As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be like my dad. I started running because Dad was a runner. I love baseball because Dad loves baseball. And I wanted to help people for the same reason.
As I went through school, though, it became apparent to me that I would not be exactly like Dad. He managed to graduate from medical school and build a successful practice in psychiatry. I, could not make it much past Chemistry 101.
Yet I have found myself emulating my dad in unexpected ways. Becoming the stepfather to three children, I hear Dad’s voice when I speak to them, I sense his humor when I make his style of dad joke, and I understand his love when I look at my children.
I expected that, as a rabbi, I would encounter families and draw on my own relationships, my own experiences and lessons, to help others. In large part, this is what drew me to the rabbinate: If I could not help people like my Dad did, as a doctor, I still could make a difference.
I may have not imagined when I first realized that I wanted to be just like him that it would take me to places like HUC in Cincinnati. Yet here I am. And now that I have only one semester left before I become a rabbi, it is starting to look different. Being a rabbi is quite a lot like being a dad. Dad once memorably shared a time when he turned to his rabbi for sage advice and guidance, and it seems pretty plausible that I will be like my dad as I help people with patience, wisdom, and words.
What I did not expect was that once I started to be like my dad, I would find myself doing it everywhere, even in my fellowship, which I expected would put me safely behind a desk at Jewish Family Service. I pledged to help out however I could, and the first thing they offered me was to work with the Bigs & Littles program, a school-based mentoring program. I flat-out refused. I have enough of my own kids to worry about. Then something — possibly that paternal sense I hope I inherited — kicked in. They needed someone to help, and I offered to help in any way I could.
I have been paired with a young man who just lost his father. Even as my father ages, I cannot imagine life without him, certainly not as a young person. Does his loss force me to confront the prospect of my own? Who am I to step in and help this young man? Then I began to realize that maybe I do have something to offer. I am not there to be his therapist, his rabbi, or his dad. I am there to be a responsible, caring, open-minded adult.
When I think about my relationship with my own father, I realize thatI have a great deal of experience with this. And I think more broadly about being a father myself. Not everyone I encounter is a child or under my care. This does not mean that the lessons I learned from my dad or the work of being a dad is done when I leave the house. Instead, I keep encountering it because it is a part of who I am now.
I am a dad. Not just at home or around my kids. Even when I go from the office at Jewish Family Service to another assignment: Whether I’m meeting with elderly clients in senior homes, educating Russian speakers about Tu B’shevat, or helping organize lectures and seminars, I am a dad. I am someone who shares his wisdom, his time, and his love. I care for those around me with compassion and teach them values and morals. Not only that, I serve the community the way I imagine my dad would. The kindness that I learned from my dad comes into play. His patience and his calm serve me well.
I know that in my mind, I will never measure up. No matter how hard I try or how much I grow, I will never succeed in being as great a father as I remember my own dad being to me. I will not be a parent to adults who are well older than I am. Nor will I be the father that my mentee is missing. But I can show him, like my dad did, what it is to be someone who loves his family, someone who helps others, and someone who is a role model.
Benjamin Zober is a fifth-year rabbinic fellow at Jewish Family Service