Reconsidering the Rabbi

5 Tamuz 5774

So “rabbi” means “teacher.” But “teacher” has a lot of meanings.

I don’t think the rabbi I talked to is going to be the right rabbi for me after all. There are two reasons for this. First, even though the temple seems to be a very liberal temple, the rabbi seems to be more conservative than the temple. I feel like I make him uncomfortable when I ask him questions, and that’s not going to be helpful in my conversion process. Mainly, those questions are about the queer aspects of my conversion; I recently asked him if he’d followed up on something that is important to me about halacha, and he said “Oh. Nope!” in a very lighthearted manner. I felt like I had been given the brush-off. Second, I got to witness his ability to teach things that are not Torah the other night. Specifically, I went to what I thought was a beginning-Hebrew class he was giving at the temple the other night.

Although I was impressed with his Torah teachings back on Shavuot, and I’ve seen him lead temple services and he’s quite good at that, I have to admit that for this topic, he’s not a very good teacher. It was actually a very advanced class, but it wasn’t described that way in the temple newsletter. The six or seven people who were there, who apparently had taken the first half of the class sometime in the spring, were all frustrated with how fast he wanted to go (and as a teacher myself, I could see that his lesson plan was expecting quite a lot from these students, who are regular people who have full-time jobs and families). I could see, very quickly, that he covers impatience with laughter and tries to pretend it’s not that bad, but even after he was asked to slow down, he couldn’t seem to do so. This seemed to stem from two problems: first, he kept referring to when he was a rabbinical student and how they studied then, and second, he kept making references to a lot of Jewish-culture things that I (at least) could not be expected to know.

Okay, the problem is: none of us are rabbinical students. Expecting people to have that kind of focused time available to study is really kind of unrealistic. The other problem is: he hasn’t just done this in this class. There have been other times where he has said a word or a phrase in Hebrew and assumed that everyone knew what he was talking about. And there have been other times where he’s gone so fast in worship services that I have completely lost my place in the siddur.

This feels like a minefield, and I’ve been carrying it around with me for a while now, but this class this week just crystallized it for me. He may be a very good rabbi at leading worship, and he may be a wonderful Torah scholar. But he doesn’t seem very patient, and I don’t feel like I’m taken seriously sometimes, which to me is a problem. So I don’t feel like he’s the right guide for me for my conversion.

This has upset me, as I’m sure folks can understand. I wanted this to go smoothly. But I don’t think I should ignore this kind of mismatch.  I think I figure that you should feel comfortable with your rabbi, and I do not feel comfortable with this rabbi. It’s not that he’s a bad guy; it’s just that on a fundamental level, we don’t click the way I thought we would. That’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the way that it is.

My best friend heard about all this from me last night, and called her rabbi (who lives in another city) to ask him for recommendations for rabbis local to me. So we’ll see where that goes.

I have to remember that you do not have to convert where you attend. I can continue attending shul at the temple down the street from me, and study with a different rabbi. That is a possibility. And I may find that I need to go to a more liberal temple with a more liberal rabbi, anyway.





Filed under Conversion Process, Judaism

7 responses to “Reconsidering the Rabbi

  1. This is an unfortunate problem for many rabbis. It’s taken a (very?) long time for the major rabbinical schools to clue into the idea that while rabbi means teacher, and their graduates are academically well-schooled, the schooling doesn’t do much to teach them how to teach. (Coming from academic life, you’ve no doubt seen the same thing.)

    When I first looked at rabbinical school fifteen years ago, text study happened for the first 2/3 of the academic day–for five to six years! Practical classes were pushed until the last two years, and it was maybe a semester here or there of those classes–three credit hours of education practicum, three credits of chaplaincy, etc.–while you pursued an academic specialization (as in, Bible, or Talmud, or Midrash, or history, or literature) and kept doing Talmud 2/3 of the day.

    So, not to say the rabbi you’ve been working with isn’t making a hash of things; unfortunately, he might not have been trained to do any better, and what he does might actually be an improvement over what he learned to do!

    (There’s an old joke in the Conservative movement that JTS was made up of Orthodox rabbis teaching Conservative students who go out and lead Reform Jews. So that discomfort you have with the rabbi vs. the synagogue may be a baked-in kind of problem. Which makes it all the weirder!)


    • As far as seeing this in academe, that’s very true. At my doctoral school, the Ph.D. candidates all had to teach at least once as a teaching assistant in order to get the Ph.D. You could tell immediately which ones resented it. The thing is, a lot of the faculty there also saw it as pointless to be a TA (beyond the benefit the faculty got with having someone to grade all those papers and homework assignments). It shouldn’t surprise me that teaching is not taught in rabbinical schools either. It’s sad, but not surprising.

      Even so, I still need to find a rabbi I can actually click with. This guy doesn’t seem to be that rabbi. So… back to the search, if not the drawing board.


      • Oh, you have to pick the person that works for you–no question there. But knowing how bad training was for the “real world” when most of the rabbis still working went to school might help in your search. Most of the rabbinical students I know now through the major seminaries are very much committed to teaching and “meeting people where they are,” and the training seems to have turned the corner only in the last five or seven years.


        • Thanks for letting me know. So, I should look for young rabbis then? 😉


          • Not necessarily young! There’s been an awful lot of second-career rabbi stuff happening–which I think is a very, very good sign. Part of why I didn’t go to rabbinical school 15 years ago was the realization that though I could likely get in, I was 22–what the heck did I know!?

            Lots of the folks I’ve met have been late-20s to mid-30s when they started school, and are often from groups that until recently were quite poorly treated due to sexual orientation, or even having initially been adult converts.

            To paraphrase Indiana Jones: “It’s not the years…it’s the mileage.”


  2. You don’t even have to study with a rabbi – my shul connected me with a wonderful woman who did all the conversion studies for that shul (Patti Moskowitz, the co-author of the book I recommended to you). I met with the associate rabbi about once a month, and with the senior rabbi a couple of times during the process, and the three of them were my Beit Din.

    Of course, a lot of lay teachers charge for their services, but you might be able to find a shul that has a large enough number of converts to support a class.


  3. I’m sorry to hear about this. Sounds very frustrating. I’m not sure where you live, but I’d recommend reaching out to the leadership of any of the communities mentioned in the middle of this blog post:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s