How do you thank a whole community?
How do you thank a community who allowed you to be their rabbi before you were ordained?
How do you thank a community who gave you their trust during life’s most fragile and most celebrated moments?
How do you thank a community who helped you to learn in order to do?
As Thanksgiving arrives and as my time in rabbinical school will soon come to a close, I cannot help but take time and reflect on the past three years as the rabbinic intern at Temple Sholom of Cincinnati, Ohio, a congregation to which I am forever grateful. Nevertheless, observers of Judaism know too well that we do not need a holiday to remind us to give thanks; the very essence of the Jewish people is about being thankful. The word Yehudim יהודים, meaning ‘Jews’, shares the root yod–dalet–he (.י.ד.ה) with the word l’hodot, meaning ‘to give thanks’, ‘to acknowledge’, and ‘to confess’. Therefore, it should seem evident that I would know how to appropriately give thanks to the congregation that helped me to learn in order to do, that helped me to become a rabbi.
I am thankful to a community of people who have allowed me into their lives. I have officiated many of my first life-cycle ceremonies at Temple Sholom, allowing me the chance to learn and grow. One of the most memorable experiences I had was being asked to make a pastoral care visit to a family whose grandfather was dying. I offered a vidui (confession) prayer on behalf of the grandfather and sang Oseh Shalom with the family, as together we witnessed some of his last hours on earth. It was a privilege to be able to be with this family during this difficult but sacred time, to offer comfort, and to help facilitate the stages of grief. It was also a privilege to pray a final confession on behalf of that individual, serving as a guide for his soul and a bridge between him and God. I will never forget that moment. It reminds me of the sacred responsibility it is to be there for others during both difficult times as well as the simchas.
I am thankful for the well-being of my congregation. Learning to be a rabbi is like learning to be a parent; there is no real manual for how to become one and how to be one. In both cases, there is an inner shift that occurs in which you are no longer concerned only for the well-being of yourself but for the welfare of another (or, shall I say, for the lives of 250 plus). Becoming a rabbi has even given me a new perspective for how I relate to prayer. Psalm 145 speaks of thanking God in the plural, as a collective: Ashrei yoshvei veitecha, od y’hallelucha, selah!, ‘Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they will forever praise You!’ When I recite this prayer, I cannot help but think of God’s house as the congregation in which I serve and pray that each of my congregants lives with that deep, spiritual happiness Ashrei encompasses. My praises to God are now for a purpose greater than myself.
I am thankful for transitions. Temple Sholom recently made a transition to a new building, selling its old one in order to better invest in the congregation’s values rather than in its infrastructure. In working with a transitional management consultant, I learned the difference between change and transition. Change is about facts. For example, a Jewish ritual can change a person’s status. Change is quick. On the other hand, transition is about feelings. Transition is gradual. Some of the best changes fail because of poorly managed transitions. Leaving a building that congregants have used for fifty-seven years was not easy, but congregants soon realized that it is they who make a synagogue and not the walls that surround them. The transition took many months but was well worth the journey to a stronger Temple Sholom.
As for my own transition, it too has taken time. Becoming a rabbi is a gradual process and does not happen suddenly with ordination. It has been years of learning in order to do, of learning to be a rabbi, and I know that the learning will never end. At the beginning of rabbinical school each student was asked to define “sacred service-learning.” I defined it as an opportunity to serve a community and learn from that precise, hands-on experience. At that time, I could have never properly envisioned that the true service would come from the lessons each congregant has taught me and not from the service I was providing for them.
So how do I thank a whole community for raising a rabbi?
Perhaps I can thank them best by not serving in order to learn but by learning in order to serve, learning in order to do. If we learn in order to practice — if we learn for the betterment of serving others, truly listening and responding to our environment — we can create real change: change in ourselves and change in others.
I am thankful for my mentor Rabbi Terlinchamp and the warm Temple Sholom community she has shared with me.
May we always find reason to be thankful!
Alli Cohen is a fifth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and has served as the Rabbinic Intern at Temple Sholom (Cincinnati) for three years.