I Am Not You: An Exchange of Letters

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January 1, 2011
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Menachem Creditor & Stuart Kelman

Dear Stuart,

These past almost-four years at Congregation Netivot Shalom have been transformative for me. Thank you for all that you’ve done to help me establish my rabbinate by not publicly nor explicitly helping me establish my rabbinate.

When you gave the shul a year to prepare for your retirement, the first step the community took was not to form a rabbinic search committee. Rather, the community established several focus groups to assess not your career — how you served as rabbi and the roles a newcomer would assume — but rather what would constitute the real needs of a changing community.

While I imagine the community’s preparation for succession might have been a time of nervousness for you — and my arrival as “the new rabbi” might have posed certain challenges — you have not once made me feel like the new rabbi. You graciously and wisely absented yourself from the shul for two months, which gave me a window to establish myself. You refrained from teaching in your sacred home — engaging the work of tzimtzum, or contraction — so that I could create my own space within that sacred place. I’m in love with our community, and I thank you for everything you did (and do) to help it function as fully and passionately as it does. I wonder how you feel about the transitional moments between our tenures. What were your worries? Your hesitant moments? Your reflections?

Kol tuv, Menachem

•••

Menachem,

Starting a letter to you with “Dear” seems much too formal! That is certainly not the kind of relationship we’ve developed. It seems that we’ve built a relationship on trust, open communication, and, most important, humor.

Two years before you arrived, I knew — intellectually and emotionally — that it was time for me to move on and retire. Oddly enough, I made that decision while I was with 60 non-Jewish clergy discussing the nontechnical aspects of retirement at an Alban Institute retreat. I was absolutely certain of my decision. My only concern was that the congregation (not me) would choose a successor who would help our community, Netivot Shalom, evolve to its next developmental stage while also upholding the principles upon which we were founded. They did!

For me, absenting myself for several months (after your arrival until after the chagim), gave you a chance to settle in and me chance to relax, detach, and refuse to be involved. In fact, it may be harder for some congregants to let go than it was for me to do so. You are the rabbi of the congregation and I am still very much a part of the community. This is the tension; our open communication keeps that tension in check. And as the need arises, we’re able to figure out our roles on a case-by-case, person-by-person basis.

So, how did you know when to implement changes in our congregation? And what changes, initially, to make? Would you do it differently with hindsight?

Stu

•••

Hi Stu,

I think you’re correct in suggesting that our transition was more difficult for some of our congregants than it was for either of us. To this day, there are a few members of our shul who, I believe, aren’t comfortable with me, not because of something concrete, but because they miss you. I’ve come to see their experience of loss as something I cannot change. I’ve chosen to simply be with them in our community as I would with anyone who loses something or someone important. I’ll be available to them should they be so inclined.

Communicating with you, touching base to share news, has been strategically important and also has helped build a trusting relationship. It has saved me from many mistakes and helped me reach out when I wouldn’t have even known to otherwise.

I think the most significant change over the past few years was not what I did, but rather that I was not you. I chose this new community because we intuitively clicked. I hold an artifact of this deep connection every Shabbat. You left your copy of A Rabbi’s Manual in my office with your name written on the inside cover. As I was unpacking and placing stickers with my name on some of my books, I came across your manual. I was about to automatically cover your name with a sticker, when I paused and realized I didn’t want to cover you up. I didn’t want to erase your rabbinate as I worked to establish my own. I wrote my name under yours and felt that, as I granted you the respect you deserved, I paved the way for my successor to one day put her or his name under ours.

My tenure has brought our community cultural and stylistic changes. I sought a pulpit position, whereas you morphed into a pulpit rabbi almost accidentally. Our personalities are significantly different. I think I’m more “in front” with the board and with the staff than you chose to be. I’m comfortable with this, but I know that there are some who see my higher public profile and more assertive leadership style as a mistake, especially given your teachings on the role of tzimtzum in leadership.

I’m wondering about your experience three years after retirement, given that the transition wasn’t only mine. How has your rabbinate changed? Have you felt less in touch with the pulse of the community? Does your continuing work in other efforts fill the space in your life that the pulpit once filled?

Menachem

•••

Menachem,

Post-pulpit for me has been wonderful. For sure, there are aspects of pulpit work that I miss, but not enough to return! I now spend time playing jazz (something I couldn’t do as much as I do now) and loving it. We should all have outside hobbies and interests. And I am thoroughly enjoying being a saba, a grandfather. I’ve found fulfilling work in the international chevra kadisha movement and my association with the Gamliel Institute promises to become a revolutionary approach to the continuum of life. There will always be something drawing me to work in the Jewish community.

But what it is that we both do is only part of the question we ought to be discussing. You and I are one example of successful rabbinic “succession.” Is there a larger literature that addresses this passing of one leader to the next? Is “succession” the appropriate word? While several books about difficult rabbinic transitions exist, have the successful stories been told? Our success has been built on more than simply personality and style. What might we learn from models of non-Jewish clergy succession?

I want to close this exchange by asking if you, Menachem, are up to this challenge: Should we, or could we, write a substantial article or book on this subject? And might Sh’ma readers — many of whom have experienced succession in their professional lives — help us think through the pitfalls, the clearings, the road to a successful professional transition?

With every good wish for success,

The Challenger!!!

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Rabbi Menachem Creditor succeeded Rabbi Stuart Kelman as the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. He is also chair of Bay Area Masorti, and international co-chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall. He is currently working on his first book.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom; dean of the Gamliel Institute, a center for study, training, and advocacy concerning Jewish end-of-life practices; and president of Kavod v’Nichum, a Maryland-based organization focused on Jewish funeral, burial, and mourning practices.

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