(Originally publish in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Blog on October 1, 2013)
What Shall We Call You?
I was ready for the question. In one way or another, I'd been considering it for years.
So in my very first job as a full-fledged pulpit rabbi, when my congregants first asked, "Do we call you 'Rabbi First-name' or 'Rabbi Last-name'?" my answer was more nuanced than you might expect. I drew on knowledge of systems analysis and role considerations I had gained at RRC; I considered a powerful hospital chaplaincy experience I'd had as a student; and I reflected on two years studying Mussar (Jewish ethics) with my RRC classmates.
I had served different kinds of communities both before rabbinical school and during my time at RRC. Each community has its own culture and each congregation has its own sensibility about rabbinical authority.
In my earlier rabbinical work experiences, I focused on being warm and accessible� "one of the folks." Egalitarianism is an important value to many people of my generation. For me, it is connected with generational, Jewish and feminist understandings of the world. My core assumption was that I am no different from anyone else. And further, I thought that my lack of distinction from others was what powered and facilitated my ability to do the work.
I discovered the limits of that line of thinking when I made a mistake while working as a hospital chaplain. During my Clinical Pastoral Education assignment, I was called to pray for the father of a born-again Christian family who was in serious condition and seemed near death. Though I felt slightly awkward to "minister" to people with a religious outlook so different from mine, the family was not aware that I was Jewish. Because of my sterile coverings, the family could not see that I was wearing a kippah. As a chaplain in these situations, I was accustomed to leading a general prayer and then facilitating while family members expressed themselves in their own religious idiom.
Holding hands, we encircled their father and they prayed, affirming their love and support for him. It was especially moving that the patient was able to participate, by writing on a small whiteboard.
When we finished, the eldest son walked me out to the anteroom, thanking me profusely for my prayers on behalf of his father. "Your prayers are truly appreciated because you have G-d's ear: He will listen to you. After all, you're upper management!" the son said with a slight smile.
I balked at his words but tried to keep my face neutral. I didn't think that I had a special "in" with God. I said, "I think God receives all of our prayers with the same attention, yours alongside mine." The son's face fell.
I realized a lot in that moment. I understood that even though I didn't personally believe I had a special power to transact with God, the son did accept as true that I did and he was pinning his hopes on me. I realized that I had an obligation to support the son's belief system. My need to be an egalitarian spiritual leader was in direct conflict with his need to invest his faith in me.
It was wrong to prioritize my egalitarianism over his desperation. If in this time of crisis, he needed me to send his message for him, I should grab that phone and dial. Even if I didn't think the phone existed.
That encounter made me value my continuing rabbinical education as we explored the multiple roles of a rabbi, transference, and power and authority. We learned there are times when leaders need to conserve power, and times we may need to shed power.
Given all this, then, what should they call me? Who should I be to them?
In studying roles and ethics, I learned that a rabbi/congregant relationship is different from a typical friendship. The rabbi "professionally and ethically obligated to act in the best interests of the congregant" can be expected to listen to a congregant's troubles and doubts. On the other hand, the congregant does not owe the rabbi reciprocity in this. And a rabbi relying on congregants for ongoing emotional sustenance is probably being exploitive (as well as likely undermining the relationship).
Conscious awareness of healthy boundaries is invaluable to me; it informs and sustains my ability to meet people where they are and effectively help them.
While not a friend in the reciprocal sense of the word, I can be friendly and on friendly terms with congregants. Rabbis often socialize with congregants, especially in initiatives designed to build community bonding. This informal in-between-ness could potentially be confusing to a congregant. Being called Rabbi First-name could add to the confusion.
Living in a small town with a small Jewish community and working hard at building cohesion, I am often hanging out with congregants in some kind of ambiguous role. To clarify what role I think I am in at any given time, I have asked to be called Rabbi Lastname (i.e., Rabbi Loewenthal) in a formal setting or just Firstname (i.e., Amy) when I am functioning in a more informal, "dressed down" role.
In the synagogue I am Rabbi Loewenthal, but on the hiking trail, I am Amy.
All my cogitation on the seemingly simple question "what shall we call you" is not just wool gathering. I use it in the pursuit of excellent service to my congregation. I've been thinking about this for years. My preparation has been a long, hard, and joyful road. And now I am finally blessed to put all my experience, learning, skills, dedication and caring into practice in a small Jewish community of beautiful people. They sometimes call me "Rabbi Loewenthal;" they sometimes call me "Amy." I call myself "lucky" for the tremendous education I received and the privilege to put it into practice.
eMail Link: Rabbi Loewenthal would love to meet with you to talk about the Ahavas Achim community.