Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to leave your shul

[Purim Post I enjoyed: The Foucauldian Term Generator app (for iPhone) at the Michtavim blog]

Some months ago, I received an email from a colleague who wanted to know what I had learned from my experience in leaving my old shul.

As this colleague knew, leaving Allentown was a heartbreaker for me, and remains a heartbreaker. I loved the community, and I certainly felt loved in return. I even loved the shul rabbinate (much of the time...). It was just a matter of logistics - the lack of a high school, as my oldest child drew closer to that age.

So how do you deal with leaving your community, when it's a departure by choice rather than on a rail?

This is a slightly-doctored version of what I told him. I know some of it may seem melodramatic or over the top to a non-rabbi, but it's very real to me. I wish I had succeeded in following all of these steps myself:

In my experience, leaving a shul is unlike leaving most other professional positions. The level of bonding with people, the integral role the rabbi plays in the community, the way in which the rabbi shares in the lives of others, the 24/7 dedication to the welfare of the community and its members, the fact (at least, I believe it's a fact) that a rabbi cannot succeed unless he falls in love with the members of his community... losing all of this, even voluntarily, is a very real bereavement.

The result is an experience of grief, very similar to the grief associated with more traditional forms of loss. And two of the primary manifestations of that grief are a feeling of Survivor Guilt and a feeling of I-don't-belong Dislocation.

What can a rabbi do about it? I have three ideas:

1. I believe a rabbi must know why he is leaving.
Regardless of what he chooses to tell other people - some things are better left unsaid, or shared only with certain people - the rabbi must know what his real reasons are, and how they are prioritized.

This becomes very important when he questions the decision, which is a natural part of the grieving process. Think of someone who decides not to pursue aggressive chemotherapy, and the second-guessing that goes on afterward if the reasons are not clear (and even if they are).

2. I believe a rabbi must know that he is leaving his community in a good position for the future.
This means knowing that the timing is as good as possible for the community, in terms of their ability to find a proper successor. It means that the timing is right in terms of communal projects.

It means that he leaves behind a thorough, around-the-year transition document - a public version for the shul president and, perhaps, executive board, and a private version, eyes-only for his successor.

And it means that he commits himself to be available for consultations going forward, even as he leaves his successor space to grow successfully into his shoes.

3. I believe a rabbi must allow himself time and space to grieve.
I'm certain you have had cases in which people tried to re-insert themselves into their work and social lives too soon after a bereavement, surgery or divorce, r"l.

That's a natural instinct for many, and certainly for a rabbi who is trying to serve a new community. But on so many levels, the grieving process will re-assert itself. That's fine, healthy and normal, but it should be anticipated and understood, and not fought.

What do you think? What else should be included?


  1. We lived in Allentown and were members of Sons of Israel during 1983-1988, and it had many good points and we made many friends. We left for Metro Detroit for educational and job reasons, but can't honestly say we grieved about it. I can see though, how a popular, successful rabbi can have very mixed feelings about moving on. Conversely, a rabbi who doesn't click with the community, even if he leaves voluntarily, might not see any downside to moving on.

  2. Bob-
    True, certainly. Some of it may also involve length of stay.

    Daat y-
    (Responding to your question posted on "In Gd's Name") - I don't know; what would you think of, besides a farewell event and sincere attempts to keep in touch?