“Figuring Out Retirement” Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus
I retired from my congregation at the end of June. It was my choice to retire at age 61; I wasn’t pushed out or “retired in the hoof’al,” as we say. I have three grandchildren, all of whom live out of town, and I want to spend time with them while they still appreciate it. I also realized, especially after I completed my term as CCAR president, that I was growing bored with the routine of the congregation I served for 26 years. I decided that I’d rather quit at the top of my game than stick around getting stale and jaded until they said, “When is she going to retire already?”
So what next? Because my father became ill in March, I didn’t make any big plans so that I could be part of the family team giving him the attention my siblings and I knew that he needed. He died in October at age 93. I am grateful that I had time to spend with him in his last months. I am also aware that his illness and death caused (allowed?) me to postpone any major decisions about what to do in retirement. Sitting around eating bonbons and watching soaps are not exactly my style. A few offers to teach and write articles came along, but I didn’t really pursue any regular rabbinic activity. I’ve made several trips to Silver Spring and St. Louis to babysit those magnificent grandchildren, and I love having the freedom to do that.
When my mother-in-law mentioned that she would like to go to the NAORRR convention, she asked if I was planning to go. Me? With all those old folks? But she really wanted to go, and I was concerned about her traveling alone at age 88. So I decided that I could go as her travel companion, and be the “youth group” at NAORRR.
The National Association Of Retired Reform Rabbis is open to CCAR members aged 60 or over, their spouses and surviving spouses. In fact, spouses and surviving spouses are full members of the organization, involved in the program and governance. Most of the rabbis are fully retired, but some still work full- or part-time. The annual convention is held in January, alternating between the east and west coasts. People go for the fellowship, to see old friends, to study and pray together, to listen to top-notch speakers and teachers, and, as someone said, to tell their stories to those who will listen. This year, David Ellenson was the scholar, and his teaching about Rabbi Leo Baeck was one of the reasons my mother-in-law (Marianne Dreyfus, the granddaughter of Leo Baeck) so much wanted to attend.
Needless to say, I brought down the average age by at least a decade, and was one of only three female rabbis present. Connie Golden (NY ’84) has been attending for several years. The first time she appeared, everyone stared at her husband Jerry, a retired physician, trying to figure out which campus he attended and why they didn’t recognize him. It took awhile for them to realize that she was the rabbi, but since then she has been welcomed warmly and is an active participant. Ann Folb (C ’07), both a rabbi and the widow of a rabbi, attended HUC later in life, after the death of her beloved husband Howard.
Even though I had attended NAORRR in 2010 in my official capacity as CCAR president, this was my first time as an eligible member. I knew dozens of rabbis and spouses, through my 34 years in the CCAR and many years at OSRUI. I even got reacquainted with my Confirmation class teacher (1967!), whom I had not seen in many years. It is a relaxed convention, full of laughter and camaraderie. Most of these rabbis spent their years in the “old” CCAR, where the convention was a time for endless plenary sessions and blustering and competition and one-upsmanship. In contrast to bygone days (and more like the CCAR of today), they have created a friendly mood in NAORRR, devoid of power plays or posturing.
The leadership of NAORRR is concerned that more women rabbis do not attend. They assumed that the barrier was financial – that another convention, on top of CCAR and WRN, was too expensive on a retiree’s budget. I pointed out to them that most of the retired women (we are still a small cohort) do not attend the WRN convention either. (Last year in Memphis, I (NY ’79) was the last one standing at the roll call. None of my senior colleagues, retired or not, were there.) I believe that in due time, as more of our peers retire and our friends and classmates start going to NAORRR, we women will also appear in greater numbers.
So what next for me? I still do not know. I want to write, including telling my story of being one of the early women in the rabbinate. I want to continue working in interfaith dialogue, and I want to do something related to environmental awareness and action, although I do not know what form that will take. For the moment, I am enjoying having some control over my time, and being able to say yes to things that would not have fit into my schedule last year. Stay tuned as I figure it out.
Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is the Rabbi Emerita of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, IL. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, past-president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and a founder and past-president of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.