I Didn’t Go to HUC to Become a Pulpit Rabbi (and Other Famous Last Words of Rabbinic Life)

I didn’t go to HUC to become a pulpit rabbi. In fact, I remember writing in my application that I never wanted to be a pulpit rabbi. It wasn’t that I had an alternative plan; I was just afraid of doing funerals. I am lucky I was accepted. In those days, the school admittedly preferred students — especially women — who wanted to become pulpit rabbis. During my senior year, Dr. Sylvan Schwartzman z”l asked us to develop a five-year plan for our rabbinic careers. I was having a hard time thinking five minutes ahead. I had just had a baby a month before. My goals included sleeping through the night, finishing my thesis, and finding a job. Because it met my family’s needs, I decided to apply for congregational positions. I interviewed and then watched all the male members of my class accept positions as I sat — Did I mention the three-month-old baby on my resume? — and waited until finally receiving an offer for a job reputed to be so bad that even the placement director advised me not to take it. I took it and stayed five years. I guess I was on a five-year plan after all.

I start with this story because I now know that the kind of rabbinate you think you are going to have is rarely the one you end up having. Sometimes external circumstances work against you: the job market is bad or the jobs are in the wrong place or the congregation has eliminated your position. Sometimes your personal needs change. You get married or divorced or have children or need to care for aging parents. Sometimes you yourself have changed. You once loved working with college students but no more. You loved the traditional rabbinate but you become aware that you need more independence and more flexibility.

Six years into my rabbinate, I took a solo position in a congregation of three hundred families. After a year, I realized I wasn’t having the rabbinic experience I had hoped to have. I felt like something was missing. I happened upon a small modern psychoanalytical institute near me that was offering a biweekly professional supervision group, and I signed up. That decision was life-changing. The group taught me that through talking I could get help with how to be with my congregants as well as a deeper understanding of myself. It seems so obvious now but, back then, it was a revelation.

After that group ended, I was hooked. I signed up for a class at the parent institute in New York. At the start, I took one class a semester. I never intended to finish the program and become a psychoanalyst, but the more I got into the training, the more compelling it became. The training not only enhanced my rabbinate and made me a happier rabbi, it also made me realize I wanted something different. The training had changed me — or maybe I had already begun to change and the training encouraged it to happen. I realized I could no longer continue in the full-time solo pulpit. I took a part-time pulpit as I finished training and began my practice. For nineteen years, I was bivocational — I did both pulpit and practice.

Based on my own personal experience, I couldn’t help but think how regular therapy and supervision would benefit rabbis. I started a biweekly rabbinic supervision group in my practice. That group ended up being all female and continues to meet to this day, some twenty-five years later. Since then, I have continued to work in therapy and/or supervision with rabbis and cantors, both individually and in groups. I have a passion for helping rabbis and cantors identify and resolve whatever issues might be preventing them from fully enjoying their personal and professional lives, whatever shapes their rabbinates take.

We know now that few people will have only one career over a lifetime. People who enter the rabbinate are no different. While it is good to have a plan, it is also important to be able to change that plan when necessary. Because of changes in the Jewish world, we rabbis need to develop the personal and professional resilience to lead our communities while adapting to these changes. When I had my HUC interview in Jerusalem in 1974, Dean Ezra Spicehandler looked at my college transcript and commented, “I see you changed your mind about your studies a number of times. What is to say that you won’t change your mind about the rabbinate, too?” In my naivete, I gave him an honest answer: “Nothing,” I said. They accepted me anyway. You can understand, then, why no one is more surprised than I that I spent thirty-three years in the pulpit rabbinate. What I told Ezra Spicehandler was true: I did in fact change my mind about the rabbinate, but I never left it. I just changed my definition of what it meant for me to be a rabbi.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis practices full time as a therapist, supervisor, pastoral counselor and professional coach


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *