To See The Light
By Keith Bloomfield
His old station wagon was so loaded with books and personal possessions that the entire car listed to one side. He was used to it. He tried to right the car by sitting his wife and son in the backseat to counterbalance the heavy load. It didn't work. They were camped out in a nearby motel with the entire family's luggage, while young Rabbi Scott Hirsch went to visit the site of his new pulpit. He remembered what Rabbi Klein told him when he announced that he had a new pulpit.
"What are you apologizing for? This is your chance. This is everything that you've worked for. Everything that I've tried to give you. Think of it as our new pulpit. If you ever have a question - call me. Now what do we tell the congregation?"
Rabbi Hirsch's station wagon slowly rolled into the driveway of Congregation Tifferat Zion and stopped between the house, that would soon be his family's, and the Temple. There were only a handful of cars in the parking lot and the Rabbi worked up his nerve before he had the courage to get out of the car and meet his staff.
The initial greetings went better than he had expected and Celia, the Office Manager, escorted him to his new office and left. Rabbi Hirsch dropped into his worn, but comfortable desk chair. "And so it begins," he thought. "Rabbi Klein had made everything so easy for me. Now I have to do it all on my own."
The President of the Congregation introduced him to the membership that Friday night. He tried some of the things that Rabbi Klein had used to make the service lighter and more exciting. They didn't work. The Congregation sat and stared at him. His wife, in the front row, did not have to look at the Congregation to understand the reception her husband was receiving. She could read it on his face. "I'll know not to do that again." Scott made a mental note to himself and finished the service, conforming to the way he had learned it.
His wife and son joined him at the doors to the Sanctuary as the crowd shuffled out. Some of the membership wished him a Shabbat Shalom as they left. Many did not. "There's always tomorrow morning," he thought. "I have a great sermon. I'll win back the congregation."
He walked, with his family, from their new manse long before the service was scheduled to begin. He had spoken with his wife about what he needed to change to make congregants appreciate him. He stood with his family at the doors to the building to greet each and every member who entered.
The Shabbat morning attendance in no way compared to Friday evening. "Not unusual. Some folks show up on Friday night and some make Shabbat morning their day of attendance." Deep inside, Rabbi Hirsch did not believe a word he was telling himself, but it was certainly too soon to make a decision. There were so many more Temple activities to choose from to win the congregation over. He plunged right into Sunday School. The children and the teachers seemed to like what he was doing. An updated story from the Torah was well received. He met with the Hebrew School classes during the week and taught several adult programs. His reception was positive. "Maybe," he thought, "It was just that initial impression. Maybe I'm reading too much into this. The Congregation needs to get closer to me. I'll give it time."
Scott called his mentor, Rabbi Klein and asked for his counsel. "C'mon Scott. It takes a while to break in a new Congregation. Give it some time. Hang tough. They'll come around!" The call was over all too quickly. He learned nothing, but he agreed to let it run its course. Maybe the problem was not the congregation's. Maybe it was his?
Scott gave it time. In the weeks that followed, attendance at every Temple activity that he was involved in: fell off. They could barely make a minyon, even on Shabbat and the turnout during the week was embarrassing. The religious school attendance dropped off on Sundays and during the week, but only for the classes that he was scheduled to teach. When no one showed up for his adult classes, he canceled the programs.
Rabbi Hirsch knew he was failing. He sat alone in his office on a Thursday evening preparing his sermon for Shabbat when he heard a knock at his door. The door opened just enough so that a head could poke its way into his office.
"Mind of I come in?" said the visitor, easing himself into the office. It was clear to Scott that the stranger was coming in whether he liked it or not. "You don't mind if I sit down," the visitor remarked, pointing at a chair. Rabbi Hirsch had no choice as his visitor gently took a seat.
"I don't think we've met," said the Rabbi, extending his hand.
"At least not formally," replied the visitor, ignoring the Rabbi's outstretched arm. "Most folks just call me Abe."
"Nice to meet you Abe. I'm sure that we've never met before."
"We haven't," he replied brusquely, "but it's time we did."
Rabbi Hirsch sat up in his chair. "Someone I've never met before is going to tell me how to be a Rabbi," he thought.
"Frankly Rabbi," Abe said slowly, "You're a disappointment."
Rabbi Hirsch felt the blood rise up on either side of his neck. "Who is he to tell me how to be a Rabbi? I should throw him out of my office." But he didn't.
"We've had several Rabbis; Rabbi," Abe smiled. "Some of them didn't try very hard to meet the needs of this Congregation. Some of them tried too hard."
Scott leaned forward and crossed his arms on his desk. "Where do you see me?"
"I'm getting to that," Abe said with a raised index finger. "Just give me a moment. I remember your first interview." Scott thought about his first interview with the President of the Temple and his first meeting with the selection committee. Abe certainly was not among them.
"I knew you would be right for us as soon as I met you." Rabbi Hirsch truly didn't remember ever meeting Abe. "You seemed to have everything that our Congregation needed. You were certainly better prepared to be our Rabbi than some of your predecessors. Except for one thing. You cared. . ."
Rabbi Hirsch interrupted his guest. "I do care!" he blurted out. "What's wrong with that?" He was letting his emotions and his frustration come through.
"As I was saying." Abe continued. "You cared; too much about yourself and not enough about your congregation. These people are depending on you and you're failing them, and yourself. The children. The adults. The old timers like me," he chuckled. "We deserve better and we thought we would find it in you."
It was hard for Rabbi Hirsch to admit it, but the spotlight was on him and what he did. He had learned that from Rabbi Klein. Maybe it worked where he came from, but not where he was now.
"I know your contract backwards and forwards. Take the next few months to get your bearings. I know that you can do it. Focus on the congregation. The programs and frills come second." Scott was starting to understand.
"I really thank you for stopping by," said Rabbi Klein, coming out from behind his desk and reaching out to shake Abe's hand.
Abe kept his hands at his side. "It was my pleasure. We'll see what happens. I'll be watching. Right?"
"Right!" said Rabbi Hirsch. "I'll see you soon. Thank you for stopping by."
As Abe started to walk out of the Rabbi's office, he paused and turned to Scott. "I would appreciate it if you didn't mention our little discussion to anyone."
"Not to anyone. OK." The Rabbi nodded and Abe walked out into the hallway.
Scott returned to his desk and slowly leaned back in his chair. "There is so much that I can do to be the person they really want and need."
It was quiet in the Temple. Funny, he never heard the outside door close when Abe left his office. "He probably let it close gently. I wish more people did," thought Scott.
It came neither quickly nor easily, but Rabbi Hirsch took Abe at his word and started to behave like the Rabbi that a shul like Tifferat Zion deserved. His services changed and his classes focused on its members' interests, not his. Hebrew School attendance climbed and the waiting list for new students grew longer than anyone could remember.
Rabbi Hirsch had reinvented Congregation Tifferat Zion, and in the end, he had reinvented himself as well. Every service and event was filled with congregants. Congregants who were anxious to shake his hand and share a problem or a question with their Rabbi. Each time Rabbi Hirsch was on the bimah, he searched the faces in the congregation for Abe's, but he never found him.
It had been a fast and furious year. He had followed Abe Klein's suggestions and since his first fumbling steps, he had shown the congregation, and himself, the kind of Rabbi that he never knew he could be. He had been meeting with congregants since the afternoon. After he had finished teaching two classes and visiting the Hebrew School, he met with a Bar Mitzvah family, a couple who were marrying that Sunday, and he had just taken a call from a congregant whose husband had passed away. He would be speaking with her again that evening. Rabbi Hirsch felt as though his congregants were more like family then simply members of a congregation. Perhaps shortening the distance between them was dangerous, but he had never known the warmth and caring that they had given him despite the way their relationship had started.
He collected a few books and notes and strolled through the empty shul. Passing the Yehrzeit board, he noticed that a group of children had lit nearly every lamp on the plaque. He didn't mind, at least there were children in the building. He returned to the office and searched for a list of congregants whose Yehrzeits were being recognized. The list was short. Only one name appeared. It took only a few minutes to correct the children's mischief. "Abraham Klein," read the plaque. "First President of Tifferat Zion." The Rabbi looked carefully at the date of death. "How could this be?" It was the same day of the year when Abe Klein had visited him in his office and given him the advice that had transformed him and the congregation.
The Rabbi smiled quietly to himself and made certain that the bulb was tight in its socket. He switched off the ceiling light in the alcove where the Yehrzeit wall was displayed and left the building behind him. As he walked toward his home, the bulb glowed brightly, filling the hallway with light. The Rabbi saw it reflected on everything around him. He stopped. "Thank you," he said in the cool night air. "Thank you for helping me to see the light," he whispered and walked toward his new home, never to look back again.
from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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