How to Become a Rabbi Without Really Trying
Niles is the author or editor of nine books, including the award-winning Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Forward, and Moment. He has been featured and interviewed in Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Report, The New York Observer, New York Magazine, The Jewish Week, and Beliefnet, as well as on domestic and international television and radio.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I really did have a kind of ah-ha moment. In one million years I would've never, ever thought I would become a rabbi. I grew up in Chicago in a home they had a very strong sense of Jewish identity. It was a kosher home because both of my parents grew up that way. We always had Friday night dinner together but we were big synagogue goers, we belong to a Reconstructionist Indian reformed synagogue so we would never Orthodox, we were always liberal in our approach. So while being proud as a Jew I never really thought in a million years I would become a rabbi.
And senior year in college I had three applications on my desk, one was to go to on for an MFA at the Iowa’s Writers Workshop, the other was for the Peace Corps, and the third was to go on to do a PhD in philosophy, which was my undergraduate degree. So of course I did none of the three, I moved to Cambridge and wrote the Great American novel, which thank God never got published because it was so awful. And it was really during that year when I was living in Cambridge that I read the Bible for the first time in its entirety; I experimented with different kinds of congregations in the Boston area from orthodoxy to secular humanist to try to figure out which was the best fit. I met with rabbis but probably more important than all of that was that two very close friends of mine were living in Cambridge at the same time. One who was in do and had just begun his PhD program in Harvard and the other who was a Jesuit priests, or was training to become a Jesuit priest. He is in Rome now who is studying at the Westin School of theology. So it sounds like a joke, but at night the three of us would get together; a Hindu, a Catholic, and a Jew, you know with a single malt scotch and talk about theology and metaphysics until three in the morning. And it was really during those conversations, forget about the Jewish stuff, and I really realize how much I enjoyed doing this on a very deep level more than anything else. And I didn't really think about the real world life of a congregational rabbi, I didn't really think about the practical ramifications of the decision, but it was really when my priest friend said to me, "Niles, have you ever considered being a rabbi?" But I said, “Well no." And I'd say two weeks later I was already looking at applications for rabbinical schools. So it kind of came out of nowhere and bit me on the butt, but I never really expected it or wanted it because I didn't think I was worthy of it.
Of course now, all of these years later, I realize it's not about worth. We're all flawed and imperfect. It's about commitment and devotion and that's what I needed to have someone help me reveal. Something that was within myself that I wasn't aware of.
Question: What’s the most difficult part of being a rabbi?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: The hardest part about being rabbi is dealing with Jews all the time. But I had a professor -- the Bible calls us the stiff-necked people. Jewish Americans are very smart, very talented, very successful in the main, we have a lot of impact disproportionate to our size and that's a good thing. I'm proud of that. But we can also be a little pushy; they can also be very demanding especially here in New York. I'm a Midwesterner after all. Some of the stereotypes do have some truth to them. But as a professor said to me, "Niles," because I was having some of these issues even in graduate school, he said to me, “Becoming a rabbi doesn't mean you have to like the Jewish people, it just means you have to love them." And I've never forgotten that teaching either. It's like family. Do I like my brother or sister every day of the week? No. But do I love them in a fundamental way all the time? Well, I guess I do. And so I would say that's one of the challenges. The Jewish people are a very tough people, sometimes it feels like herding cats trying to be a rabbi and get my people as excited about their tradition as I am excited about it and inspired by and transformed by it, but when I returned that teaching and I say, you know what? It's not always about liking them but it's about loving them it helps me get through this tough moments. Of course, I have many other moments where I'm filled with warmth and love the people I serve. Sometimes that can be a challenge.
The most difficult aspect of being a rabbi? Dealing with Jewish people.
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