Phyllis who blogs at ImaBima kindly agreed to take part in this new series where I interview rabbis. Thank you Phyllis for your great contribution.
Can you introduce yourself in a few words?
My name is Phyllis Sommer, I’m a mom of four kids and a Reform rabbi.
Can you tell us about your congregation and/or job?
I am the associate rabbi of a congregation of approximately 950 families in the north suburbs of Chicago.
What is your religious background (if any)? Is there a rabbinical tradition in your family?
I was raised in an active Reform Jewish family. We were very involved and
observant as a family. One of my maternal uncles is an Orthodox rabbi, but I
wouldn’t call that a family tradition.
When and why did you decide to become a rabbi?
My father is a teacher, and I always wanted to be a teacher…he spent a lot of
time trying to talk me out of it! So…I made a little end-run around the idea
and I spend much of my time teaching! I had a lot of incredible rabbinic role
models when I was at Jewish summer camp and in youth group, and I saw the path very clearly for me. At 16, I was voted “most likely to be a rabbi” amongst my summer camp peers, but it wasn’t until my first trip to Israel at age 19 that I solidified my decision.
Where did you study? Any particular reason you chose this rabbinical school?
I received my ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion. I never considered going anywhere else, since I’ve always been such an active part of the Reform movement. I chose to go to the Cincinnati campus primarily because I am so connected to the Midwest. In retrospect, Cincinnati was a great place to live and learn, but I would have loved to experience the “coastal” Judaism that I hear so much about…
Is being a rabbi very different from what you expected?
There are a lot more administrative details than I ever expected, but overall,
I’m living the dream!
What do you like best about your job?
I love being with people when they need me, at liminal moments in their lives. It is such an incredible honor to share important moments like births, deaths and other milestones.
What do you like least about it?
While I love leading others and sharing holidays and Shabbat with them, I do
wish that I could spend many quiet Shabbats with my family at home. (Oh, and I don’t like people who are mean…which sometimes they are.)
What sort of misconceptions do people have about your job?
The funniest is when people swear in front of me and then say something like, “oh, sorry, rabbi…” as though I have particularly sensitive ears because I am a clergy member.
Do you have some sort of contact with rabbis from other Jewish denominations or other religious leaders? Why or why not?
We have a local clergy association that consists of the faith leaders of all the
houses of worship in our small suburb (amazing how many there are in one small town!), and we have regular meetings. A few years ago, we did a “pulpit swap” and I spoke at Mass at the Catholic church. I am also a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, which consists of rabbis of all denominations. This group takes an annual rabbinic mission and five years ago I traveled to Russia with a group of about 25 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. It was a great experience and gave me some wonderful connections with many rabbis all over Chicago. We’re so lucky here to have a great community of many rabbis.
What are your plans for the future concerning your job and/or congregation?
I am currently in my 8th year as the associate rabbi, and I’ve recently signed a five year extension.
Do you use the Internet in your job? How?
I love the Internet, and I am always looking for new ways to use it in my work. Much of my online life connects me to my colleagues and friends, and I feel like that has a great impact on the kind of rabbi that I am. It helps me to learn and to grow as a person and rabbi.