Interviewing a Rabbi – Part 3

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Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Netivot Shalom readily agreed to participate in this short series of interviews. Thank you Rabbi for your availibility and your time.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

My name is Menachem Creditor, and I’ve been a rabbi for almost 10 years. I currently serve as the Rabbi at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California, and also lead an effort called Bay Area Masorti. I blog at menachemcreditor.org, and write music and poetry.

Can you tell us about your congregation and/or job?

My congregation is an amazing place, full of ritual participation and creative energy. Netivot Shalom was founded 22 years ago by a group of Jews interested in serious adult learning and davening, and has grown into a community of 415 households, including many intermarried families, multi-generation families, single people, and many of the founders. My job is to be the public face of our community, as well as nurture the caring (chesed) committees, so that we can be there for each other in happy and sad times.

What is your religious background (if any)? Is there a rabbinical tradition in your family?

I grew up in a religious home, with Shabbat and singing, learning and teaching. My mother is a powerful Jewish educator and my father is a rabbi.

When and why did you decide to become a rabbi?

I knew for 20 years that I did NOT want to be a rabbi. This was, I believe, mostly my way of differentiating myself from my father. When the Jewish a cappella group Pizmon, from List College, visited my shul for a Shabbat during my high school years, something woke up inside of me, allowing me to dream of being the kind of rabbi I was inside, which resembles but is not the same as the (wonderful) rabbi my father is. I sang my heart out that Shabbat, and haven’t stopped since. Once that was unleashed, many moments conspired to bring me to this moment. I’ve never looked back once.

Where did you study? Any particular reason you chose this rabbinical school?

I attended the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. I chose this school because it was (and remains) the heart of a Jewish vision that combines incredible intellectual rigor and a long, rich history of Jewish yearning. There are many other places to grow Jewishly, to learn to be a religious leader, but JTS brought me to a place of clarity and historical appreciation, to a level of textual fluency and spiritual awareness I don’t believe I’d have discovered anywhere else.

Is being a rabbi very different from what you expected?

Being a rabbi is different, on a daily basis, from anything I could even expect today. Yes, I had an inkling of the world of a rabbi. But every day is something brand new, and unpredictable. Perhaps the one thing I simply could not have understood before being a rabbi is the grandeur of being trusted with people’s life-stories, being an emulsifier of the Divine in the world. I could have used those words, but the experience defies communicating.

What do you like best about your job?

I am humbled to be trusted. The ways in which relationships unfold within community are all based on being worthy of trust. When I remember that all people expect me to be is myself, then the relationships can be maintained and deepened.

What do you like least about it?

I like least that there is only one of me. I wouldn’t change a thing about my job, but will never place it above my family. More of me would, I hope, accomplish more sacred work.

What sort of misconceptions do people have about your job?

People think that I am sad when they share their hard moments with me, that I feel put upon to visit them in the hospital or conduct a loved one’s funeral. I am largely inspired by these experiences and the gift of simply being present.


Do you have some sort of contact with rabbis from other Jewish denominations or other religious leaders? Why or why not?

Yes! My Reform, Orthodox, Renewal, and Reconstructionist colleagues and I meet all the time. Sometimes at communal events, sometimes at shul, sometimes socially. So too do I meet with other religious leaders. Why do I? Because I love them. Because we need each other. Because I believe that the only way to experience God is by encountering another of God’s “masks”, human beings who shine with the Divine Image.

What are your plans for the future concerning your job and/or congregation?

My congregation is growing faster than anyone could have predicted, from 280 households four years ago, to 415 (and counting) today. My job will need to shift, and the staff will need to grow. But this is the “simpler” part of future-planning. The hardest part of my “job” and the congregation’s future is the work of evolving culture and sacred memory. Those founders of the shul who remain active have devoted their souls to the birth of a community that is reaching adolescence. That’s never easy. My role is to allow the adolescent to continue self-differentiating, to make manifest the love this precious evolving community contains as it continues to become itself, and to help the founders of the community feel their hearts connected to a naturally shifting organism. All of this is purposeful. All of this is worthy. And it is a sacred task that will require more skills tomorrow than I possess today. I will do my best to grow with the holy burden, and will look to my community to learn with me how to guide our shul well.

Do you use the Internet in your job? How?

All the time. I blog, tweet, FB, and email incessantly. The world we live in calls anyone who thinks their message is worthwhile, or important, to engage in viral communication.

Interviewing a Rabbi – part 2

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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.

Interviewing a Rabbi

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Interviewing rabbis is not easy; we all know how busy they are so when Rabbi Josh Yuter agreed to take part in this new series and replied to my questions, I felt honored. I hope that you will all enjoy this interview as much as I did. Thank you Rabbi for your participation.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

My name is Josh Yuter and I have been the Rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul in New York’s historic Lower East Side since 2008. I’ve also worked professionally as a computer programmer primarily with web application development.

I’ve been blogging since 2003, now at www.JoshYuter.com, and I created and currently manage www.JewishGuitarChords.com archive. I have diverse interests, many of which I incorporate into a Jewish context, and I make horrible and often esoteric puns.

Can you tell us about your congregation and/or job?

The community of The Stanton St. Shul is one of the most diverse I have ever encountered, which is quite remarkable due to its relatively small size and being an Orthodox congregation.

Our membership ranges from recent college graduates to seniors who have spent most of their lives in the Lower East Side. We have members who have grown up observant and attended yeshivot and others with virtually no background and who might not be observant in their private lives. On a typical Shabbat you can find someone in a suit and tie sitting next to someone in jeans and a t-shirt, and no one is particularly bothered.

The motto of the synagogue is “all are welcome; all will feel welcome” and the true uniqueness of the community is its ability to live up to this standard.

What is your religious background (if any)? Is there a rabbinical tradition in your family? When and why did you decide to become a rabbi?

My father has been a pulpit Rabbi for most of my life, though I would not categorize him as a “typical” Orthodox affiliated rabbi. For the purposes of this interview I would best describe his approach as “academic” in that religious texts must be understood critically and their interpretations must fit within the rules the grammar and philology. Perhaps more controversial is the formalistic approach to Jewish law which often challenges the accepted status quo and encourages others to do the same.

Being raised in this environment, my initial interests in going to rabbinical school was not professional, but practical. Most of the subjects learned in rabbinical school such as kashrut, Shabbat, niddah, etc. are laws which are relevant to any observant Jew. My intent was to learn the primary sources with the guidance of experts and the accountability of examinations such that at the end of my program I’d feel confident that I’d either know the halakha or I’d be able to find the answer with relative ease.

Where did you study? Any particular reason you chose this rabbinical school? Is being a rabbi very different from what you expected?

For rabbinical school I studied at Yeshiva University, primarily because there were no other options at that time for a “modern orthodox” rabbinical school. YU’s main competition today is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, but YCT only came into existence in my second year of rabbinical school and there was absolutely no reason to switch. Not only was YCT still in the process of figuring out its full curriculum, but in terms of complete rabbinic training, YU provided a better overall program for future rabbis.

The most significant and underutilized advantage of Yeshiva University is that it is in my opinion the most pluralistic institution of Orthodox Judaism in the world, defining “pluralistic” as the number of different ideologies and approaches to Judaism under one roof. I had the pleasure of studying Talmud in different styles – including “academic Talmud” in YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School for Judaic Studies and learning halakha from different perspectives. Even if I did not agree with an approach or a conclusion, being exposed to contradictory ideas is crucial for religious development. On a personal level I could be proven wrong in which case I’d correct a mistake or at the very least I’d have a better understanding as to why I would reject one idea over another. Furthermore, such exposure is crucial for anyone to be an effective Orthodox Rabbi since at some point, any Rabbi will have to confront people whose opinions and perspectives differ from his own, and the more one understands how another side operates, the better a rabbi can respond.

What do you like best about your job? / What do you like least about it?

Like any job, being a pulpit rabbi can alternate between the frustrating and the gratifying depending on the day. The most gratifying aspects about being a pulpit rabbi for me are times when I can engage with members Jewishly either through teaching classes or simply by being a part of their lives. Obviously this is much more pleasant in better times. I cannot imagine anyone enjoying grief counseling or officiating a funeral, even though to be the religious representative in such a time is less a responsibility than it is an honor.

What sort of misconceptions do people have about your job?

In terms of The Rabbinate in general, people often assume that my synagogue operates like theirs. Meaning, many people assume that the mutual relationship between a congregation and its rabbi are uniform when in truth every community is unique and what might be “normal” for some could be harmful elsewhere.

In my own shul I’ve worked hard to “lift the veil” so to speak about being a Rabbi, or at least how I operate. Part of this is that I think transparency is beneficial and hopefully will preempt misconceptions in the future.

Do you have some sort of contact with rabbis from other Jewish denominations or other religious leaders? Why or why not?

In 2000-2001 I participated in a fellowship program run by Clal which brought together rabbinical students from other denominations, though my exposure since then has been limited to individual colleagues. This is not so much an ideological decision but a practical one. Above all else, my primary focus is, and I think must be, the development of my own synagogue. Even with my Orthodox colleagues on the Lower East Side, we are all preoccupied with our synagogues that we do not have the time to dialogue regularly. However, I have found my local colleagues to be phenomenal professional resources, and I try to provide whatever assistance I can be to anyone regardless of their denomination.

Do you use the Internet in your job? How?

The internet has been instrumental for my synagogue. Given our limited resources, the internet has been the most efficient cost effective method to engage our membership. Between our email newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, we can readily communicate with our membership and our website allows us to reach out to others. The reality is that people, especially those under 35, use the internet as their primary source of information and we have had numerous people who have found our shul simply by searching Google. Getting people in the door is the hardest part, especially if people don’t know you exist.

What are your plans for the future concerning your job and/or congregation?

In terms of the future of the shul, my goal is to continue our sustained growth. As tempting as it can be to simply fill seats, without a sense of community people can leave just as easily. The biggest challenge I see myself facing is being able to reevaluate where we are in the present and to adjust accordingly. We’ve made extraordinary strides in the past two years to the point where it would not be a stretch to say we are a different shul entirely. While it’s a challenge to see the synagogue anew, all things considered, it’s a wonderful problem to have.