This was originally published as my President’s Column in the Late Spring 2019 edition of the RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association:
I spent a lot of time on social media these days, both for work and personally. It has become a fact of our contemporary means of communication, a necessity for my work both on the front end—communicating with congregants, advertising events, learning what is going on with people—and the back end—connecting with colleagues, finding inspiration and ideas, reading the news.
As with any new technology, social media comes with its promises and perils. One of the things with social media that I have been challenged by is that notion of “the curated life.” That is, we have the ability to present only what we want to present, and therefore the life we lead on social media is ultimately an incomplete picture of who we are. And more often than not we tend to only show the positive aspects of our lives.
One expression of this that I have seen specific to us is the hashtag “#whatrabbisdo.” (a hashtag—what used to be known as a “pound sign” to digital immigrants like myself—is a way of flagging the topic of a post and linking it to other similar posts.) This has been a way, for those who use it, to highlight some of the unique and disparate work that we do as rabbis, from the pastoral to the programmatic, from the sublime to the serious. And oftentimes this can come at the same time, as we rabbis need to be deft at shifting from one thing to another.
I admit that I have used this hashtag as well. But recently I have been reacting to it somewhat because of the curated vision of the rabbinic life it promotes. Yes, we can go from rolling on the floor with the youngest kids to standing at the graveside of a beloved soul to attending a committee meeting to teaching Talmud, all in the span of a few short hours. That is definitely #whatrabbisdo. And at the same time, we would do well to be honest about the fact that this is not a complete picture, and it is valuable to acknowledge the harder truths of this chosen life.
So what are some other things that rabbis do?
We neglect our families. My job dictates that I am working when most people are not. So to spend time with my kids when they have their time off, is a seemingly near impossibility. Weekday meetings also take me out of the house. And when my wife is working, there are times when I leave my kids at home to fend on their own, getting home in time to get them off to bed.
We don’t always practice what we preach. Because my wife and I are both rabbis, we do not spend holidays and Shabbat together as a family. In fact, I could probably count the number of times I have had a “proper” Shabbat dinner on one hand. I sometimes need to find my own personal spiritual life elsewhere, because finding it in the context of my work is too difficult, or forces me to compromise.
We are lonely. The clergy life is a lonely life. I am both of and separate from my congregation. My job is weird enough to freak out both Jews and non-Jews. The spiritually engaged address me as a role, the unengaged don’t know what to make of me. The people to whom I can open up my whole self that friendship and meaningful relationship requires is limited.
We worry about money. The rabbinate is not the most lucrative of jobs, especially in relation to the amount of student loans. Our salaries are dictated by the whims of affiliation and the generosity of donors. Also, because both my wife and I work in small organizations, we are subject to the whims of the individual health insurance market. This can lead to a lot of financial worry.
We go to therapy. I have learned that I can’t hold all that I am required to hold without help. My pastoral role especially requires me to have support and outlets that I can release, vent, seek solutions to problems, help recognize where I can grow. I have found that I need professional help, and having a therapeutic relationship has been very important to me.
There is much to celebrate in our work, and it’s worth sharing our successes, our joys, the uplift we find as rabbis. And I think we would do well to be able to share more openly about the challenges and pressures of this role. That is one of the functions of the RRA in specific and rabbinic collegiality in general: to be a place where we can be our whole and honest selves, and not have to curate who we are.
Thanks for continuing the conversation!