I am personally about to mark the thirtieth anniversary of my own ordination, which fact I find myself almost unable to believe. And, yet, it is so: I was ordained during a huge rain storm in May of 1978. (I don’t seem to have much luck with the weather: I was born during a heat wave, married during a blizzard, and, as noted, ordained during a downpour that was more like a monsoon than a regular rainstorm. My bar-mitzvah, however, was on a warm, sunny day.) Can thirty years really have passed since that storm? My parents were alive. I was still single. I had only the vaguest sense of what I wanted to do with my rabbinic career. I was teaching at the Seminary and at Hunter College in those days, and my immediate plan was to stick with both jobs while I finished my doctorate. But what was going to come after that, I couldn’t have said. I was naïve about many things in those days, including about what it really means to serve a community as its spiritual leader, but I knew this was the path I wished to follow. It was just the question of where the path would actually lead me that I had no idea how to answer.
It wasn’t only I who was different in those days. Our rabbinical class was all male—women would not be admitted to JTS for several more years—and my classmates were almost all around my age. (The presence of older students studying for second careers in the rabbinate was not yet a feature of Seminary life in the 1970s.) The chancellor was Gerson D. Cohen, a man I admired endlessly for his ready wit, his great charm, and his razor-sharp intellect. The faculty was still made up mostly of European scholars who came to the United States either before, during, or immediately after the Second World War. It was a different world…and, at that, one I took to and felt very at home in. But even then I knew it wouldn’t last…and I recall having the strong sense that I was being ordained at the tail-end of an era that, once gone, would never return. And so it was: within a decade of my ordination, most of my teachers were gone from JTS, departed either for the world of truth, or for Israel, or for other academic institutions. (Of my three doctoral advisors, one ended up at Columbia, one at Harvard, and one remains in place at JTS.)
During my Seminary years, we were given the clear message that ordination was a kind of crossroads: you could choose to serve in the congregational rabbinate (and, for the most part, never be heard from again) or you could choose to complete an advanced degree and enter the world of academe. The latter was clearly the option favored by our teachers; the congregational world was supposed reasonable for those ordainees with no reasonable chance of success as academics, but the assumption was always that it would never be the choice of anyone who actually had a choice to make. Even back then, though, I rejected that reasoning, knowing that I wanted to travel down both paths: I wanted to serve in the congregational rabbinate and I also knew that I wanted to write, to publish, and to gain a name for myself as a scholar. This was not a popular decision. Indeed, by declining to choose sides, I ended up more on neither one than on both. But I also had my models—rabbis who had somehow managed to remain intellectually vibrant while they served in the congregational rabbinate. Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, my own rabbi in Forest Hills, was, and remains, my model for the rabbinate: a true scholar possessed of the sharpest intellect and a full-time congregational rabbi wholly devoted to the men and women of his synagogue. That was what I wanted for myself! And it has been what I have been working all these years to attain.
Rabbi Bokser, may he rest in peace, is long gone. Most of my teachers at JTS are similarly gone, both those who gave me their blessing when I announced my intention to serve in the congregational rabbinate and those were less kind. The Seminary itself is a different place than it was. But my heart is still where it’s been for all these many years. I can’t imagine being happy as a rabbi without having a congregation of people to serve, to work with, to teach, to preach to, and to guide forward in their own Jewish lives. But I still find endless satisfaction in the making of books (of which, as King Kohelet noted, there really is no end), in the work I do for our journal, Conservative Judaism, which I have served as chairman of its editor board for these last eight years, and in the publication projects on which we have worked together over these last years at Shelter Rock. (The year I was ordained, Rabbi Fenster, my predecessor in the Shelter Rock pulpit, was chairman of the editorial board of Conservative Judaism, by the way. So also it’s also a bit of a Shelter Rock tradition that I serve the movement in that capacity.) In the end, I found my way. When I think of these last thirty years, I feel content. And very, very fortunate to have reached this anniversary. (May 16, 2008)