Mar. 26, 2011
In my second year of rabbinical school I served as the student rabbi in a small congregation in the East Bay. I don't think I'll ever forget one part of my first Shabbat there. I was in the sanctuary getting set up when I heard voices in the social hall next door. My parents had arrived and were talking with one of the community's lay leaders. I heard her say, "You're looking for the Rabbi? She's in the sanctuary." Without thinking much about it, I called out, "There aren't any rabbis in here -- just me!"
For the last five years I have served in several different communities -- first as a student rabbi and, in the last couple of years, as a rabbinic intern. In each place the question of how I should be addressed has arisen.
Ever since that Friday night a half-decade ago, I have struggled with the answer to this question. If you've come to meet me in my office here at PTS you'll notice that the nameplate on my office door reflects this confusion -- although, when I first arrived here, I was relieved to hear that the decision had been made for me!
It reads, "Rabbi Rebekah Stern" in large letters and, under that, "Student Rabbinic Intern" in smaller letters.
You see, I am not yet an ordained rabbi, and I have felt uncomfortable over the years answering prematurely to the title that I will have spent six years earning. I believe strongly that a person needs to earn the title "rabbi," and that it shouldn't be tossed around lightly.
In order to become a rabbi my husband and I left our beloved Bay Area and moved first to Jerusalem and then to Los Angeles.
I have studied Bible, history, rabbinic literature, pastoral care, Hebrew, Musar, and homiletics, among other subjects. I have spent my summers as an educator and songleader at camp and as a chaplain in the hospital. I have served in four different synagogues in five years. And on May 15, 2011, the 11Iyar, 5771, I will finally be ordained.
Rabbinic ordination is a ritual that has its roots in the Bible. In the Book of Numbers 27:15-22, Moses asks God to appoint his successor to lead the Israelites into the land of Israel.
God tells Moses that he should "lay his hands upon" Joshua as he stands before Eleazar the priest and the whole Israelite community, and to "invest him with some of Moses' authority."
It is from this first ordination that we get both the ceremony and the name for today's rabbinic ordination.
Smichah, which means "laying of hands," is the word for both the ritual and the document of ordination. To use the word in a sentence: On May 15, I will receive my smichah from the Hebrew Union College.
More precisely however, as with all rabbis, I will receive my smichah from another rabbi. I will be called to the bimah in one of Los Angeles' oldest synagogues, where Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College, will lay his hands on me and speak a blessing as we stand in front of the open ark.
Tradition states that the earliest rabbis were ordained in an unbroken chain that stretched all the way back to the first ordination of Joshua by Moses. And while that is no longer understood to be the case, today's Reform rabbis are also ushered into their new roles by rabbis who themselves were ordained by rabbis of earlier generations. In this way, much like the ritual of the Torah passing between the generations of a family at a bar or bat mitzvah service, new rabbis are symbolically welcomed into the rabbinate by a representative of earlier generations who spent their lives serving Am Yisrael (the People of Israel) in a different time and place.
I know from experience that Jewish ritual has transformative power.
So it is my hope that, after participating in this ceremony, the title of rabbi will sit more comfortably on my shoulders. In the meantime, I deeply appreciate the honor you give me by calling me "rabbi." Know that, even after my ordination, I will continue to work daily to earn the respect and trust that you offer me by allowing me to serve as your rabbi.
And...if you happen to be in Los Angeles the weekend of May 15, I would love to have you witness my ordination!