Reflecting on 25 Years in the Rabbinate

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Rabbi Marc D. Israel

This month, Rabbi Marc D. Israel of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville celebrated the 25th anniversary of his rabbinic ordination. Here, in no particular order, he lists 25 lessons he learned in the last quarter century.

25. We can never be certain of the direction in which life will take us. I thought I would spend my career with Hillel or be a camp director, but accidentally discovered a love of working in the synagogue.

24. Certainty is overrated. As a student, I thought it was important to have definite answers to life’s big questions. Experience has taught me to embrace the beauty of the unknowable.

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23. I believed then — and still believe — that there are absolute truths. But arguing over those truths can be a fool’s errand, and I have developed the humility to recognize that I may not have it right.

22. I have learned the meaning of the rabbinic dictum “o’ chevruta o’ metuta” (loosely translated as “give me friendship or give me death”). We are neither rocks nor islands. Our relationships are not merely the enjoyment of life, they are the essence of it.

21. Don’t allow the all-consuming nature of a job to consume you. There is a reason Pirkei Avot teaches us that it is not incumbent upon us to complete the work.

20. Genesis’ mythological account of all humanity descending from one couple can be backed up through biology, according to Yuval Harari. Therefore, the differences between humans are much more a sociological construct than innate.

19. Understanding modern brain science is essential to comprehending human behavior and what makes us tick. Used correctly, it can help us become more compassionate toward people who are different from us.

18. Process matters. It’s not enough for leaders to think they know the best path forward; they must allow everyone to consider all the options and join in reaching the conclusion.17. Pay attention to the details; an unreturned phone call or email can cause a great deal of pain.

16. Jewish education succeeds when it challenges people to think deeply, not when it is watered down to the lowest common denominator.

15. Whether it’s informing a family member of a death or dismissing an employee, it is best to deliver bad news quickly, directly and in person.

14. We need to strive continually to balance the need for clear boundaries defining the Jewish community with efforts to lower the barriers for those who want to join us.

13. We are good; we are flawed; we are the children of an imperfect God.

12. It’s equally important to teach our children well and to listen to them with deep respect and sincerity.

11. Many factors influence a child’s Jewish identity. From my experience, formal education is important, but camp has a deeper impact. Joyful family life and consistency between what parents do and say at home matters most of all.

10. Presenting synagogue leadership positions and fundraising opportunities as an avenue to engage people in doing mitzvot, rather than as a burden, is key to success.

9. Judaism and religion do not contradict science or rationality; they address the aspects of the universe that defy rationality and connect us to the mysterious forces that guide it.

8. It’s important to understand the differences between prayer, davening and worship, and to recognize which one(s) you are trying to achieve in any given moment.

7. We must build greater interfaith connections and deepen our cultural awareness. We must also recognize and call out all antisemitism and remember that we face real and dangerous enemies.

6. The best Jewish rituals are like jazz — they have a set structure that everyone knows and understands, but which is loose enough to create moments of spontaneity. And when that happens, it is magical.

5. I’ve never regretted the times I’ve pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. I often regret times when I haven’t.

4. Regardless of the facade they show to the world, almost every family has deep tzuris (difficulties) that they may not share, even with their closest friends.

3. The Jewish people survived 2,000 years without a homeland and if necessary — God forbid — we could do it again. However, we are a much stronger people with the State of Israel, and must work to defend and protect it, even in challenging times.

2. Being Jewish matters. Judaism and the Jewish people continue to impact the world in ways that extend far beyond our numbers and that defy all logic.

1. I love being a rabbi. Throughout the last 25 years, I’ve had amazing opportunities to learn and to teach, to celebrate and to mourn, to build coalitions and to stand up for what Judaism teaches.

Rabbi Marc D. Israel leads Tikvat Israel Congregation. This piece originally appeared in the Tikvat Israel Bulletin. Reprinted with permission.

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