By Samantha Brody
“You should be a rabbi!”
For the last several years, this has been the immediate response to my Jewish experience. I grew up in my synagogue’s Hebrew School and spent most of my free time bouncing between the sanctuary and the youth lounge. While most people dreaded going to Hebrew School, to me, it was a place where I could see my closest friends. Learning Hebrew, prayers, and Jewish history were all things I had grown to love thanks to summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
Sundays and Tuesdays became my time to shine. I loved my extra “Junior Yad Squad” class, I learned every service for my Bat Mitzvah, and I even came back a few times to lead Pesukei D’zimra, which I had decided was my favorite service. This was all normal for me, and I was rarely singled out by my peers for my interest in Jewish learning. That is, until I got a little bit older.
Every child has his or her “dream job”—whether it is to be an astronaut, a ballerina, or a princess. For years, mine was to be a historian. And then a graphic designer. And then an advertiser, speechwriter, novelist, editor, and educator. Never, though, did I consider becoming a rabbi, and to anyone who pushed the issue, I had an explanation. I was never a great people person. I didn’t want to give extemporaneous divrei Torah. I didn’t like having to always be “on”, and most importantly, I didn’t want to go to school for another decade.
To be fair, I listened once. Despite my deep-seeded passion for Israel, I decided to run for my USY chapter’s Religion/Education VP. I thought I would be good at it; if my comprehensive knowledge of Jewish liturgy was enough to start a career, shouldn’t it be enough to bring a little life to the Jewish practices of my peers?
Well, I could not have been more wrong. While I loved leading Kabbalat Shabbat during youth-led Shabbatot, I didn’t like calling pages. I loved participating in discussions about how Judaism relates to our lives as teenagers, but it was significantly less fun when I had to coax answers out of my friends. Thinking Jewish tradition is interesting and making it interesting are apparently worlds apart, and I entirely lacked the latter skill.
But the comments continued, and family and friends alike continued to insist that I should spend my career in the rabbinate. This made me more and more hesitant to mention studying a daf of Talmud with a friend, wanting to participate in a tikun leil Shavuot, or looking forward to my Jewish Studies classes in school. Rather than encouraging me to contribute to the formal leadership of Conservative Judaism, I felt stunted in my growth as a Jewish young adult.
To secure the future of Conservative Judaism, it’s important to have lay leadership, and even more important to have engaged members. If every Jewishly involved young adult became a rabbi, our movement would be filled with young rabbis delivering divrei Torah to empty congregations. We need to encourage young Conservative teens to be passionate about Judaism…wherever their professional interests may lie.
I see myself and other passionate Jewish teens like me as the future gabbaim, synagogue presidents, and after-school Hebrew teachers. We are the future minyan regulars, the last-minute Torah readers, and the leaders of Jewish families. The rabbinate isn’t the only Jewish professional space! There are hazzanim, educational directors, youth advisors, teachers, nonprofit leaders, activists, and philanthropists. There are kosher restaurant owners, synagogue executive directors, and day school principals. There are endless possibilities for those who want to contribute to the Jewish world through their careers, and everyone has their own path.
Thanks to my years in USY, I discovered that my path toward Jewish professionalism is through Israel education. I taught myself about Israeli culture, studied up for every election season (yes, all three of them), and wrote update after update about every week’s events for two years. I even spent a year experiencing it for myself on Nativ, studying, blogging, and applying everything I learned. I committed myself to teaching my peers about what Israel is and what it means to the Jewish people. I’ve still chosen the path of Jewish professionalism, just not the most traditional one expected of me.
Whether today’s youth are passionate about the Jewish professional world, lay leadership, or are simply looking forward to raising a Jewish family, the Jewish community has to encourage them. A Conservative Judaism where every learned person is a rabbi collapses when one chooses another career path; a Conservative Judaism where people learn for learning’s sake (lishma) is one that thrives.
About the author…
Samantha Brody of Deerfield, Illinois, recently finished her year as a member of Nativ 39 and is just six months removed from her term as USY’s International Israel Affairs Vice President.