. Woe unto the rabbinical school or would-be rabbi who believes that Jews will “do Jewish” just because that is what Jews do or because of some intergenerational debt to the past.

Number Three: They Didn’t Teach me This in Rabbinical School

I don’t know how it is in other professions – law, medicine, or finance – but in reflecting on my job, I would say that most of what I do as a rabbi has very little to do with what I learned in rabbinical school. How to run a staff meeting, how to manage people, how to set institutional direction, interact with lay people, separate people from their hard-earned money – none of these things did they teach me in rabbinical school. Yesterday I attended a cross-communal meeting on formulating a lobbying strategy for governmental grants to fund security in houses of worship. On Wednesday I sat down with the publisher of The New York Times to explain why the Jewish community was shocked, but not surprised, by the anti-Semitic cartoon published two weeks ago. There are so many things a rabbi does on any given day that they don’t teach you in rabbinical school. Even the sacred moments, like Wednesday night when I sat in a hospital room counseling a family through end-of-life decisions, or Thursday when I met with a couple as they discussed whether their marriage could be saved. These are not skills that are developed in the classroom, and I didn’t imagine doing these things on that day in May of 1999 when I was ordained. But that is what I do, what every rabbi does, day-in-and-day-out.

But despite these observations, in retrospect I am actually not sure I would change a single thing about my rabbinical education. I am grateful for my immersion in text study. I am grateful for my teachers who imparted in me a love of Torah. I am grateful for an institution that instilled in me a love for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Sure, I had elements of these things prior to rabbinical school; it is why I went in the first place. But it was at JTS where these passions deepened and were given texture and where, most of all, I was given the tools to share these passions with whatever community I would ultimately serve. Looking back, if I had the choice of taking a Talmud class or a class on fundraising, I would pick Talmud any day of the week, and I would counsel present day rabbinical students to do the same.

You see, for me, unlike for a NFL quarterback, the joy of this twenty-year career mark is that my strongest years as a rabbi are still ahead. Whatever achievements I can reflect on, Dad, the best is yet to come. If there is a take-away so far, it is that more important than what a rabbi says is what a rabbi does. These days, the most any religious leader can command is respect. It is the personal example that we set – extending kindness to one another, living with integrity, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and embracing our Judaism in the manner we hope others will – that will determine whether the tradition we love so will find traction in the generation to come. Lest we forget, these weeks between Passover and Shavuot are referred to as the sefirah – a sober, even mournful period, in remembrance of twelve thousand pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva who died of plague. Why, the Talmud asks in Yevamot, were they afflicted? Because they failed to treat each other with respect; in other words, they talked the talk but failed to walk the walk, resulting in their Torah being forgotten. The message is plain as day. For a rabbi – or, for that matter, anyone – to be a leader, they must live by the value system that they seek to inspire others to take hold of. The rest is commentary.

A final image. Last Thursday evening, over four hundred members of the synagogue, including sixty or so millennials, came together for our annual gala. The room overflowed with congregants coming together for no other reason than to celebrate and support the vibrant synagogue we love and to honor one family – the Rosenfelds – who exemplify the very best of our community. In the midst of the festivities, I made sure to pause and look around and think to myself: What a wonderful world! For all the problems facing American Jewry, for all the headaches and challenges on the horizon, we are doing something very right here. But the best part of the evening was yet to come. The best part was when one of the leaders of our community called me over to stand together with the honorees, surrounded by a few dozen recent college grads, who – with a tray of shot glasses in hand – demanded that the rabbi do a “L’chaim” with them. I smiled widely and called out over the music, “Which ones of you did I bar or bat mitzvah?” The hands shot up, the tray of shots was passed around, we recited the brakhah, clinked our glasses, and toasted: “To the next generation!”

This is not my parents’ Judaism – nor should it be; nor for that matter did they teach me any of this in rabbinical school. But twenty years in, being a rabbi – it is the best job in the world. It has been a great run so far and I can’t wait for the decades to come.