The chaplainbook story

Report from rab school, nine months in.

People often ask me how my rabbinic studies are going. My usual answer is "really well, but really slowly." That often yields me a look of surprise, especially from folks who belong to my synagogue and who've seen me filling in for our rabbi during his sabbatical stints. I can lead services and read from Torah with reasonable facility; surely that means I'm almost done? (Heh.) Nope. I'm near the beginning of this road. Leading services and reading from Torah are a great start, but they don't qualify me for the rabbinate by a long shot.

My program requires me to achieve competency (if not mastery) in a variety of subjects: TaNaKh (the Hebrew Scriptures), exegesis (scriptural commentaries), history (Biblical, Rabbinic, medieval, modern), philosophy and theology and Jewish thought, halakhic literature (Talmud et cetera), hasidut (mysticism), practical rabbinics (pastoral care, spiritual direction, life-cycle rituals, "davvenology" a.k.a. liturgical leadership), liturgy (its history and structure and flow), pedagogy (how to be a good Jewish educator), and world religions. That this sounds like tremendous fun to me is, I think, a sign that I'm on the right path.

Still, I've got my work cut out for me. Because I'm still the executive director of Inkberry, the literary arts nonprofit that I co-founded in 2000, so far I've only been able to take a couple of classes at a time. At this rate, working my way through that grid of requirements is going to take a decade. I plan to be more of a fulltime student in the fall; meanwhile, I'm filling my summer with Jewy goodness.

Here's what's on tap for my summer:

  • 'NaKh Tutorial -- A private tutorial with my rabbi covering three books from the latter two-thirds of the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Scriptures. I feel like I know Torah (a.k.a. the Five Books of Moses) pretty well, but once we move into the Nevi'im (prophets) and the Ketuvim (writings) I'm less well-versed. Time to correct that. We'll be starting with Ruth, using the Jewish Study Bible from Oxford University Press and Marc Zvi Brettler's How to Read the Bible.

  • Reading Reb Zalman -- An Aleph tele-class on the oeuvre of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zaide (grandfather) of Jewish Renewal. This will be co-taught by R' Shaya Isenberg and R' Victor Gross, two members of the Aleph Va'ad (central committee). This class is an elective, not a core requirement, but I think it will be fun. I expect lots of reading, lots of papers, the chance to study some previously-unpublished texts, and hopefully a class visit or two by Reb Z himself. Because it's an Aleph tele-class, it will afford me the opportunity to learn with my Aleph cohort, which is great. Now that I don't connect with my CPE colleagues each week, I need regular reminders that I'm not walking this road alone.

  • Davvenen' Leadership Training Institute -- DLTI is a two-year liturgical leadership training program offered by Aleph, which meets every six months for a week-long retreat of study and learning. I'll begin DLTI in July. I expect to learn the liturgy in a deeper way; new melodies, and how to teach them; the nusach (melody-system) for different times of day and seasons of the year; how to integrate storytelling into my services, and how to give a good d'var; and overall how to make the experience of going to services a genuinely moving, worshipful, and transformative one. This, too, offers me real and in-person community. From all accounts, it's difficult but very worthwhile.

  • Internship in Practical Rabbinics, II -- The second half of Jeff's sabbatical. For two months this summer I'll take the reins of CBI, leading services, reading from and teaching Torah, teaching Hebrew to congregants, ministering to the community in a pastoral way, and providing funeral coverage if that need arises. I'll also handle major holiday observance (Tisha b'Av falls during the summer sabbatical), though this time -- unlike the spring sabbatical -- I won't be responsible for teaching Hebrew school, since our religious-school program goes on summer hiatus.

I'm also officiating at two weddings and helping to lead a bloggers' conference. And did I mention I still have a job? Something tells me I'm really going to need that week-long vacation my husband and I are planning for late August...

So how are my studies going? I'm loving everything I'm doing, and the learning is incredibly fun and gratifying. I also feel a little bit like I'm trying to prepare for a marathon but am only able to jog a few times a week...which is why I'm planning to take a major step back from Inkberry at summer's end in order to focus on my studies.

I remind myself often to enjoy the journey, not just focus on its endpoint. And I appreciate that the Aleph program doesn't guarantee completion in a set amount of time; I'll be done when I've learned what I need to learn. The dojo where I used to study karate, almost a decade ago, had that same policy. We looked down our noses at schools that promised a black belt within some number of months or years. At our school, the black belt was a sign that the practice had become something the student is, not just something the student does, and it would come when the teachers deemed the student was ready. I like that model. It makes sense to me.

But I'd also rather be on the five-year plan than the ten-year one. Summer coursework, here I come.

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