One of the goals of service-learning is that my coursework should influence my fieldwork, and the reverse should be true as well. For the students in their second year, the careful planning of the curriculum helps lead them toward finding parallels between their coursework and their experience in the field. But as a senior, my course schedule is comprised of a senior seminar, my thesis, and whatever electives I have chosen. My fieldwork placement was chosen before I had firmly committed to a thesis topic, and long before I had chosen a course schedule. Therefore, any connections between my work in the field and my study in the classroom are accidental. While I am challenged to find these connections without the help of this intentional curriculum, I find this challenge to be beneficial. Although I must work harder to find these connections because they were not put in place intentionally, I realize there is a tremendous benefit because making connections is at the very essence of how I have come to envision my role as a rabbi.
In a course last year on the history of the Reform Movement, Dr. Meyer challenged each student to come up with as many Hebrew terms as we could to describe the different roles as a rabbi. Our class ended up with a rich collage of words, like מדריך, מורה, יועץ, דיין, judge, counselor, teacher, guide, and so on. I continue to reflect on this activity several months later. Indeed, when I am writing my reflections for my fellowship or when I am asked to draw connections between my coursework and fieldwork, a Yiddish term for the rabbi often arises in my mind: shadchen. Increasingly, I am viewing my future role as a match-maker. The common thread that runs through these various roles, it seems to me, is that the rabbi must continually make connections. I must establish connections between me and my congregation, connections between congregants, and connections between all of us and Jewish text and tradition.
I have heard classmates complain that certain antiquated or esoteric topics in courses like Talmud and philosophy are no longer relevant or will not be of interest to our future congregations. But isn’t it the rabbis task to make those matters relevant? No text is intrinsically relevant to us; we discover relevance by finding interpretations that speak to us and by digging through texts to illicit the deeper and more profound messages. Sometimes, the most valuable experiences are found when one has to work a bit harder to find those messages, or when one can articulate a message of their own by bringing different texts together.
My learning does not just occur in my experiences in the classroom and in the field, but in the process of bringing those experiences together. Like Biblical texts woven together in commentary, our experiences relate to each other when we investigate the connections between them. When I am ordained this spring, I hope to find myself employed by a community that will challenge me to take my experience in school and connect it to my work, establishing connections between the Torah that I study and the people whom I serve. I expect that my experience as a fellow, establishing connections between class and field, text and life, will be of great use to me in this process.
Josh Herman is a fifth year rabbinical student and a TJF fellow at The Edward B. Brueggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier University.