As you know, in anticipation of my “bar mitzvah” year at Ramat Shalom, I have been reflecting on the many people and moments that have defined the past 13 years. Today, I want to focus on a few special teachers whose words have had a tremendous impact on me.
Someone asked me this week: “How did you learn everything you needed to learn to become a rabbi!?” I explained that Judaism expects us to continue learning our entire lives and, therefore, despite the fundamental things a rabbi needs to master, I am still busy learning all that I need to know to become a more knowledgeable Jew.
When I arrived at Ramat Shalom 13 years ago, I was 32 years young. Prior to moving to South Florida, I had been the rabbinic intern and then the assistant rabbi at a synagogue in suburban New York. As the intern and assistant rabbi, I didn’t have to make any tough decisions. Nobody got mad at me for synagogue related issues. I came to work, did what was expected of me and everyone was happy. “Why should it be any different,” I thought as I prepared to begin my position at Ramat Shalom.
Oh how naïve I was!
During my first few years at Ramat Shalom, I felt that I could do absolutely nothing right. My challenge: I was following a beloved rabbi, Jeff Eisenstat, who had served the congregation for nine years. He and I were so different. Here I was, fresh out of rabbinical school, whereas Rabbi Jeff had years of rabbinic experience. His youngest child had already become bat mitzvah and mine was just born. He had done his time and earned the respect of the Ramat Shalom community and I was just some new kid who was untested. I was in for a very bumpy ride.
As we spend our entire lives learning, Judaism teaches us to “provide for ourselves a teacher.” During my intial bumpy ride at Ramat Shalom, I was blessed to have a group of very special teachers who had and continue to have a tremendous impact on me. For the most part, these teachers were many of the founding families of the congregation, past-presidents and other senior members of Ramat Shalom who openly shared their wisdom with their new, very young rabbi. While the support and friendship of all of these teachers remains strong, the lessons of two of these teachers had a tremendous impact on me.
At a tumultuous board meeting many years ago, I got very upset when the board disagreed with me and made decisions that I was opposed to. I do not remember the decisions. I just remember feeling so frustrated and defeated. I walked out of the board meeting to calm my head and was approached by longtime Ramat Shalom member, Arnie Thaler. Arnie put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and sternly told me to calm myself down, get back into the meeting and move forward. I knew that Arnie supported me. I also heard him loud and clear. Arnie was teaching me the words of Rabbi Israel Salanter who said: “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man.” Arnie woke me up to the reality that my community and I won’t always agree and this is an essential part of being a rabbi. I am fortunate in that Ramat Shalom and I rarely disagree on things these days. This being said, Arnie helped to open my eyes to the fact that being a rabbi sometimes involves challenging debates and disagreements and, as uncomfortable as these sometimes are, I have to face them head on and serve my community.
There were many times during my first few years at Ramat Shalom when I felt that I would never live up to the expectations of the community. Rabbi Jeff had given the community so much and while I could give them some of what he gave them, I was no Rabbi Jeff. No matter how hard I tried, I could only be me. I ran into Paul Chudnow, another longtime Ramat Shalom member, at a particularly low moment years ago – a moment in which I was feeling I would never be able to give the community what Jeff gave them. Paul took me aside and said: “I know now all you hear about is what Rabbi Jeff has given us. But, one day, people will talk about what Rabbi Andrew has given us.” Paul was teaching me about the Jewish virtue of savlanut or patience – a virtue I still wrestle with today. It will take time, Paul suggested, but one day, you will earn your place here at Ramat Shalom. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin wrote: “Woe to the pampered person who has never been trained to be patient. Either today or in the future, he is destined to sip from the cup of affliction.” Paul was training me to be patient. I am honored and humbled by the fact that Paul was correct. It took time and I drank from many cups of affliction. But, it was all worth it to be embraced as Ramat Shalom’s Rabbi.
Thank you to Arnie, Paul and so many others who have shared incredible words of wisdom with me over the years – words that have shaped who I am today. How blessed I have been to have had and continue to have such wonderful teachers!