I once spent three years of my life following what was supposed to be a one-year search for a new rabbi at one of the country’s biggest synagogues. It was one of the most fascinating, shocking and challenging experiences of my life — as a Jew and as a writer. And it made me entirely sympathetic to everyone involved, even though, honestly, they weren’t always all that sympathetic to each other.
I am often asked by readers of the resulting book, “The New Rabbi,” what advice I would give to search committees, lay leaders, congregants and clergy (outgoing and incoming), the main stakeholders in The Search. Since the rabbis I wrote about often liked to quote from nontraditional sources, I’ll start with a quote from a source you don’t often hear in synagogue. “Be excellent to each other,” which are, of course, the immortal words of Bill S. Preston, Esq. from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
It is advice I wanted to offer at so many turns during my time documenting intense synagogue politics, when I often saw more passion than compassion.
When I began covering rabbi searches (which are hopelessly intertwined, because many synagogues are seeking and losing rabbis at the same time), I went to New York and had “the talk” with members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the overseers of searching for the Conservative movement. They told me what they have told so many others — a version of which is also explained to congregations associated with the Reform and other movements.
“Congregations all want to hire the same rabbi,” I was told. “They all want someone who attends every meeting and is at his desk working until midnight, someone who is 28 years old but has preached for 30 years, someone who has a burning desire to work with teenagers but spends all his time with senior citizens, basically someone who does everything well and will stay with the congregation forever.”
When lay leaders and congregants hear stuff like this, they smile knowingly. And then they ignore it, because they think they are special, unique, exempt from the rules that govern the rest of “the retail business of religion” — as the rabbi whose congregation I covered, the late Gerald Wolpe, used to refer to it.
While this rabbi search season, like every other, will be dominated by discussions of finding inspirational clergy, I’d like to suggest that more attention be paid to finding inspirational congregants, inspirational lay leaders, inspirational synagogue problem solvers. It is, I can assure you, up to you — not the clergy member you seek to hire — to be inspired and inspirational.