When I was in rabbinical school, we were offered a lot of advice about our future rabbinates from a variety of individuals who were held in high esteem at the time. I remember, for example, being told that we should anticipate five career moves over the course of our careers. That would translate into five city moves too. We were also told that after five years of graduate study, we should be no one’s assistant. We should pursue our own rabbinates. Along with such practical advice came real wisdom, as well. One teacher told us that we should put our rabbinate on the line every day. If we were doing something that didn’t risk our jobs, then it probably wasn’t worth doing. Then when I was in a position to teach rabbinical students, I often translated what I learned into my own pithy statements, like “Make a distinction between your job and your work. It is easy to find a job, much harder to find work.” Or “don’t get confused between personal preferences and issues of principle. The former is not worth fighting about.”
Many things have changed in the rabbinate over the last generation. The entry of women in the rabbinate, for example, has thankfully undermined the notion about moving from place to place to find a bigger and therefore better position, as most did not buy into the bigger-is-better myth. And our understanding of aging certainly has challenged the notion of when we hit our stride in our rabbinical careers.
I have been reading a lot about the notion of retirement and the generational divide lately—then applying it to the rabbinate. While the rabbinate has become a second career for a growing number of people (moving from careers of money to careers of meaning, as they are sometimes called), for those of us who have been privileged to be in the rabbinate since our early days, there are other implications. While people have blamed the failing economy as the reason for those in the rabbinate staying longer, particularly in the pulpit (and limiting younger rabbis from entering the field and finding a job), I think that there is something else going on. First, there are those who retire from the pulpit and reimagine their rabbinates, doing things that there were unable to do while serving congregations. Or they are using their seniority that allows them the freedom—and perhaps wisdom—to do things differently and more expansively.
In any case, an improved economy will not change this. Instead, I think that we will see more and more of it taking place. And we, in the Jewish community, have to mine this wisdom, especially if we want to use it to paint an optimistic future for us all.