Public Television is airing a program this week entitled Independent Lens. It is tracking the burgeoning careers of young clergy people from a variety of faith traditions. They are all fiercely devoted with enormous enthusiasm. The documentary follows them in both their private and professional lives. They are all balancing so many responsibilities. The program focuses on two young orthodox rabbis. One is passionately committed to social justice. Not only does he challenge injustice in the world but also those in the Orthodox world who commit crimes. Most notably he leads a group of friends from New York to Iowa to challenge the Kosher food industry specifically the agriprocessors plant who were found to violate labor laws and put into question the credibility of the entire kosher food industry. The other rabbi and his spouse have found a job in a small orthodox congregation living above the shul itself. He is shown leading Shabbat and Purim services. It was a beautiful sight to watch the rabbi lead his congregants in dance during the shabbat services welcoming the Sabbath bride.
The clergy all have to face the challenges of making a living in the ministry. Some are single parents and others are facing their past as they make new directions in their lives. No surprise that they are all totally overextended doing so many different things as they bring their joy to the holy work they are called to perform for their faith communities. The money issue is there but it is not about why they have chosen to be clergy.
They are balancing their unbridled commitment with the reality of the congregations they serve. Some segments show them receiving counseling from their placement directors as they look for jobs. They hear things about themselves they need to hear but do not necessarily want to hear. They receive advice and feedback from mock interviews preparing them for the real world.
But the beauty of the program is how the documentary succeeds at showing the humanity of these clergy. They so want to make a difference in the world. Their emotions are very near the surface of their being. They all have an inherent desire to be there for their parishioners. They are looking for community. They want to make a difference in the world. They are prepared to make the sacrifices in their personal lives to fashion a life of service to God and humanity a reality for them.
I loved watching this series. I watched it drawing from their experiences the inspiration to remember what I first felt when I anticipated my own ordination back in 1984. I remember that moment when the rabbi blessed me at ordination. It was one of the greatest days of my life. My family was there and Linda and I headed off to California for my first job. We experienced ups and downs in the rabbinate over the years. Yet we never lost that enthusiasm and the joy to do the work of the rabbinate.
I am realistic not cynical about a life of service in the rabbinate. Watching the documentary I wondered what would happen when these young clergy encounter their first political issue with a board or a conflict with a congregant. How will they manage their families while at the same time giving of themselves to the community? How can they grow and mature in their own time and pace while still meeting their professional obligations? They will make mistakes. They are human. Will their communities understand and be compassionate towards their areas of growth and still show respect for the title of clergy that they have received?
I suppose it all comes down to the calling to the faith. All of the clergy felt that divine voice calling them and they fought through so many personal and professional challenges in their lives. An African American minister said, “All that I have been through with my life and the church, I shouldn’t really be here. But I must continue because I have a calling.” We all have that same sensation regardless of the religious tradition we came from. It is in all of us. This documentary reminded me of the Bible when God calls to the prophets. The prophet says to God, “Heneni” I am here.” The documentary touches something holy inside me. The Pirke Avot Ethics of the Fathers say, “The reward of performing a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.” I still hold fast to that principle today. It is what propels me every day. I just feel blessed despite the wounds and the ups and downs over the years and because of the amazing experiences I have had to walk into the door of my congregation and be the rabbi, the spiritual steward of my sacred congregation.