Honeybees and the Art of Rabbinic Formation

In her five-year lifetime of service, a queen bee leaves her hive once. She flies away from her home to a drone congregation area, usually on the edge of a forest. Near the tips of the trees, she circles, mates with drones from hives in her region and thereby takes into herself the rich biological diversity of her species. Those encounters fundamentally shape her ability to contribute to and grow her home colony for the rest of her life. She will mother some full sisters; many more will be half-siblings, having the same mother but a different father. Some of these half-siblings have genes that make them excellent protectors of the hive; others better tolerate the drought and weather harbored in climate change; others excel at nursing the young; and others gather nectar and pollen. Through establishing and manifesting in her home congregation the wisdom of the wider community of her peers, the queen bee makes the likelihood of her hive’s success immeasurably greater. For the rest of her life she will labor in her hive, building her home community.

Similarly, rabbinical school is a five-year process during which students mostly labor within one community and philosophy of Judaism. Great resources and learning are available within all of our seminaries. Part of what I have learned from organic beekeeping, however, is that it is essential to be strengthened by the broader diversity of the community.

Recently, I attended an interdenominational rabbinical student retreat led by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and offered through Hazon. Eleven separate seminaries from across the denominational spectrum send students to these retreats which are held once a year. Rabbi Sid has been running these retreats since 2005 and there are over 500 alumni of the program. Twenty-five students were in attendance at the retreat that I attended.

During the retreat, we engaged in a role play in which a significant portion of a congregation’s membership turns against its rabbi who had publicly spoken out against injustice. The rabbi sat through a tense meeting with the chair of the board and some lay leaders. The board chair told the rabbi that the congregation was not comfortable with the rabbi’s outspoken social action stances from the pulpit and one of the Board members, who was supportive of the rabbi’s stance, became intimidated as the meeting progressed and chose to stay quiet. When the role play ended, all of the rabbinical students who watched the role play had a chance to weigh in, offering their perspectives on what just transpired and offering thoughts on how they might have navigated the challenging situation had they faced it themselves. Rabbi Sid, having experienced similar scenarios several times during his career, facilitated the talkback and then offered some reflections on what we had all just watched. He did so in an open, calm, blame-free manner that depersonalized what many of us would have experienced as an attack against our authority and our judgment. Rabbi Sid helped us see how often congregational politics can lead good people to act in angry and dysfunctional ways. He also counseled us about how a rabbi must never demonize their opposition but how one can use the power of their rabbinic office to raise the level of respect and civility in a communal decision-making process.

After this session, one of the participants, a practicing marriage and sex therapist who had surely been exposed to substantive conflict during his career, said: ‘Perhaps, after all, I do not want to go into the rabbinate. I don’t want to face confrontations like that.’ Rabbi Sid’s response was telling. He validated this man’s feelings, and then said: “I am not trying to scare you off from entering the rabbinate. It is often those with the emotional maturity to be aware of their desire to not be at the center of congregational conflict that make the best leaders.”

I would characterize this interaction – one where a rabbinical student felt safe in expressing his fears and misgivings about being a rabbi and was met with support and encouragement – as one of unconditional love. It said, I accept you where you are, as you feel, and I believe that your very hesitation is a sign of your worthiness. That kind of nurturance is, I contend, transformative and inspires leadership. It is one of the reasons that I believe that all rabbinical students should be required to attend these retreats.

The honey bees provide an analogy. The very same honey bee egg can develop into a much smaller worker bee who will live for two months, or into a large queen who will live for five years and mother legions of offspring. What makes the critical difference, a difference that continues to astonish scientists? The nurturance and diet she receives during her development is key to her future capacity. Similarly, people who are consistently given unconditional love as they grow, gain the capacity to bring that love into the world. These retreats, reaching rabbinical students when they are in a state of critical formation, provide a critical complement to the education that each of us get in our respective seminaries. On some level, we know that cognitive knowledge alone will not make us effective rabbis. The retreats are structured in such a way that future rabbis begin to understand what it takes to be a true spiritual leader.

Rabbi Sid always invites at least one other rabbinic colleague to join him at these retreats as co-faculty. We had the pleasure of learning from Rabbi Laura Geller, one of the first woman to serve a major congregation in America—Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, CA—a position from which she just retired. Rabbis Laura and Sid were examples of what deeply respectful, joyful, rabbinical friendship looks like. They were so present not only for us, but for each other. For those of us who were meeting each other for the first time, and who are early in our journey into the rabbinate, we were uplifted by witnessing the way two senior and highly successful colleagues were able to listen to each other’s wisdom without any sense of competition or jealousy. The content of their co-led sessions was evocative and challenging, but how they positioned us to speak and listen to each other, and eventually evolved into coaching roles with those who sought that from them, provided us with experiential tools and models for building supportive communities of our own.

It is common to hear concerns about differences in praxis and philosophy across the Jewish world as something that divides us. Yet in the presence of this inter-denominational cohort, what stood out was how much we share in common. Each of us loves the learning and teaching of Torah. We love and wish to serve the Jewish people. We see our chevreh as being created b’Tzelem, in the image of G-d. Indeed, in becoming part of a cohort that reaches across denominations and seeks to support its members in greater service to the Jewish people, we experienced the awe and surprise of Jacob, our forefather, when he said: “G-d was in this place and I, I did not know (Genesis 28:16).” We discovered in passionate discussions of pivotal issues facing the Jewish people and the world that our differences, diversity, and plurality make us stronger.

Yeshivat Maharat students admired how the HUC students so effectively held space for ritual. A student from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College got choked up in tears when she witnessed – for the first time – how a mechitza can potentially support unself-conscious dancing and singing by women. (After a Maharat student read from the Torah in public for the first time during the Mincha service, dancing and singing on the women’s side of the mechitza went on and on.) One student from a trans-denominational seminary led a Bibliodrama enactment of the death of Aaron the Priest’s sons. Many of us were so impressed by the educational potential of Bibliodrama that a follow-up training has been organized for rabbinical students in this skill. Our ideological diversity neither eclipsed nor detracted from what we brought to the table as individuals, for we sought unity and community, not uniformity. Just as the strengths of different beehives help create a stronger ecosystem for all, so the human resources and wisdom of our peers in other rabbinical schools have already begun to strengthen our cohort’s ability to serve the wider Jewish community.

Like the queen bee whose leadership and ability to contribute to her own community is inestimably increased by her encounters with broader diversity and community, these few carefully choreographed days of intensive learning and encounter were transformative for participants.

One participant in the retreat I attended pointed out that most American Jews are moving between arcs of identification that cross denominational lines. Simultaneously, as rabbis across all movements face the thorny issues of our time, be they attitudes towards Israel, #MeToo, social and economic injustice, internalized Anti-Semitism, to name just a few – we will be far more successful in sustaining each of our ‘colony’s’ health and success if we are able to call on the wisdom and experience of the wider community of rabbinical leadership.

Flowering plants and the wider ecosystem depend on bees for pollination, for the miraculous process by which flowers bring forth fruit. Similarly, Rabbi Sid has created a program through these inter-denominational rabbinical student retreats to make us more effective spiritual leaders and, by extension, builders of healthier and more vibrant Jewish spiritual communities.


As a scholar-in-residence, business coach, and experiential educator Amalia Haas inspires audiences to sustain people, pollinators and planet.  When she is not consulting, you can find her among her hives and at www.Bee-Awesome.com. Information about the next Inter-Denominational Rabbinical Student Retreat can be found here.

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