Retired rabbis face the test of reinvention
Voluntarily or not, clergy find challenges in letting go of pulpit
October 2, 2013
Back in the 1970s, when he was teaching homiletics — the art of sermonizing — at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Azriel Fellner instructed his students to “find yourself a hobby. Your avocation might very well turn into a vocation. Seminaries should prepare budding rabbis for the eventuality of losing their jobs sometime in the future. You never know.”
Some 40 years later, the situation confronted Rabbi Fellner himself. Following the accidental death of his 32-year-old daughter Tamar in 2003, Fellner retired from the pulpit at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, a post he held for 18 years.
“Being the rabbi of a large congregation, I did not have the opportunity to grieve the way I should have,” said Fellner, who lives a short walk away from the synagogue. When he returned to his pulpit for Rosh Hashana services that year he “began to rethink my position at the synagogue, and it was shortly thereafter I began to realize that I just had to leave. That particular part of my life was over.”
A decade later Fellner, 74, officiates at occasional funerals and weddings. He has worked as a rabbi on Passover cruise ships and as a narrator of 40 audio books, and he is preparing to deliver a series of film lectures on a ship headed from New York to the Bahamas in January.
In some ways, Fellner was better prepared vocationally than some of his colleagues, those who either were forced to leave pulpits earlier than they planned or struggled to reinvent themselves when they no longer led congregations.
As CEO of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, Steven Fox of Montclair counsels hundreds of rabbis about employment issues.
He said it can be “devastating” for some rabbis “who are surprised when their congregations want them to retire early. I find it very sad and unfortunate, but I do not think it happens that often, compared to the overall number of retirements we have every year.”
The CCAR offers assistance to retired and unemployed rabbis, including career counseling and financial advice.
“If I hear about a situation where a rabbi is surprised, I think in many ways the lay leadership has not lived up to its obligations of communication, honest assessments, and difficult conversations,” said Fox. “I believe rabbis and community leaders should be in constant communication about all issues.”
Joel Paul of Highland Park, who runs a “headhunter” service for nonprofit organizations, provides career advice to rabbis and corporate executives “in retirement and immediately pre-retirement.” He advises younger rabbis to plan ahead.
“People who were superstars in their day — very distinguished, capable rabbis — must face the fact that their careers are soon coming to an end. That can be very painful,” said Paul. “I give them the same advice I give younger rabbis: It is very important to have more than one career path. There is a need for more than one education. They could go for an MBA or go to law school or get a master’s in social work along with ordination. It is important to do that at a young age because if you try to start that when you turn 65 or 70, you are not going to get the right response.”
After 30 years on the pulpit at Orthodox Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, Rabbi Yaakov Luban has no intention of retiring.
Luban, 63, who doubles as executive rabbinic coordinator at the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Division, said “a rabbi who has spent his whole life teaching, generally, when he retires, he will immerse himself in Torah study. The rabbis I know have not gone into other lines of work. They generally retire in their 70s and they don’t start over. Some of them leave they pulpit when they are younger because they find it too emotionally taxing.”
‘Failing’ at retirement
Sally Priesand was the first woman to be ordained by a seminary, back in 1972. When she retired voluntarily in 2006 at the age of 60 after 25 years at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, Priesand had intended to spend her days at the avocation she loved, abstract watercolor painting. “But I totally failed retirement,” she said.
Although she intends to “back away a little,” she currently serves on local and national clergy advisory committees of Planned Parenthood and the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. She helped launch the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold, and is president of Interfaith Neighbors, a 25-year-old organization in Keyport through which people in 90 religious congregations volunteer to do service on behalf of the poor, the young, and the elderly.
On a few occasions since her retirement, Priesand has presided at weddings for people “who grew up in my temple and I did their bar or bat mitzva. But I do not do any life-cycle events — especially not funerals — and I have been so busy I don’t have time to miss being a rabbi,” she said.
It was Priesand who inspired Amy Small to become a rabbi.
“I was a teenager in junior high school and I was very interested in Judaism,” Small recalled recently. “I loved the Jewish people and the synagogue, and as soon as I heard about Sally I thought, ‘I’m going to do that.’”
Small, 55, has been a Reconstructionist rabbi for 26 years and readily acknowledges that a major part of her identity “is wrapped up in the rabbinate. I think that is the case for most rabbis.”
Small parted company earlier this year with Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit.
But, she said, “I am still a rabbi. Once you’re a rabbi you’re always a rabbi. It is wrapped up in your identity: in your status, in the way you look at the world, the way other people look at you, and how you perceive everything you do. It is wrapped up in all of it.
“I am still going to be a rabbi but I am using my rabbinate differently.”
Small has been active with the Reconstructionist movement on a national level and has been an activist for Mideast peace. As she sets about creating a new career path, she sees herself “trying to help Jews find a path that is connected to our Jewish heritage and the Jewish people in ways that work for them.
“It is not as though there is some loss when you are no longer in the pulpit, like you are no longer a rabbi,” she said. The important thing to consider is: “What is the way you are going to impact the world and help people?”
Offering advice to rabbis, Fellner said, “If you are going to survive you have to create your own way. You have to do your own thing and attach your talents to people who want your talents.”