Reflecting Backward and Forward: From HUC to the Field and Beyond

When people ask me why I became a rabbi, my answer is the same, sometimes using humor and sometimes not. Either I say: “God knows!” Or: “I became a rabbi as a part of my spiritual journey.” I have always been fascinated by spiritual experience and what people do with it. This endless curiosity is what has marked my own spiritual life, Jewish identity, and rabbinate.

I think that my proclivity toward the spiritual is part of how I am knit as a Gay man. From my earliest recollections my sense of male-male attraction was linked to my sense that God wanted me this way. Today I would say that I am Gay by divine intent. With this, I grew up in a very large extended Jewish family in Los Angeles, and my family members continually affirmed that being Jewish was fun, good, and nourishing.

My entry into HUC was a bit protracted. I was accepted out of college, asked for a deferment, and then declined the deferment. I reapplied a few years later and then entered rabbinic school. This was in the very early 1980s. In the interim, I lived and worked in pre-AIDS San Francisco. Because the era is marked by the terribleness of the pandemic, it is hard to fully articulate the health of that world in such a brief reflection as this. But it was a world in which I came of Gay-age. And I always stayed connected to the Jewish community. It meant I entered rabbinic school with a deep internal spiritual affirmation that was honed by an unabashed culturally affirming early Gay and Jewish adulthood.

It was a different world in many ways (and not different in many ways), but I had the luck of a fantastic HUC peer group. From both my overall HUC experience, mostly at the LA campus, and this core peer group I learned something that did not become apparent until many years later. One of the rabbinic life-functions that HUC taught me was the importance of peership and collegiality. I say this upon reflection because in a world in which private smicha and other seminaries emerge, one of the most important longer-term health needs of any clergy is for collegiality. This is a value I learned at HUC, although it became fully apparent to me only once I was in the field.

I had mixed experiences as an openly Gay rabbinic student. Among the professors and field supervisors some were extraordinary, some were benign, and some were mean. I moved through interaction on these many levels with a kind of internal ease, although the manner in which some people acted leaves me flabbergasted even today. But in the midst of all that, I was nourished by the combination of academic and professional development curricula.

In the longer run, the most abiding things that I learned were from the human examples of how I was treated and how I saw others treated. From the way in which professors encouraged dialogue (or did not), from the ways in which students were encouraged to think for themselves (or were not), to the ways in which one was coached in a sermon or in the field (or was not), the examples of how to be a rabbi were the more abiding educational moments.

I was always wary of getting my first job. Prejudice toward women rabbis was still blunt; all the more so was the prejudice toward an openly Gay rabbi. More personally, I felt lucky that I never thought the traditional pulpit rabbinate was the only way to be successful. I feel blessed that I have always felt that many different avenues in the rabbinate are worthy and satisfying. I just wanted to work in a framework that would value spiritual journeying.

After a couple of painful pulpit placement experiences because of being Gay, I began at the San Francisco-based Bureau of Jewish Education; along the way I went through the education program on the LA campus. I then moved to a local hospital and its CPE training program, then to the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. Overall, I felt I had to make choices that would keep my rabbinate authentic to my personhood. For many years, this also meant that I felt drawn to continued education. I also became a spiritual direction supervisor trained by our local order of the Sisters of Mercy.

For the past eighteen years now, I have served the Congregation of Israel as CEO/President of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. The first healing center in the country (New York and San Francisco were established simultaneously), it has become the paradigm for a community-based rabbinate in a changing Jewish world. The healing center is transdenominational and so my work in the Reform movement is solely by the commitment of personal choice. I have variously served on the CCAR board and authored/edited Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides.

We provide spiritual care to those who are ill, dying, and bereaved. Illness, coming to the end of life, and living with grief are universal human experiences. They naturally stimulate spiritual reflection and they reasonably yearn for a communal response. It is a place in which I, along with amazing colleagues, spend time helping people to die, to live sick, and to fold loss into their days. I also fundraise, advocate, teach, preach, supervise, build program, partner with lay leadership, and attend to the Jewish landscape.

Because of the very nature of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center’s mission, I am able to spend time thinking about the many aspects of spirituality: How do we define it? How does it function? What are its characteristics? How do we assess spiritual need and how do we then respond? Though no such opportunity existed in the course of my HUC training, it emerged as a perfect match for the very reasons I wanted to be a rabbi. In many ways, I think it is a kind of artisan rabbinate. But one that is becoming increasingly common.

Out of any longer-term self-reflective rabbinic practice, I think we all come to some core understandings. Here are just a few from my perspective: Any region has its own cultural frames. The west, by its own frame of reinvention, reflects both its own particularity and at the same time harbingers of what will spread across the country. Our demographics are that 70% of our Jewish community is not affiliated. The choices of Jewish engagement are varied. The needs of Jews here can be met by the spectrum of Jewish structures. What exists in the west will continue to make its way across the country. It is clear that, for Reform life, we need to spend time cultivating vibrant community. It will be a waste if we only spend time looking and reporting on the phenomenon of Jewish life rather than also explaining, understanding, and taking proactive action. We will lose people if we just spend time observing. We will lose if we do not deliberately move beyond the synagogue.

We all know that if our own Reform movement is to survive then our own organizational structures — and our own rabbinic collegiality — must become porous. From the way we are trained as rabbis to the way our national organizations function, we must become internally interrelated. We must regraft our national and local systems. Just one example: our placement system must account — at the same level it does for pulpit life — for rabbinic life to the whole of the Congregation of Israel, everywhere it lives: the local singular agency, the Day School, the cultural institution, etc.

Above all, the mark of Jewish life in the United States, I believe, is the spiritual journey. Spiritual nourishment is the iconic identity formation into the next century. I think that a primary action attached to the spiritual journey is caring. That is to say, Jews will attach themselves to the places in which they are able to be cared for and are able to care for others as a core part of how they develop their Jewish and spiritual identities. I think this will drive the formulation of organizational systems; it will be the core justification for philanthropy; it will be the primary drive for raising Jewish children; it will form our liturgy, our music, and our day-to-day programming. My overall hope is that, out of the many experiences of communally oriented artisan rabbinates, new ways of forming community will move our beloved Reform movement into a vital next century.

Rabbi Eric Weiss lives with his husband in San Francisco.

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