By Rabbi Beth Kalisch
Last week, I had to say goodbye to my congregation.
It wasn’t unexpected or sudden. There was no bitterness, no sense of abandonment. When I came to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue three years ago to serve as their Assistant Rabbi – my first pulpit after being ordained by HUC-JIR – the offer was for a 2-3 year position. They designed my position to be a short-term, rotating assistantship that would prepare me for rabbinic leadership in other contexts. I knew the position was short-term by design, and so I spent part of the past year making plans for the coming year. As goodbyes go, it was definitely the easy, gentle kind.
There’s something so bittersweet, so surreal, about saying goodbye to people you have not only grown to know, not only grown to love, but who have also allowed you to be present at some of the most sacred and intimate moments of their lives. How do you say goodbye to someone whose mother you buried, someone you held on a cold windy day at the cemetery? How do you say goodbye to a girl who studied with you for months leading up to her bat mitzvah, or a teen who called you up during some tough times in college? How do you say goodbye to a committee chair who’s put hours of work into a project you thought up together but that still isn’t finished, or to a couple you counseled and stood with under the chuppah as they began their married life together? The relationships we develop as rabbis – the relationships that are the backbone of what it means to be a rabbi, that strengthen our community and that are the reason most of us went into the rabbinate in the first place – are not the kind of relationships that lend themselves to easy goodbyes.
And yet, we have to learn to say goodbye. Not because I’ll never see my congregants again – whether it’s bumping into each other in this small Jewish world, or keeping in touch on Facebook, I know I will see so many of them again, whether next week or years from now. And I’m very grateful for that.
But I need to make sure they have room in their hearts to embrace their next Assistant Rabbi as fully as they embraced me. And I need to make sure that the flames of Jewish connection that I was privileged to help kindle and tend during my time as their rabbi continue to burn brightly long after I am gone – that will be the true test of my leadership as a rabbi. The Hebrew term for clergy is klei kodesh, sacred vessels, which I take to mean, in part, that I help to bring the Holy into people’s lives. But I am only a vessel for that connection, not the connection itself.
And at the same time, even as I say goodbye to them, they will always be with me, too. In the Torah portion of my last Shabbat with my congregation, B’ha’alotcha, Moses acknowledges that spreading awareness of God’s presence is not a one-way street from leaders to the community. “U-mi yitein kol am Adonai nevi’im!” he exclaims, “Would that all the Eternal’s people were prophets!” The blessing of rabbinic life is that Moses’s wish comes true in so many moments. My congregants have so often been my prophets, showing me God’s presence and revealing to me God’s will in so many situations when I might never have recognized it otherwise.
They were my prophets each Shabbat, as I watched the spirit of God pass through them as they prayed. They were my prophets in our classes together, from the youngest ones in our early childhood center to my devoted adult b’nai mitzvah students, as I watched the spirit of God fill them with Torah. They were my prophets when they comforted a loved one after a death – it was through their arms that God comforted the bereaved. They were my prophets when they dragged themselves out of bed early to volunteer at our Shabbat morning food pantry, and when they challenged me with the very toughest questions. And when a prophet speaks, her words resound beyond that moment. Her words are not forgotten.
Saying goodbye means that I will no longer be leading their congregation, and they will no longer be my congregants. But in another sense, I hope I will always be their rabbi. And wherever I travel, they will always be my prophets.
Rabbi Beth Kalisch served for three years as the Assistant/Associate Rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. Starting in July, she will be serving as the Adjunct Rabbi at Central Synagogue, also in Manhattan.