In Defense of the Congregational Rabbinate

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy on March 29, 2024


Congregational rabbis walk through the life cycle with families, know generational joys and sorrows and help people, with whom they celebrate and mourn, sanctify the everyday. Congregational rabbis nourish souls and accompany us through the seasons of life. Congregations, unlike associations of like-minded individuals, are heterogeneous communities that connect to the larger community in which they reside. Rabbis who lead them do more than create powerful moments — they create enduring relationships.

As a congregational rabbi, I learned hope as I sat with a terminally ill mother and her three young children as she planted a rose garden, knowing that she would not see the flowers bloom. I learned joy when I officiated at the wedding of a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair, whose bride sat on his lap as they whirled in a dance. I learned to see the world differently from a woman who lost her sight just months before her first child was born. 

As a congregational rabbi, I carried the terrible pain of losses that happened out of season: the ache of burying a congregant who had become a friend; the resilience of those who grieved and still had the ability to get up, to go on and even to sing; the sorrow of the little girl whose mother had just died who asked: “Who will brush my hair in the morning?”; and the prayer of the young boy whose mother was dying who said at a Yom Kippur family service, “I would like to call God, ‘Healer.’”

I love to study and teach theology, but only as a congregational rabbi did I ever help someone experience the Divine. Once when teaching a class on God, I invited the participants to find their own name for God. A woman told me that she would like to call God “an Old Warm Bathrobe.” One year later, she explained: “My mother died this past year, and I took her old warm bathrobe and wrapped it around me, and I felt the presence of God.” 

Rabbis who serve congregations create deep family connections that traverse the years. I held a silver kiddush cup at a wedding that was the only item the father of the bride had been able to retrieve from his home in Poland after he was liberated from Auschwitz at the age of five. Only he and his mother survived — and that kiddush cup. I stood under the chuppah with his eldest daughter, years later, filled that empty cup with sweet wine and said l’chaim. Few other careers can create such generational memory.

In every congregational rabbi’s life, there are moments like this: I was preparing for the Seder. My son was soon to return home from preschool. My toddler daughter was watching an episode of “Mr. Rogers.” The chicken soup was about to boil. 

Then, the phone rang. The woman on the line sounded desperate. “I am thinking of committing suicide,” she said. What followed was something of a Passover miracle. The long phone cord (there were no cell phones) enabled me to keep an eye on my daughter and the pot of soup. The school bus was mercifully late. And somehow, from somewhere, I found the right words to assure the woman that her life was worth living. 

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Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is senior rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, Ind. She is the founder of Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts at Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University and is an award-winning author of over 25 children’s books. She is also a contributor to the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) Synagogue Innovation Blog.

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