Success is a Loaded Word
In the rabbinate, success is a loaded word. As Sally Priesand describes in her video interview, a generation ago everyone could describe a successful rabbi. He would be the senior rabbi of a large synagogue in a large city, and he would have a long-term contract. Ideally the synagogue would be growing. That was success.
When I was in rabbinical school, there was a joke that was told at rabbinic conventions. Rabbis (read male) were constantly asking each other, “So, how big is it?” the double entendre between penis size and synagogue size clear.
Today, what defines rabbinical success is not so crystal clear. The number of large congregations has shrunk. The number of congregations who are growing, or are even just not shrinking, is also smaller. Additionally, many rabbis, both male and female, have redefined what success in the rabbinate looks like for them. Some are very fulfilled being rabbis of small and mid-size congregations and have no desire to trade up. Fully half of the active rabbinate is no longer working in pulpit positions at all. Rabbis have full careers as teachers, chaplains, school administrators, Hillel professionals, and a wide array of non-profit professionals. Many rabbis are entrepreneurial, creating new communities and expanding how we teach Torah.
It is no accident that women rabbis lead the pack as entrepreneurs: Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in LA, Rabbi Noa Kushner of The Kitchen in San Francisco, Rabbi Lizzi Heydman of Mishkan in Chicago. All of these incredibly talented women instinctively knew that the “traditional” path to success in the rabbinate was, if not closed to them, going to be a very tough road. They chose to hew their own path, and I don’t think anyone can argue with their success.
In fact, the current growth area of the rabbinate is what would be considered “non-traditional areas”, ie. not in the pulpit. So, how do you define success when the very field itself is changing? The measurements we used to determine a rabbi’s success a generation ago are not the same measurements we can use today, and certainly they will not be the same measurements we use in another twenty years.
Yet, perceptions change slowly. If I had a dollar for every time I explained that I am a rabbi that works at a non-profit, and people responded by saying, “Oh, so you are not really a rabbi" I would be rich. In the public mind, rabbis still only work in pulpits. This is incredibly frustrating to those of us who actively choose to serve in other roles.
Which brings me back to how you define success. I can only define success for myself. In my estimation, I have a successful rabbinate. In the years I have been a rabbi, I have worked as a hospital chaplain, directed a Center for Jewish Life at a JCC, founded a creative Health and Healing Center which integrated different modalities of mind, body, and spirit with Jewish learning, established Rabbis Without Borders, a network of rabbis who seeks to be innovative, pluralistic, and to be of service to anyone, and founded a website, RabbiCareers.com to help rabbis find jobs and employers find rabbis.
Some people may look at this mix of achievements and say, “Well, that doesn’t look like any rabbinate I have ever heard of.” But I look back on my career and feel a deep sense of pride and accomplishment. The goal of my rabbinate has always been to use Jewish wisdom to help others in their lives. It is the foundation that underlies each of my jobs and achievements.
When I ask myself: “Am I helping people flourish more in their lives?” And the answer is “yes,” then I am being successful. That is my personal bar. When I worked at the JCC, and counseled bereaved seniors so that they had some strength to keep living without their loved one, that was success. When I help rabbis think in new creative ways, and coach them in bringing those ideas into reality, that is success. When I help a community who is struggling to find a rabbi, and match them with a rabbi who otherwise might not have a job, that is success.
In each of these cases, I feel like I am contributing to individual lives and (cheesy though it may sound) I feel like I am doing God’s work.
I have found my own path in the rabbinate. In doing so, I have also learned that I cannot define anyone else’s path for them. Each rabbi needs to determine what their own success looks like. It does not need to be determined by size of synagogue, how many people attend services, or the number of clicks a blog post gets. Some of those measurements may work for some rabbis, but not for others. The measurement of success needs to be personally meaningful. That is all. I truly believe that God put each of us on this earth to serve in different ways. It is up to each of us to find our own path. It takes great courage to do so. May we each be blessed on our journeys.
How to cite this page
Sirbu, Rebecca W.. "Success is a Loaded Word." 3 April 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/success-is-loaded-word>.