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The Making of an American Rabbi

Eli Libenson being congratulated by his father

The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City is the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism. I was a student there from 1967 to 1972. They were memorable years.

I came to the seminary not knowing much about Conservative Judaism. I knew it had a very positive approach to tradition and so did I. I liked the Jewish holidays, I liked the Jewish customs. What I didn't know was that although the traditions and the customs are very lovely, Conservative Judaism sees itself as a movement based primarily on Jewish law. I really hadn't known that. I barely knew that there was a difference between tradition and law. I learned very quickly!

The thing that made the greatest impression on me was an unintended (or was it intended?) consequence of the fact that all my teachers were observant Jews – they took Jewish law seriously and conducted their lives accordingly. It made no difference whether they were professors of Talmud, Bible, Jewish History, Jewish Literature, the Hebrew Language or Practical Rabbinics – they were all observant Jews. It was this fact, more than any other, that influenced me to become observant. I looked up to them and admired them; I wanted to be like them.

Although there was one proscribed course of study for all rabbinical students, we understood early on that we would soon have to make a life-defining decision: would we become academicians of Jewish studies or would we become congregational rabbis.

The decision was not a difficult one for me. I understood quite early that academic life was not for me. It was the custom of the seminary in those days for professors to invite students to their homes from time to time for a Sabbath meal. It was a chance to meet informally. On one such occasion, I asked the professor what his plans were for Saturday night.

"Saturday night?" he responded. "Why, I go back to the library to work of course."

I thought to myself – imagine being in New York City on a Saturday night and spending it in the library. But that's the life of a scholar. In our Talmud class, taught by Rabbi Israel Francus, one of my classmates once jokingly asked, since the next day was Rashi's birthday, if we could have the day off.

"I'll tell you," Rabbi Francus replied. "Do some research. If you find that Rashi took the day off from studying on his birthday then you can have the day off too. But I think you'll discover that he worked twice as hard on that day."

Rabbi Philip Alstat was our spiritual mentor. It was his job to guide and advise us on a one-to-one basis whenever needed. But Rabbi Alstat, as every industrious worker is wont to do, expanded the parameters of his work. He took it upon himself to also monitor our activities during our free time. For example, if he came upon us watching a sporting event on TV in the dormitory recreational room, he would utter the two words for which he became well known: Bitul Torah. This translates as: "You are wasting your time when you should be poring over the Holy Books." No, the academic life was definitely not for me. 

ewish Theological Seminary of America.  Photo: Jim Henderson-Wikipedia

Rabbi Simon Greenberg was Professor of Practical Rabbinics and Homiletics at the seminary. An outstanding congregational rabbi at Har Zion Temple in Philadelphia, he was called to share his practical wisdom with us. Homiletics is the art of preaching and he had much to teach us."A rabbi who doesn't use Roget's Thesaurus in preparing a sermon or writing an article has not prepared sufficiently'', he would say. I follow his advice to this day. Rabbi Greenberg taught us the proper structure of a sermon: begin with a quote from the weekly Torah portion; then continue with a rabbinic insight on that quote from the Midrash; and finally apply this to a current topic. A sermon should both inform and move its listeners. If the rabbi does not feel challenged and broadened by his own words, then the sermon is probably hackneyed and trite. We would deliver our sermons in class in front of our classmates. They and Rabbi Greenberg would then offer their constructive criticism.

But some lessons need to be learned in the field. From time to time, we students would be called upon to fill in for an ailing or absent rabbi. My first such call came on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, the Sabbath following Tisha B'Av. It was in 1968, not long after the Six Day War. I had an idea: I would speak on "Jerusalem of Gold," both the song and the golden tiara in the shape of the walls of Jerusalem that Rabbi Akiva lovingly gave to his wife, Rachel. The sermon would be both educational and moving, I thought. My sermon, I recall, was 13 double-spaced pages. I poured my heart and soul into it. It was, I thought, a learned and inspirational piece. Following services, at the Kiddush, I expected to be warmly praised for a job well done, but not one person came up to me. I couldn't understand. Had I read the sermon rather than only refer to it (Rabbi Greenberg: "Maintain eye contact.")? Had it been too scholarly (Rabbi Greenberg: "It needs to be understood.")? Finally, one elderly gentleman did approach me. "Rabbi," he said, though I was just a student rabbi, "In your sermon you said 'Jerusalem,' you should have said 'Yerushalayim."' I returned to the seminary a deflated young man.

The seminary would also send us out to High Holiday pulpits. These would usually be very small congregations that did not have a rabbi all year long, but required one for the High Holidays. If we were successful, the congregation would ask us back the following year. I was the High Holiday rabbi for a small North Carolina community for three years in a row.

On what does a rabbi speak on such occasions? Of course, he tries to inspire the congregants to greater Jewish observance. And that's exactly what I did. Following services I did usually receive a warm reception from the congregants. One woman in particular would come up to me and tell me how inspired she was, and that she had decided to become more observant. This happened every year, but I understood that she had remained more or less the same. Her intentions were good – she really was receptive to the religious message. But it's one thing to be moved, and another to act. I thought to myself that I was like a cigarette lighter that has run out of fluid – I got the spark but I didn't get the flame.

Upon my ordination, I became the rabbi of a small, warm congregation in Plainview, New York. I had the privilege of serving that congregation for thirteen years before coming on aliyah in 1984. But that's a different story, one I hope to tell another day. 

On his ordination in June 1972, Eli Libenson with his wife Suzy


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Thursday, 18 July 2024

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