I remember sitting in my rabbinical school interview in New York and someone around the table asked me why I wanted to become a rabbi since I had just completed a Master’s Degree in Jewish education and had worked in the field only for a few years. I explained that I hoped to become a rabbi/educator one day and to have the families in our school as my congregation. I felt that I could pastor in this capacity. I imagined celebrating milestones with them and helping them through difficult times. I felt that the extra schooling would be an important base for my work in congregational education. The only two positions I foresaw as a rabbi/educator were work in Hillel or as a religious school director.
Upon ordination, I began work as a congregational educator in suburban Chicago. It became true that I was the rabbi for the school. I bonded with many of the parents and children and was able to grow meaningful relationships with our teachers. I felt good and proud about some of what we could accomplish with religious school education, such as our family Hebrew class. I also struggled with the disconnect when we teach a religious Judaism to a largely secular (but spiritual) group. It happened that Shabbat and other observances were often presented anthropologically, as if they were practices that Jews did once upon a time. I felt defensive about the occasional sea of complaints from parents. Some of our teachers were stellar and others were too Jewishly illiterate, were not familiar enough with Reform denominational ideology, or couldn’t engage the students.
I found that I was entrepreneurial in my rabbinate. I was always thinking about a next idea or philosophizing about what worked and what didn’t. I wanted to think about big ideas and try things out. I began to officiate and co-officiate at weddings and baby namings both for families in the congregation and for those who started to find me. I found this work to be important and fulfilling. All of the couples I worked with were interfaith because the temple where I worked was created by and for interfaith families. I had been a religious studies major as an undergrad, and I loved talking religion and culture with these eager interfaith couples. Co-officiating life cycle events enabled me to think creatively about liturgy and message and to meet clergy of other faiths who would become friends and teachers. We would talk about what syncretism meant, how we understood hyphenated or hybrid couples, the difference between blending and blurring and keeping each faith separate and authentic. We talked about ethnic aspects of our religions and how the interfaith couple could experience our traditions. I enjoyed talking with parents of the couple on both sides and translating Judaism in order to make it accessible.
The stars aligned in June 2011 when Ed Case from InterfaithFamily approached me about becoming the first Your Community Director for his non-profit organization. I excitedly accepted. I became a full-time outreach, relationship, concierge, independent, community rabbi. Now, InterfaithFamily employs seven rabbis across the country who work full time, hyper-focused on interfaith couples and families, advocating and educating on their behalf in the larger Jewish world. It is funny to say that I am a community rabbi because some rabbinic colleagues deride me for offering Judaism outside of community. I am a rabbi for a community of unaffiliated Jews. With whom are they in community? It is my job to connect people and help them create community with me and with others. I see community in new and different ways. This work has opened many doors and enabled me to pop in and out of the most interesting, thought-provoking circles and situations.
I would say to a rabbinical student interested in ways to be a rabbi outside of traditional pulpit duties that if they can be entrepreneurial, anything is possible. Truly, all rabbis — no matter what position they hold — need to think like entrepreneurs. In other words, they have to understand marketing and message and be deeply creative and resourceful in bringing people into their organizations. Rabbis today can launch a start-up, work in a rabbinic capacity in an existing nonprofit (sometimes helping an organization understand what it means to hire a rabbi specifically for a position), create a new form for Jewish engagement, write, speak, teach, create curriculum and content … the sky is the limit.
Ari Moffic is the Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago