In a time and place when many in my generation perceive religion and politics as one in the same and often opt out of formal community involvement rather than opt in, why would anyone want to become a rabbi? After all, on Sept. 11, 2001, as I began my final year of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland I found myself asking the same question. I had nearly completed a degree in history and Jewish studies with the thought that I would continue on to rabbinical school. Yet, I found myself wondering if there would be a place for a progressive, culturally committed Jew to become a teacher of Jewish tradition and a translator of Torah.
The decision to go to rabbinical school was not always a clear one. There were inklings of the possibility during my youth, especially during the months I spent at Jewish summer camp and the weekend retreats intended to spark community among Jewish youth. In those places my sense of wonder and awe were awakened. I would sit upon a hill for Shabbat services, watching the sun set over the Pocono Mountains. The notes of the guitar coupled with the liturgy of the prayer book was just the thing to ignite a youthful spirit into offering blessings for the abundance of beauty and nature that surround us.
Those summers sparked my sense of wonder and awe but also taught me the importance of relationships and community built on a sense of values and ethics. My rabbis and teachers taught me the importance of asking good, rich questions and caring about the process of debate and argument, sometimes more so than the outcome. Jewish tradition was gifted to me in a way that celebrated diversity, understood the importance of seeing ourselves as guardians of the earth and one another and cared deeply about tapping into the rhythms of Jewish time and purpose.
The decision to enter into the rabbinate was a tough one. Would I be able to authentically represent Judaism while also taking the creative responsibility of translating tradition meaningfully in every generation in stride? Becoming a rabbi allows me to pay close attention to what it means to cultivate a sense of awe and wonder in others. Instead of being an unintended consequence, my work as a teacher of Jewish tradition allows me to put spiritual growth and community building on the front burner of my daily concerns and efforts. It gives me permission to immerse myself in learning the ways and debates of our tradition so that I can provide others with opportunities to do that same. With it, comes an entire corpus of stories, ideas and ways of living that emphasize the importance of being in relationship to other people, to the community at large and to the earth.
Most importantly, the decision to become a rabbi becomes a model for the secular but committed progressive Jew to find deep and meaningful ways to engage with Judaism and to make it a way of life in a time and place when others might wonder if Jewish tradition can be relevant to the world today.
Rabbi Jessy Gross runs Charm City Tribe, a program of the Jewish Community Center.