What I’ve Learned from 8 Years in the Rabbinate

Jews don’t often use the word “calling” to refer to being drawn to the rabbinate, but throughout my life, I have consistently felt drawn to this work. Even when I was pushing against my Judaism, I was always pulled, gently and slowly, back.

From my sixth-grade job shadow of the rabbi of our synagogue onward, most of those around me knew that I was headed to the rabbinate, even if I didn’t know it.

And now, looking back on eight years since ordination and five years of schooling before that, I’m grateful for the path that I’ve been on. Part of my journey as a rabbi has been recognizing that this is part of who I am, regardless of the work I’m doing. Even through the difficult moments, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and, more so, what I’ve learned.

In doing some of the hard reflection work, I tried to be honest about what I’ve experienced. So, I’m writing this both for you, dear colleague, and for me, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Serving the Jewish People Requires Love

To be in this role, either professionally or personally, is to understand what it means to be in service. To be in this position means to give of oneself. There are limits to this (and arguably there should be greater limits), but being in service is foundational, not just in this work but beyond.

We are in service to our values, to our future, to our family and communities. We use this language to describe our relationship with God, each of us as an Eved Hashem, a servant of God.

Service is worthy and valuable. It is an orientation of our minds and hearts.

While we can do this work without being in service, treating it as merely a job, but it takes a toll on who we are and the work itself.

I remember in the immediate aftermath of the synagogue shooting in our neighborhood, there was nothing else on my mind but how to serve my community. I used every moment, every ounce of energy I had, every piece of Torah on my tongue. Was it hard? Yes. Would I have done anything different? Not a chance.

Loving the Jewish people, ahavat yisrael, as a guiding principle means we never give up on one another—even in the stiffnecked moments (Exodus 32:9). It means holding all the nuances of being a part of a people, both worldwide and at the community level.

Loving the People means holding them in tears and laughter, holding them accountable to their values, teaching them, and guiding them on the right path.

It can be challenging when that love is not reciprocated. When, as rabbis, we’re mistreated and harmed, and when we’re encouraged to suffer through it. When instead of experiencing love, we’re told to accept the hurt. This was a lesson hard learned.

But in the end, my love for the Jewish people is enduring.

Since I was fourteen when I first volunteered for a position in Jewish life, my love for the Jewish people has consistently spoken from deep within me, even when I didn’t want it to. It kept telling me something important and meaningful was here. And now, more than half my life in Jewish leadership, lay and professional, many years later, I still wake up every day thinking about our People.

Never Stop Learning Torah

I went to rabbinical school because I wanted access to the Tradition. I was hungry for it. I wanted to feel the energy of the beit midrash, the mind-bending revelations of a new way of thinking, and the sense of community that comes from being a part of millennia-old Tradition.

Now, many years later, it can be easy to rest on what we’ve learned before. Most people don’t know the difference. If we’re tired and just want to rest, cracking open some earlier work is much easier. But it isn’t about them.

Constantly infusing yourself with the words of Torah is allowing the voice of God and our people into your heart. It is about inviting inspiration and wisdom. It encourages novel thoughts and humility in us.

Not all Torah speaks to us the same over time, and that’s ok. We can follow our curiosity and let that drive what we learn. The key is always making time for some learning for its own sake. It is worth making the time.

There is trauma everywhere.

The Jewish people are a traumatized people.

Our history has been difficult. The recent history, too. But it is not just that. Stepping back, looking at the past few decades, there’s a lot of pain that has been sitting and simmering under the surface.

If we look at the ways we talk to each other (both now and before), the ways we manage our communities, and even the ways we joke with one another, we underestimate how much trauma there has been for decades amidst our people. We self-reinforce this behavior over and over again.

We joke about the dysfunction of synagogue boards, we empower those who bully others, and how much people project their own issues onto clergy and one another. There is so much work to be done to unravel all of this for the sake of our futures, the staff, and our children.

There has been so much pain and hurt, and we’ve brushed it off and buried it for the sake of shalom bayit (peace at home). It wasn’t working before and it is not working now. And many rabbis, myself included, have received the brunt of that misplaced hurt in unacceptable ways. It is understandable to me how many congregations are without rabbis and rabbis who will no longer serve in congregations.

There are two key opportunities here: First, we need to learn more about trauma and how to serve in traumatized communities. Second, communities can start doing the needed self-reflection work to see themselves honestly.

Clergy are people.

I know it seems silly even to write this, but both our communities and we, ourselves, need to remember that we are people.

That means we need to be able to take time off from the 24/7 responsibilities, mentally and physically. It means we need to find ways to make friends, spend time with our families, to burn off some of the steam that comes from rabbinic work.

We have to take care of ourselves!

I cannot tell you how grateful I am to my colleagues, both those from school and those I’ve met along the way. It is so important to have that feeling of camaraderie from those who understand. Everyone needs that feeling that they’re not alone. Even, or especially, those who are not Jewish can be a gift of understanding and friendship.

I don’t know where I’d be without my group text of rabbis. For eight years and more, it has kept me sane. It doesn’t always have to be professional, either. During the pandemic, a bunch of us played Dungeons and Dragons together over Zoom because being together matters. Never discount a bit of silliness.

Because of our desire to be in service, we can sometimes neglect ourselves and push until we’re ready to burst. It is so important that we care for our mental and physical health. We cannot continue to do the work we love and are called to do without recognizing our own humanity and human needs.

Never stop growing.

One of the first things I learned as a rabbi was how important it was to ask questions. I couldn’t possibly know everything, even how to do parts of the job. So, I called up a bunch of colleagues in my first two weeks and asked them how they did the parts of the work that I was confused by, struggling with, and terrified of.

There are tremendous opportunities for professional growth in the work that we do and we do ourselves a disservice by ignoring it. Some have done the same things the same way for decades, and there is meaning in that. But the People and our communities change, grow, and evolve. Therefore, so must we.

More than that, spending time and energy on the craft of rabbi-ing, not just learning Torah, is important to professional satisfaction. Investing in improving how we do our work encourages curiosity, opportunity, and innovation.

Personally, I have always loved that kind of thing, but not everyone does. I’ve always been reading business and community organizing books and trying to apply what I’ve learned in ways that made sense for the work I was doing. This has pushed me to ask more questions, think critically, and work more effectively. And it isn’t just for us, the outcomes serve the people we care about.

Start an email list.

Collect emails. Write and publish regularly. They are investments in the long term. In the end, we are all interim rabbis and you’re giving people a chance to stay connected to you after you’re gone.

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.