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From "Baby Rabbi" to Senior Rabbi

06/30/2022 09:45:34 AM


Rabbi Brad Levenberg

Thank you, Adam and to the members of the PRC, for proposing this elevation and meeting and discussing and taking so many extra steps to make this historic vote a part of our congregation’s reality. I must fully and candidly admit that I did not imagine my rabbinic trajectory would unfold in this manner. After all, my rabbinic mentors and models, and I have had many since my formative years as a child in Cincinnati, had little in common other than the many places they called home during their rabbinic careers. In fact, the pattern was relatively clear, at least as I made the decision to make the congregational rabbinate my vocation: one starts as an assistant and works in one community for up to five years, learning the ropes. Often these assistantships have relatively restricted portfolios, focusing primarily on youth work, and, due to the frequency of turnover and, really, the structure of the model, the assistant does not often become enmeshed in the community in a manner that encourages him/her to stay. My own familiarity with this model is that the short tenure of an assistant stems not only from the assistant’s desire to depart after a few years and expand that portfolio, but also because, well, a fair number of Senior Rabbis find the success of their assistant to be a threat. So, the assistant takes the job, stays for a few years, and moves on to assume a solo rabbi position at a small or medium congregation for five years. The rabbis’ aspirations outgrow the community and the rabbi then moves on to a first senior pulpit, often staying for 5 to 10 years, leaving after having made a fair number of mistakes, before going off to a second, large congregation where they serve successfully, with a parade of assistants, until they retire. When Rebecca and I started dating, this was the sales pitch I offered to her: five years ahead of rabbinical school, then living somewhere – who knows where – for a few years, then we’ll go somewhere for another few years, then another place for 5 or so years, then we’ll find our community right around, oh, 17 or so years after I’m ordained. I still can’t believe she said “yes.”

Interviewing to be your second ever assistant rabbi was quite exciting and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect upon those months often over these last years. It was exciting because all of my mentors, everyone I turned to for guidance when I reeled off the list of congregations and senior rabbis in consideration, patiently heard the list and, one after the other, said, “You need to work for Ronnie Segal. He’s amazing and there are great things happening in Atlanta.” I was delighted that my initial interview with Rabbi Segal and Scott Zucker, the chair of the rabbinic search committee, yielded an invitation to come to Atlanta for a more formal interview with the committee comprised of demographic representatives of the congregation and to spend time engaging more intentionally with Ron. I asked him about the portfolio of the assistant rabbi and he smiled, saying “If there is something you want to devote your talents to during your rabbinate it will be a delight. Rest assured: there is more than enough to keep us both busy, and this is a place where we are not going to have fixed portfolios. You and I will both be rabbis and we will serve this entire congregation to the best of our ability!” From our first meeting in Ohio to our first visit to Atlanta through so many of the moments that are key to my life, Ron Segal has been central, providing support, offering helpful critique, and encouraging and empowering me on a daily basis. It was Ron Segal who first suggested this elevation, advancing the idea that we could have two senior rabbis at Temple Sinai, and I just have to marvel at that for a moment. You know that Ron Segal is special and pretty spectacular, but, trust me, most of you don’t know the half of it. What a gift it is to have my rabbinate created alongside his, and what a joy it is to enter into this next phase of partnership with my dear friend. Ron, when we first had a chance to sit down together in 2006, I asked you, still several months away from assuming the role of Senior Rabbi, what kind of senior rabbi do you want to be? Your answer was as quick as it was illustrative: you said to me, “I hope that I can be the kind of Senior Rabbi that Phil has been to me: one who provides opportunities for growth, for experimentation; a partner.” As I derive inspiration from your success in achieving that goal, my sincere hope is to be able to continue that tradition, relishing every day how truly privileged I am to work across the hall from you, and I look forward to this next phase of our partnership and the many pranks that will follow.

Friends, I started here 16 years ago. I have long since ceased being your “baby rabbi,” a phrase coined by my dear colleague and partner Rabbi Elana Perry, or “the kid rabbi” – as has Rabbi Trief, by the way, who has crafted a remarkable and deep rabbinate for herself that belies her years since ordination. A naturally reflective person, I have appreciated that my rabbinate is far from my own, for it bears the fingerprints of the joyous times we have shared and the challenging conversations in which we have engaged. It has been shaped by sitting with you in the most tragic of times and celebrating with you during your most joyous. We have studied together and your questions and ideas and approaches have fashioned my own thinking and evolved the manner of my teaching, counseling, preaching, and, well, rabbi-ing. Yeah, it’s now a verb. Live with it. Like clay on a potter’s wheel, these 16 years have given my life form and I am truly grateful.

I am delighted that we will convene for a service of installation this November, and I imagine that I will then be afforded the opportunity to share comments related to vision and aspiration. So let me take this moment to offer brief – well, brief for me - words of gratitude and appreciation.

I am indelibly grateful to the Temple Sinai staff, to partners whose “hello” starts my every day with a smile, and whose dedication to the institution pushes me to strive to meet your lofty expectations. When I see how hard you work, when I see how frustrated you get when things don’t go according to plan, when I see you give your Sunday morning to be here today and the many other moments that you choose to lean in to be a part of this community, it reaffirms to me how truly blessed I am to work alongside you, my partners who make our dreams our reality. And to Sam and Beth, who a piece of paper indicates that I supervise but wow is that not nearly our relationship. Sam and Beth, my most esteemed colleagues and friends, thank YOU for pushing me forward, and for your thoughtful contributions to the manner in which you see and experience the world which helps me address my shortcomings. Thank you for your understanding and patience as I apply what I learned from grad school on the two of you. And expanding this circle to include Ron as well, thank you for blessing me by letting me work so closely with arguably three of the most talented and incredible people I’ve ever known.

Returning to the journey that brought me here, when Rebecca and I were considering a congregation that would be a good fit, we wanted to join a community where our children would be able to create positive Jewish memories and where we would be welcomed as a family. How joyous our lot at Temple Sinai. Not only does my family love it here, but you have in turn been gracious and loving to them. Ilana and Evan, no doubt there are tribulations that come along with being a rabbinic family – you came to anticipate long before I ever did that there is no such thing as a “quick trip to Publix” and you have been able to know that when people you don’t know approach you and greet you by name, it is most likely that they are congregants from Sinai and the threat level is minimal. Well, relatively minimal. I grew up with two working parents, but both of my parents were able to be home for dinner every night. Ilana, Evan, I can’t begin to fathom what it is like to be the children of a rabbi, and I am sorry that over the years I have not been able to be as present as some of the fathers of your friends and classmates. Pictures of you in my office are no substitute for the real things, and I am grateful for your patience and that we have been able to carve out other times to connect meaningfully in our own way. A special thank you to Waffle House for providing the setting for those times, and to waitstaff who know you by name and by order.

Rebecca, whose “yes” started this whole thing and who was the driving force behind our move to Atlanta, deserves a lifetime achievement award, as does Nancy, and Jill, and Rebecca, and Natan. Rebecca, it is your ear and guidance that transform my sermons through the repeated drafts, it is your wise counsel that helps me process the more trying moments of the day-to-day rabbinate, it is your ability to stay up incredibly later than you wish to wait for me to come home, or to listen to ideas when I am excited, or watch the shows that everyone else got to watch live and several days before we can simply because they are “our shows” and my job prevented me from being home to watch them. You are often both parents for our kids, and you also have a rather inspiring and demanding job at the Woodruff Art Center. You do it all, certainly so much more than me, and you more than anyone else have made this marriage between rabbi and congregation possible, successful, and healthy. Even though they are rather limited and seem so small in this situation, “thank you.”

Friends, today, you made history, by advancing a model of rabbinic leadership that is uncommon. But, then again, you, the members who comprise this remarkable congregation, are uncommon. I humbly accept the invitation you have bestowed upon me today, and I look forward to our shared and very bright future with excitement. May we continue the paths of our other senior rabbis – Rabbi Dick Lehrman, Rabbi Phil Kranz, Rabbi Ron Segal, and go from this strength to many more to come. As together we say: Amen.

Sat, December 10 2022 16 Kislev 5783