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Reflecting on 25 years as a Rabbi

09/10/2019 02:28:52 PM


Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

A joke for Kol Nidre: on the eve of Yom Kippur, the rabbi, cantor and president of a large synagogue are kidnapped by terrorists. The terrorists tell the three Jewish leaders that they will be executed, but that all three have been granted a last wish.

The rabbi speaks first, “Ah—Yom Kippur. Over my forty year career, I have given my most memorable sermons on Yom Kippur. They were so deeply moving! Some of them were close to 45 minutes long, but I can recall them all in perfect detail. If I could just recite those sermons once again, I could die happy.”

Then the cantor joins in: “Yom Kippur is the most glorious festival of all for cantorial music. How beautiful it is to sing those long passages, to hold the high notes until everyone swoons. The way I sing Kol Nidre it lasts twenty minutes, and that’s just my warm-up. If I could sing all of that beautiful Yom Kippur music again, I could die happy.”

Finally the terrorists turn to the synagogue president to hear his last wish. Without a moment’s hesitation he says, “Take me first.”

So I thought I’d grab this Kol Nidre night and use it as an opportunity to reflect a bit on my twenty-five years as a rabbi. After all, it’s not every year one marks such a significant milestone. Where I am today as a rabbi is a completely different place than where I started out on my journey, but I feel quite content with the path my life has taken.

I grew up at Temple Sinai in Washington, DC, with the late Eugene Lipman as my rabbi. As a girl, I saw Rabbi Lipman not so much as a religious leader but more as a miniature version of the president of the United States. Rabbi Lipman seemed to me to be a political activist first and a spiritual figure second. The term tikkun olamhad not yet come into popular use, but that was Rabbi Lipman’s life passion: he saw a broken world in great need of repair, and he poured himself into the task body and soul. I grew up with him as my hero, but with very little idea of what a rabbi actually did. I had a fire in my belly for justice, and reckoned that working as a rabbi I’d have lots of followers to fight with me for a better world.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until my second year of rabbinical school that I discovered that political activism wasn’t generally the core work of rabbis. I became the student rabbi of a small congregation with very few political ambitions. When at the age of 23 I gave a passionate sermon about one or another things that were wrong with the world, my members would smile condescendingly and ignore me. Considering that I had been announcing since I was ten years old that I was going to be a rabbi someday, this experience represented a significant setback.

I found my feet again in the field of hospital chaplaincy. My first experience was as a student chaplain for ten weeks of Clinical Pastoral Education in the summer before my last year of rabbinical school. I was part of a group of students who staffed a busy teaching hospital with a major trauma centre, including sleeping at the hospital once every ten days to be available for emergencies. Hospital life meant life intensified: I had day after day of meeting people at crisis moments. It was challenging, confronting, and exhilarating all at once. When I finished rabbinical school in 1994, I signed up for a full year as a clinical pastoral education student and chaplaincy intern at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylania, which had an even busier trauma unit. My year there corresponded with the launch of the American drama ER, and I often felt that I was as much a character on that TV show as a person in real life. I also knew that there was no way I could withstand the level of trauma and tragedy I encountered on an ongoing basis.

The following year, I left Philadelphia for a studio apartment in the Ronald McDonald House in Manhattan’s upper East Side. The Ronald McDonald House was a home away from home for children who were undergoing medical treatment at hospitals nearby—most especially Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Many of my patients died that year, and even more of them passed away the year after I left. The hospital in Philadelphia had meant an ongoing parade of intense trauma; the Ronald McDonald House exposed me to tragedies that unfolded slowly. Both experiences tutored me in the art of what we called pastoral care and what is now often called spiritual care. I have recently hit on a definition for spiritual care which I like quite a lot: spiritual care providers are there to remind you that you are a person as well as a patient. That’s what I did full-time for two years.

I had the opportunity just last week to find out first hand what it means to have my spirit cared for in the midst of a frightening setting of the hospital. On Wednesday morning, my son Nadav landed up in the emergency room of Calvary Wakefield Hospital, where he was quickly diagnosed with appendicitis and told he would need surgery later that day. In our little cubicle in the emergency room, we were visited by my friend Wendy McKay, who is one of the chaplains there. Wendy asked Nadav where he would normally be on a Wednesday, and with that question she took him out of the hospital for a time and back into his regular life. He found the experience deeply touching. I continue to feel privileged that I have had the opportunity to accompany people through the most difficult moments of their lives just as Wendy did for us.

Difficult as the Ronald McDonald House was, it also helped to teach me at last what it means to be a rabbi. As the live-in chaplain there, I followed the patients and their families through their lives. I was with families at their high points and at their low times. Nearly ten years after I had begun my rabbinical studies, I began to understand that the work of a rabbi can be about the small moments of connection as much as about the big work of tikkun olam. I finally felt ready to begin life as a congregational rabbi.

To the shock of many who couldn’t imagine a meaningful life outside of the five boroughs of New York City, I moved to Pittsburgh and became the rabbi of the Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge—a forty minute drive away from the Jewish paradise of Squirrel Hill. The rhythm of congregational life was completely different from that of the hospital. Instead of moving from one crisis to the next, I moved from Shabbat to Shabbat, from one festival to the next. I now had the joy of experiencing the life cycle at its natural pace: I officiated at baby namings and brit milah ceremonies, lots of b’nai mitzvah, a few weddings, and more than a few funerals. In Ambridge, I found my political voice not in fighting for social justice on a large scale but in attending to the grave needs of our local, impoverished population through my work at our local food pantry. There was also healing that needed to happen within my congregation itself, which was a merger of the five synagogues that had served this area during the steel boom.

In 2006, my family and I made the very big move to South Australia. Many of you have been through this experience, and may recall just how challenging an international move can be. Of course, our luggage stayed behind in Los Angeles, and I remember standing in front of the toothpaste display on my first day in Australia, trying to choose among all of those unfamiliar brands and trying to make some sense of the prices. I reckon it took me at least a year to find my way around a supermarket.

My life as a rabbi in Adelaide has been challenging, occasionally tumultuous, and never dull. Many of you have come to South Australia from other Jewish communities, and will appreciate what an utter shock it can be to land in a place where Jews are so rare. A few months ago, a visitor from interstate complimented the challah at Friday night services, and asked, “Where do you source it from?” The answer, of course, was somebody’s kitchen. I already had a well-established Jewish life when I arrived here, and I have endeavoured over the years to sustain it. I am full of wonder for those who have spent their lives here far away from a thriving Jewish centre and still have cultivated rich Jewish lives for themselves and their families.

For the ceremony in which I was honoured for my 25 years of service, I was invited to reflect back on my career so far. Here’s some of what I wrote for that occasion: I have been very happy as the rabbi of small congregations, where I can form close long-term relationships and build community. In 2020 I will officiate at b’nai mitzvah for kids I have known their entire lives, which is pretty amazing. My work in Adelaide has been wonderful but also challenging in recent years, when I have been the only recognized rabbi in the entire state of South Australia. I have also had lots of fun in activities like singing in our small but wonderful choir and acting in the Purim shpiel.

In recent years, I have tried to renew my vocation: after 19 years away from the world of Clinical Pastoral Education, I began to work towards accreditation as a supervisor in 2014. In 2015 I made my first trip to Indonesia, where I have an ongoing relationship with six indigenous communities across the country. I’ve visited twice more since then and expect to return at the end of this year.

In Adelaide I have worked hard to forge friendships across religious communities and now have long-term relationships with leaders from many different faiths. As a CPE supervisor, I have the chance to shape people’s view of Judaism and also their idea of pastoral care one student at a time. I have also made close contacts through my activism in fighting Australia’s draconian asylum seeker policy, including eight Christian leaders who joined me in a civil disobedience action. I was the first rabbi ever arrested in Australia for a political cause.

When I was a rabbinical student and then in my early years as a rabbi, I had an idea that I would do big, earth-shaking work. Ultimately I have done very little of a public nature. Much of my work has been small and gentle. I believe that I have touched lives, and that is what makes me proud.

One of my most sacred duties as a rabbi is to hold the stories of those who have passed away. One of the most central people in my life at my congregation in Ambridge was Lou Zell, a Holocaust survivor with an Auschwitz tattoo on his arm. He never spoke of his war experiences, but lived with joy, love and endless devotion for our little congregation. I still hear his voice each year at different points in the High Holy Days service. In Adelaide, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of people like Regina Zielinski and Garry Rogers, who left beautiful memoirs of their lives. But  I also can tell the story of Michelle Lewandowski, who was given the identity of a Polish farm girl so that she could find work in Germany during the war and of Marta Rejto, who survived unimaginable atrocities in the Shoah and then went on to live a life of service to others. And, of course, the dozens of others whose stories have been entrusted to me and who I carry in my heart.

On Rosh Hashanah, I touched on the theme of finding meaning and purpose in our lives. I have been so very blessed to have a profession that enables me to be of service every day. 25 years ago, did I ever imagine that I would be plying my trade in South Australia, with occasional visits to distant corners of Indonesia? Of course not! But luck and fate have brought me to this beautiful part of the world, and I have made my life here. I admit that, as a rabbi, it’s not hard to identify the ways that my life is meaningful. For others, it might not be so easy. But figuring out why your life matters is, I think, essential work—especially for this time of year. May the year ahead bring all of us many opportunities to make a difference—for ourselves, for each other, and for the world. Shana tova.

Wed, 26 June 2024 20 Sivan 5784