How Do You Make a Rabbi?

This year is about integrating coexistent yet otherwise distinct things into a one complete picture. It is about making things whole.

My fellowship position is designed to combine youth group programming and regular educational classroom time for Rockdale Temple’s students in grades seven and eight. The entire fellowship endeavor is meant to involve the rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) with the greater Cincinnati community. Our required education seminar is aimed at integrating our clinical experiences with our classroom learning. The focus on education this year is intended to help us as rabbinical students merge within ourselves the roles of learner and teacher.

I did not realize at first how everything this year is pointing towards integration, but when I lay it all out as I have done above, I cannot help but see an intense drive toward creating fullness and unity. Often, I find it difficult to comprehend this movement towards integration when I am caught up in the day-to-day responsibilities of each of the individual components of my various projects; it is hard to see the forest for the trees. To see how all the pieces of my life are asking me to create unification, I must take a step back. When I catch a glimpse of that ideal, I feel less divided myself.

The title of our education seminar is drawn from Pirkei Avot 1:6, Aseh lcha rav. Rather than the conventional translation “Get yourself a teacher,” in this context the phrase is understood as “Make yourself into a rabbi.” At the onset of the semester I did not fully understand the significance of framing this particular class with that name. On the surface, it seemed that our education class was simply about education, and the fact that it directly related to our teaching experiences in our fellowship positions added a small element of unity to a curriculum that otherwise felt disjointed. Through conversations with Rabbi Jan Katzew, one of the instructors of the education seminar, I have come to realize the full implications of the fact that the title of the course is not explicitly about education, but about the journey of becoming a rabbi. Learning to be an educator is neither exclusive nor somehow categorically different from learning to be a rabbi. It is learning to be a rabbi. Rabbi Katzew has helped me to realize as well that the entire HUC-JIR curriculum fosters development as a rabbi. It is not a series of discrete subjects: Bible, rabbinic texts, life-cycle events, worship. I am studying all these subjects, but such studies are all under the umbrella of learning to be a rabbi.

When sitting in a particular course or concentrating on a certain writing assignment, I often feel as if I am trying to climb only one of the proverbial trees. My conversations with Rabbi Katzew have helped me to take that needed step back and see the forest that is the entire project of rabbinical school. I am learning to be a rabbi, and all the individual pieces are integrated in this path. Sometimes things do seem to click together on their own, like when a text from one class pertains to life cycle events in another. In such instants of clarity I suddenly realize the unity of my learning, if only for a moment. But these spontaneous moments of integration are infrequent, and in the times between, things feel disjointed—and I feel unintegrated.

In his article “Aseh LCha RavIf Only It Were That Easy,”[1] Rabbi Scott Aaron discusses the importance of mentoring relationships in his rabbinate. While his point is not explicitly about integrating the various aspects of his life into one whole picture, he does note a number of ways in which he has been guided by rabbinic mentors in virtually every part of life. In one passage, Rabbi Aaron remarks on the importance of rabbinic mentors helping him to utilize “teachable moments” for self-reflection and growth, meaning that his mentors have helped him pause after certain events or actions and evaluate what he learned from those occasions. In a way, Rabbi Aaron has done that for me through his article. His words have caused me to understand that I am positioned in a “self-teachable” moment now, a moment at which I can reflect on what I have learned so far and how it all fits together. I must make a conscious effort to be mindful of these self-teachable moments more often.

The serendipitous parallel between the title of Rabbi Aaron’s article and the title of our education seminar is not lost on me. Nor is the fact that my conversations with Rabbi Katzew are perfect examples of Rabbi Aaron’s teachable moments in a mentoring relationship. In this moment of reflection, I notice things coming together. I stand facing the trees, but when I really stop to contemplate my circumstances, I can see the forest. In all that I do, I am learning to be a rabbi. May that learning never end.

Sam Pollak is a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow working with the Rak Noar (seventh and eighth grade program) at Rockdale Temple under the mentorship of Rabbi Meredith Kahan.

[1] Aaron, Scott. “Aseh L’cha Rav…If Only It Were That Easy.” The CCAR Journal, Winter 2011.

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