So What’s The Whole Story?

Back somewhere around 1996 or ’97 I wrote the story of how I went from being a functional working rabbi to my current “defrocked” state. It was published in The CCAR Journal in 1999. The CCAR is the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the organization of Reform rabbis, of which I am still a member. The following is that article annotated and updated:

Updates and annotations are indented like this. Most recent updates are added January, 2013.

Rabbis Don’t Get Defrocked, but Some are Unsuited

In June, 1999, my ordination class of HUC-JIR ’74 will celebrate its 25 years as rabbis. Many of my classmates will receive honorary degrees in tribute to long illustrious careers. I do not expect to be among them.

HUC-JIR is the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, OH where I studied from 1969-74 and where I was ordained.

I am a rabbinical dropout. I never made a conscious choice to leave the rabbinate. It just sort of happened.

From time to time, The CCAR Journal publishes rabbis’ descriptions of the particular twists and unusual turns in their rabbinical careers: “one individual describes how he became a hospice chaplain, another how she inaugurated a successful outreach program to young couples.” Through these articles, the rest of us learn from their experience and enrich our own rabbinical careers.

The particular twist of my rabbinical career is that it crashed and burned. It is no more.

Most Jews assume that if a rabbi changes careers, it must be because “he couldn’t hack it; he got fired because he didn’t visit the president of the congregation’s wife when she was in the hospital, she was too liberal, he got in some kind of trouble, he wouldn’t perform intermarriages.” Or sometimes our Jews acknowledge the emotional drains the rabbinate places on its members and admit that not everyone is meant for it. But I’ve never heard anyone suggest an explanation for leaving the rabbinate that feels congruent with mine: It just happened.

I did not plan it that way. I had hacked it reasonably well. I led a congregation for nearly 10 years. Though my congregation and I had growing pains together, we never had a huge fight. We created a few minor scuffles because an unwritten rule in the Jewish world says you’ve got to have them. When the dust settled, we both got over them quickly. I never got so frustrated or furious at my congregation that I got anywhere near quitting the whole rabbinical world. I never got fired. It just happened.

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12 Comments so far

Bill…how wonderful to hear from and of you. I just read your blog and was and am touched by it. I have to go to Torah study now, but will reenter to fill you in and hear from you…Brooks

Comment by Brooks Susman 02.04.06 @ 9:12 am

Oy, Bill, those days that you briefly sideswipe when you and I were on the front lines together at Hillel in Detroit. Those were some fast times. Oy Oy Oy! I must admit, I didn’t get you then, but I really do now. Mick Jagger has become SO MAINSTREAM, for God’s sake, he even does the Super Bowl. You would be so proud to see my impression of his “Sympathy for the Devil,” which, parenthetically, I learned from some pimply faced Orthodox kid who learned it from some other kid who learned it from you! I was just so afraid to tell you at the time, and. let’s face it, I had a Board to please.[Is Mick Jewish?…I didn’t think so]. I just wanted to check in and tell you I’m still doing it and now I’m a little looser: you’d love me baby! Pass the…oh, you know what I mean…

Comment by max 02.07.06 @ 12:17 am

Dear Bill, to echo Brooks it is great to catch up with you and your family. I enjoyed your article and it helped me belatedly understand what happened to me at HUC back in the old days. I too am still married to the same person, one son is a Rabbi in Tucson and the other is preparing to be an X-ray tech. As they say on the internet, GLYASDI, Bob

Comment by Robert Sharff 02.12.06 @ 1:35 pm

Dear Bill,
I remember you as very bright and as a mensch. Obviously,both qualties continue to run strongly within you. Rabbis open the way for other folks to move toward wholeness. As you know so thoroughly, some of us do so mostly among Jews, others do so in more diverse settings. You have done both and you continue to do so. Not bad! Toby sends her greetings too.

Comment by Bruce Kahn 04.03.06 @ 6:02 pm

Thanks for writing all this. I am also going through a ‘transition period’ in my life, rabbinic career and much else besides. I find that writing short stories on rabbinic themes is my therapy – the Meaning of Life would be a little too ambitious for me. I am also finding that the way rabbinic careers is not the way we think they might, when we are at rabbinical colleges! One needs to stay flexible, and believe in God, because one cannot – alas – always believe in God’s People.

Comment by Walter Rothschild 06.12.06 @ 7:25 am

Thanks for mentioning Cat-Rabbi and Dog-Rabbi. My wife and I read your autobiography with great interest. You have certainly had a fascinating career. The rabbinate is certainly very difficult. I was hopeless at it. And am eternally grateful to the British University system for rescuing me. I also think your comments on rabbinic training and lack of spirituality are pertinent. I hope the College has adressed these issues, but am out of touch. Best wishes,

Comment by Dan Cohn-Sherbok 08.23.06 @ 7:37 pm

I like the layout of your site. Nice soothing colors to the observant and curious mind. May all be well with you.

Comment by David 02.15.07 @ 1:24 am

Well, you caught me off guard again! So that’s where the integrity comes from – defrocking of the body in exchange for redemption of the spirit. You caught me in your many safety nets as usual. But I was just in the right mood for it — listening to Raggae Klezmer music with my earphones on to drown out all the chaff coming my way lately. You’re really you, and that’s a true rarity.

Comment by Patricia Volz 03.17.07 @ 1:51 am

Thank you so very much for writing this essay. I think it must have taken a lot of courage to lay yourself out there so publicly, to be honest about your pain, and even use the word “failed.” I think many of us Jews use a lot of energy to “save face” and at least make it look to the world like everything that happens in our lives is our own choice, and honest self-disclosure and admission of feelings of failure are so very rare in the liberal rabbinate! (I suspect a LOT of rabbis, even ones with apparently successful careers, have experienced some rejections, and harbor some secret feelings of inadequacy and failure).

I think we have a lot to learn in the Reform community… I have no doubt there are MANY wasted resources… I’m sure we could do a much better job of maximizing the contributions of professionals and lay alike.

I haven’t read MeaningofLife yet, but hope to. So, at least you are still contributing in this way. Again, thanks for sharing this with the world.

Comment by Janice Garfunkel 04.15.10 @ 12:04 pm

When a priest is defrocked, he loses his collar. So when a rabbi is defrocked, does he get back his foreskin?

Comment by Tom "that divorced old man" Sewell 07.11.10 @ 1:48 am

Soon I will be sending in a JVO (Jewish Values Online) response on chakras where I cite your book on Torah & Tantra which indeed I treasure and have found innovative and inspiring… If you send me your regular email I will send a prepublication copy of my response…

Comment by Dr. Natan Ophir 04.03.12 @ 5:14 am

Your story was very movng.You hit the nail on the head when you said that the Jewish faith doesn’t delve into the spirtuality. It is because of that I turned to the Catholic church. There I was introduced to Spiritual Direction. I’ve been going every month. I have been dong this for over 25 years and just had last meeting on Tuesday. I’ve had Priests and Nuns as my directors and no one has ever tried to convert me. I had made it clear i was going
to remain a Jew. But I will say this ; It has allowed me not to be so angry for not being an Orthodox Jew as I was raised.I also went to my psychiatrist and between being able to share my journey with my Dr. and my Spiritual Director it brought me great insite. There is so much more that I could say,but it would take too long. I have had some wonderful experiences because of Spiritual Direction. My faith in God is beyond measure and that is real blessing for me. Tania

Comment by Tania 12.03.15 @ 1:18 am

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