The Next Step on the Jungle Gym

I’m in a goal-setting group with a few friends who are also in helping professions. Last month, we were asked to pursue goals related to the theme of “adventure.” You’ll never guess what I did…

I decided to take a new job, leaving my pulpit of five years.

This is the first time I’ve ever left something that wasn’t naturally coming to an end. I went straight from college to graduate school, and took this job right after ordination. I figured this, too, would be temporary, and surprised myself when, at the end of a three-year-contract, I didn’t want to leave. I loved my community, and I had built a good life for myself. Each year, I developed deeper relationships within my community and more confidence in myself. I liked where I was enough to wait for an opportunity that was worth the risk.

That opportunity came in form of a teaching position at a pluralistic Jewish high school that was eager to add a Reform rabbi to their faculty. I was inspired by the vision of the head of school, and excited by the idea of spending the majority of my workday doing what I love best: teaching Torah and creating meaningful worship experiences, building relationships and empowering the next generation to lead their best Jewish lives.

As excited as I am about this new opportunity, it has been very very difficult to tell my congregation that I am leaving. The letter I sent out arrived at only some houses before a busy weekend at the synagogue, and so the news spread more by word of mouth than I had hoped. I had to tell some people myself, and I was overwhelmed by the emotion of their reactions. But everyone did their best to say, “I’m happy for you, and sad for us.”

The hardest thing has been the people who demand an explanation, not only for my decision to leave the synagogue, but for what they perceive as my decision to “leave the pulpit.”

I did not make a conscious decision to seek out only non-pulpit jobs. I love being a pulpit rabbi. There’s no “but” in that sentence, either. I love guiding individuals and families through the life-cycle, telling stories to the children on Shabbat, and preaching to a packed house on the High Holy Days (though anyone close to me will tell you that I am very unpleasant to be around in the weeks leading up to Tishrei). I don’t even mind that I can’t go anywhere without running into one of my congregants (I ran into one of them at our last WRN Convention in Memphis!). It makes me feel like a local celebrity.

When I first dreamt of becoming a rabbi, I didn’t know there was anything besides congregational work to do. Although I had student placements in Hillel, chaplaincy, and organizational work, my time at HUC-JIR reinforced my desire to work in a synagogue. This was not only because I loved the work, but because, as a woman, I felt it was important for me to break down barriers and confound stereotypes by pursuing a full-time pulpit, first as an assistant, then, eventually, as a solo at a small congregation.

Two experiences at HUC-JIR solidified this conviction. The first was a WRN panel on the New York campus. As I recall, there were four women on the panel, and not one of them was working full time on the pulpit. Some of them weren’t doing rabbinical work at all.

The second was a visit by a prominent first-generation woman rabbi, one who had spent her career doing full-time pulpit work and had choice words for those of us who didn’t: “I worked really hard and made a lot of sacrifices so that you would have these opportunities.” I remember her saying. “And so many of you aren’t taking advantage of them.”

So no one was more surprised than me that a teaching position would be the one opportunity I couldn’t pass up. But I knew that this was a time in my life and career to do something different, and that this job would inspire and challenge me in entirely new ways.

I’ve found ways of reassuring the concerned parties that I will still be a rabbi, regardless of title or location. I tell them that rabbi means “teacher” and that I’ll still be leading tefillah every day. I tell them what excites me about the work I’ll be doing, and that this position will give me a new set of skills and knowledge to bring to whatever community I will ultimately serve, whether that is a pulpit, a school, or something else entirely.

As I prepare to make this huge and unexpected change, I find that I need that reassurance just as much as my congregants do. I’ve found it in many places: from colleagues, friends, family, and even the congregants who know me best. But I also found it in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which I happened to read in the airport on my way back from the interview for this job. She writes:

“Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder….ladders are limiting–people can move up or down, on or off. Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym…Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top.”

Praying for strength, wisdom, and agility as I take this next step.

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7 thoughts on “The Next Step on the Jungle Gym

  1. As one of your congregants, I’m confident you will excel AND be happy in your next job. Keep your balance and hang on tight!
    Happy adventures, dear Leah–
    Lynne

  2. Of course we don’t want you to leave us here in the south. Have you practiced saying Shalom Y’all to everyone at your new school. 🙂 We have found your unique contribution to our congregation just what was needed. You are a caring, very bright woman rabbi with a lot to give others. As Lynne, I know you will do well in your new role. I will miss you and your feminist influence at temple. But of course, I want only the best for you! Lehitroat,
    Laureen

  3. Leah,
    I was so hoping we could steal you away for our congregation! Mazal tov on making an adventurous move. You will be wonderful in all the roles you will play. Also nice to hear that you will be much closet to home. All the best!
    Tobie

  4. This really broadened my idea of what a rabbi is! I loved it and I’m excited for you. Also, as a new Jew who has only experienced my one rabbi who sponsored me through my emotionally intense conversion, I am now slightly panicking at the new idea that she could make a similar choice and be gone at any time! How you rabbis inspire us and work your way into our hearts. 🙂

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