I found out yesterday that I will be invited to serve again this year as a mentor for the Center for the Jewish Future / Legacy Heritage Fund Rabbinic Enrichment Initiative’s rabbinic mentorship program.
In this mentorship program, experienced rabbis are paired with rabbis who are just starting out, for a period of two years. The rabbis visit each other, and communicate regularly (at least weekly) to talk about issues, to discuss long- and short-term planning, etc. And, sometimes, the mentor rabbis have to spend some time clarifying to the mentee's shul that his job is to help the mentee, and not to be a liaison between the mentee and his shul.
To my mind, this is a great program; I could have used a mentor when I was starting out.
All right, full disclosure: I would not have taken advantage of it, because I was way too insecure to trust anyone to be my mentor. I was sure that all information and skills fit into one of two categories: (A) Things I know, or (B) Things I will never admit I don't know.
But I should have had one.
When the program started a couple of years ago, I was absolutely, positively sure I didn’t belong as a mentor. I was the most junior mentor by far; I had 9 years of experience, and the next-junior mentor had 20-something years. I’m still not sure why they asked me, except that more senior rabbis had declined the opportunity. But there I was at the table with rabbis whose experience and wisdom still awe me.
After a couple of years in this role I finally feel like I do have some small sense of what I am supposed to be doing. A very small sense, but it's there.
Certainly, being a mentor has been good for me, for all the reasons that mentorships usually benefit mentors:
-I’ve had a chance to travel to places I would never have seen otherwise. Granted that I don’t travel well (understatement alert), it’s still been a good, deepening experience for me;
-Seeing others’ challenges has given me perspective on my own (Wow, am I glad that's not my congregant);
-Helping others with their weakenesses has given me insight into my own (Those can't do...);
-Mentoring has forced me to think systematically and thoroughly about the mechanics of the rabbinate (Yes, there is a system. Or there should be, at any rate.);
-I’ve gleaned new ideas for implementation in my own rabbinate.
About the only thing I would really want to change is the title “mentor,” for two reasons:
-I think it’s off-putting for the mentee, although most of them wouldn’t say so directly. This new rabbi is someone who has completed a serious course of learning and who is already in the field, counseling people and dealing with tough issues, and labelling myself – still relatively young in this field – as a “mentor” is a bit patronizing. Not to mention it can be undermining if the senior rabbi is introduced to the community as a formal mentor; I prefer the title "partner rabbi," "buddy rabbi" or something similar.
-The title suggests I know something. Certainly, I’ve seen a lot over the years, but experience makes you a זקן without necessarily being a זה שקנה חכמה – in other words, it gives you the gray hair, but necessarily the gray matter to go with it.
In the past two years I have worked with three young rabbis, and I’ve learned from dealing with each of them. I hope they have benefited as much from me – and I hope to become even better at it over the course of this year.