This summer I served as the rabbinic fellow at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, OH, where I led services and Torah studies, wrote sermons, and developed curricula alongside Rabbi Sissy Coran and Rabbi Meredith Kahan. Although I can easily present the products of my labors, my experience at Rockdale was far more meaningful than a pile of papers. Over the course of two months, I realized that one does not simply become a rabbi when they are ordained, after years of schooling and internships. Rather, one becomes a rabbi when a person chooses you as their rabbi.
On a beautiful morning in June, after finishing my morning coffee at my desk at Rockdale and arranging my to-do list for the morning, I set off to the copier to assemble my Torah study handouts for Shabbat. Almost immediately I sensed that something was off. I continued copying until a synagogue employee appeared in the doorway. As her tears cascaded down her face, she explained to me that she had decided to leave the synagogue after many years of service. After explaining her situation, she darted back to the front desk to tell a few other employees. I was startled. Was it my responsibility to check on her? As one of the rabbinical staff, what should I do? I went straight to Rabbi Kahan, my direct supervisor, to tell her what had happened. As it turned out, everyone in the office had already heard the news except me. Still, Rabbi Kahan told me I would likely hear more about the situation from the employee as the days passed. “Who knows,” Rabbi Kahan said, “maybe she will change her mind. It has been known to happen.”
Both Rabbi Kahan and Rabbi Coran had told me early in my fellowship about the possibility that this individual might get emotional throughout the summer and, as someone on the rabbinical staff, I may be turned to for support not only from our congregants but also from other employees. This was not an entirely new concept for me. I’d spent three years in college as a resident assistant in charge of the well-being of students on my floor listening to their challenges and emotional roller coasters, while also being present for members of the facilities staff who had their own set of difficulties. Although I was used to listening in some professional capacity to the problems of students and staff, or of my own congregants at my student congregation, I had not yet had the opportunity to listen to or counsel support staff in a synagogue setting. What was the difference between being a rabbi to a congregant and being a rabbi for an employee of the synagogue?
Over the course of the summer, I would have a myriad of conversations with employees who spoke of their challenges with their teenagers, difficulties with remodeling and husbands, the loss of family members, and the transitional period of menopause. Although I was officially paid to be the rabbi to my congregants who I met and interacted with on Shabbat and sometimes during the week, my daily rabbinic duties, besides crafting curricula, sermons, and Torah studies, included becoming everyone’s rabbi, especially for two weeks when I was the only rabbi at Rockdale.
In those two weeks flying solo, I realized that it didn’t matter what religion you were, whether you believed in God or not, or if you were even a congregant, I could become your rabbi simply if you choose me. For the people I worked with during those two weeks and the rest of the summer, I was simply one of the rabbis, another person they could confide in and from whom they could seek counsel. Although officially you become a rabbi when you receive smicha, ordination, from another rabbi, you don’t truly become a rabbi until someone considers you to be their rabbi, the person they turn to for help, the person they call “my rabbi.” This summer, I discovered not only that I could create exciting curricula and lesson plans, engaging Torah studies, and sermons, but also that I could become anyone’s rabbi. At the end of the day, my resume will include the many projects I worked on this summer, but what it won’t say is the number of times I sat with a support staff member, listening to what was going on in their life. My resume will never be able to articulate the impact my fellowship at Rockdale had on me or on the people I served, but we will both know that at the end of the summer I wasn’t just a summer fellow, I was their rabbi.
Bailey Romano served as TJF Summer Fellow at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio.