The Best Part of My Rabbinic School Experience

It is that time again and I don’t like it!

Time to say goodbye to our interns from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) as they conclude their year-long internship with us. Each will move on to new internship experiences as they prepare for eventual careers as rabbis and educators. So by May’s end, Congregation Or Ami will say l’hitra’ot (“see you later”) to (Mishpacha program Coordinators) Education Intern Laura Siegel and Rabbinic-Education Intern Rebekah Stern, and to Rabbinic Interns Sara Mason-Barkin and Jordana Chernow-Reader. These incredibly talented young Jewish professionals, like their predecessors, have created and developed more curricula and programs at Or Ami than I could ever list here. We will miss them. (You may share your appreciation and well wishes with them through the embedded email links.)

Saying goodbye to each intern is heart-wrenching. We sit together at a coffee shop for an inspiring but bittersweet few hours reflecting upon insights gained and lessons learned. These “closing meetings” also transport me back in time to my six years as a student at HUC-JIR. They remind me about the best part of Rabbinical School: the year spent studying for my Master of Arts in Jewish Education (MAJE) at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education.

The Best Part of My Rabbinic School Experience
The Rabbinic-Education (“Rabb-Ed”) year at HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch was the most transformative part of my rabbinical studies. Like most colleagues who earned an MAJE degrees at RHSOE, I explain to anyone who will listen that of my six years of Rabbinical school (year 1 in Jerusalem, years 2 and 3 in NY, year 4 as Rabb-Ed, years 5 and 6 in LA), the Rabb-Ed year was the most transformational.

My decision 22 years ago to leave my East Coast upbringing after my third year rabbinical studies in New York to travel to the Rhea Hirsch School of Education to study for the MAJE was the most significant, best and long lasting positive decision of my rabbinical career. It provided me with the tools to become the successful rabbi I am today.

The importance of the Rhea Hirsch School goes beyond the fact that the Los Angeles campus has gathered together an amazing Education faculty: past directors Sara Lee and Rabbi Bill Cutter, current director Michael Zeldin, and professors Isa Aron and Rabbi Tali Hyman. Rather, this faculty has created a web of HUC-JIR, communal institutions and Jewish professionals which are tightly interwoven to nurture future Jewish educators and Rabbi-Educators. This Education faculty has been purposely trained to bring together the academic study of Jewish education (research, pedagogy, best practices, etc.) with the mentoring of students toward reflective practice and personal growth. They work extensively and closely with the local clinical faculty (internship mentors) to challenge and guide students to become reflective practitioners.

Everything Was Seamlessly Integrated
During that year, everything seemed so seamlessly integrated. The ideas I was grappling with in readings and class related directly the challenges I was struggling with in my internship which related perfectly with the issues I was facing on my path to become a Jewish professional. That year pushed me farther and made me think more deeply about Judaism and Jewish education, about the synagogue as a system, and about organizational transformation. How did that happen?

Incredible Mentoring
The RHSOE ensures that the clinical faculty (mentors of interns) themselves study and reflect – individually and as a group – upon their roles as mentors and educators. (I have sat on the clinical faculty for 14 years.) The RHSOE clinical faculty consults regularly with the RHSOE Director and with the students’ RHSOE academic advisors to reflect upon the students’ progress and to partner in guiding growth. Thus, as an intern, more than merely “doing my job” at my RHSOE internship (at Temple Ahavat Shalom, Northridge, CA, under the mentorship of Rabbi Barry Lutz), I was guided to grow in this internship as an educator and a rabbi through focused learning and reflective practice. I was encouraged pointedly and directly to examine systematically all aspects of what I was thinking and doing as a student, an intern and a future Jewish professional. Each partner in my growth process – academic advisor, school director, internship mentor – was trained extensively and repeatedly toward the goal of reflective practice.

Thus, the RHSOE has become an integral part of the Jewish community here, uniquely training future leaders, deepening the practice of its alumni, and expecting the commitment to and guiding the continued self-reflection and growth of the internship mentors. At no other time did I receive such intensive mentoring. It has become the model for my own continued professional growth.

Who Benefits Today? My Congregation, My Staff, and Me
My experience at the Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education now serves as the model for how I as a senior rabbi mentor my education and rabbinic interns, my office staff, my faculty and some of my lay leaders. During these past 13 years at Congregation Or Ami, the RHSOE faculty repeatedly has helped me analyze and re-envision our program and structure. Our successes can be directly linked to my RHSOE education and to continued consultation with this amazing faculty.

In the past six years, our young synagogue has earned four of the Union for Reform Judaism’s top five congregational awards – including its Nachshon award for significant steps toward Lifelong Jewish Learning – because of education and mentoring I receive through the RHSOE. These awards, my leadership of this congregation, my three years as chairperson the work of the CCAR Convention Committee, and currently my participation on the CCAR Task Force grappling with interfaith marriage, is informed and deepened by the education and mentoring I received at the RHSOE. My Rabb-Ed year in the RHSOE was the most profoundly transformational part of my Rabbinic training, and continues to have the most significant continued influence on the sacred work I do as a rabbi.

Saying Shalom…
So now, as I say goodbye to our interns and prepare to welcome new ones, I can only hope that we – Congregation Or Ami, the Rhea Hirsch School of Education and me as mentor – provided them with the deeply transformational experience that my year at RHSOE did for me.