Sunday, March 29, 2009

Come on, Rabbi, finish what you started

[This week’s Haveil Havalim, hosted by the inimitable Jack, is here!]

We all have on-going projects – cleaning out the garage, sitting on a community committee, losing weight, helping a friend cope with life – the natural accumulations of a life lived with a sense of purpose.

However, forced to believe that fatalistic adage, “No one gets off this planet alive,” we know that we’re going to die some day and leave some of those projects incomplete.

Just as responsible non-profits don’t run in the black, so too a life well-lived includes unfinished business. If you finish all of your tasks, you’re likely not working hard enough or thinking creatively enough.

The same is true for the rabbinate; a rabbi who leaves his pulpit with all of his projects complete is either not working hard enough or not thinking creatively enough. So I’ve always known that when I would leave, it would mean that some efforts would go unrewarded.

Nonetheless, it hurts to see a project fail, or even go on hold, because of my decision to leave. Today my mind is on my Community Educator project, which is going on indefinite hold until a new rabbi comes into town.

We started this project fourteen months ago, in January 2008. The goals were admirable – everything from raising the education level in our community, to attracting new families, to providing an evening “Hebrew High School” option for kids from public schools, to presenting community role models. Others had tried and failed, but we would succeed.

I collected a first-class committee who would stick with it and make the project a success. It wasn't a set of the usual suspects who volunteer for everything, and it wasn't a group of great financial means, but rather it was a collection of people who were committed to the vision of greater Jewish education, who attended classes and learned themselves, and who would put in the hours to make it happen.

We developed a good job description, specific enough to convey what we wanted but general enough to leave the reins to a quality couple to run the program. We found a perfect institutional structure, thanks to a local 501(c)(3) organization that was willing to act as an incubator. We identified generous, willing donors, who made the fundraising remarkably easy and stuck with the program even as the economy declined.

But we only started soliciting candidates last May, after the main rabbinic hiring season was over, and for many months we couldn’t find the right fit. It wasn’t until January 2009 that we found couples we felt were right for the job – and then, at the end of February, came the job offer from Toronto.

The roof fell in. Key donors, committee members and my potential replacement as chair of the committee debated pros and cons before deciding, just a few days ago, right after we had extended an offer to our best-fit candidate, to wait until a new rabbi would come in, to see what he would want to do with the program.

I can’t disagree with them; the argument makes sense, within a certain context. So the project is on indefinite hold.

As I said before, everyone goes with work unfinished, and it’s a sign not of inadequacy but of hard work and a commitment to productivity. To make the foolishly grandiose comparison, Moshe doesn’t make it into Israel, either. He finishes lots of projects, but some things are left for others to do.

Further, I know that many others have tried to launch such projects in communities like mine, and not come nearly as close to success.

But it still hurts to see all of that work – months of getting buy-in, of planning infrastructure, of covering practical details, of interviewing candidate familes – just to see it die. Had we been a few months ahead, this would not have happened. It hurts to shelve all of this, and to wonder whether it will be revived, ever.

After I came out of our last meeting, I got in the car and turned on the radio, to hear a Van Halen song clip that was surely sent my way by the Divine sense of humor: “Come on, baby, finish what you started.”

Gd likes to laugh at me, I find, but in this I know I’m not alone.


  1. Gd likes to laugh at me, I find, but in this I know I’m not alone.

    I prefer to think that G-d laughs with me.

  2. Gd likes to laugh at me, I find, but in this I know I’m not alone.

    I keep waiting for G-d to tire of laughing at me and find someone else to pick on. ;)

  3. I must have missed the post -- you headed to Toronto?

  4. Daniel-
    I'd like to, but I'm too realistic.

    Gd doesn't slumber or sleep, sorry.

    Did you read OkayIsaidit?

  5. Wow -- I guess I did miss that post -- though I understand your bittersweet feelings, that's great news! Mazal tov. Sounds like a great, great job and I lot of fun. Hatzlacha rabba, I'm sure you will do great.

  6. Jack-
    Gd doesn't slumber or sleep, sorry.

    That may be true, but still with billions of other people in the world surely there are others who are more important or interesting than I.