Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Re-upping as a Rabbinic Mentor

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.

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1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a fantastic program, and I'm very happy to hear that it's working. Historically, everyone learned a trade or profession from a mentor (often a father or grandfather, but not necessarily). In the creative arts, the mentor has always been an invaluable and indepensible part of the learning process.

    These days, professionals such as physicians and therapists wouldn't dream of starting out without having spent time under the tutelage of some kind of mentor (or supervisor, who serves most of the functions of mentor). "People-professions" (including the rabbinate) can only really be learned on the job, regardless of the quality of one's training, so a mentor-guide is a necessity to help the accolyte make some sense of his work, and bring it to the next level.

    Recent scientific studies of animal behavior have focused on how animals learn best. Their findings? Animals learn by watching other animals. 'Nuf said.