My Rabbinic School Personal Statement
There isn’t a lot I choose to hold back on my blog, but I am an ex-New Yorker and I am a Jew. (Although, since I became a Jew in Chicago, perhaps surprisingly I am not a New York Jew.) So in this case, I didn’t want to jinx myself, either, by putting this out there too soon.
This is the personal statement I submitted with my rabbinic school application. In May, a week after submitting my application, I was informally informed that I was admitted. On Monday, I sat down with Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, president of the school, for the second time since January, and he made it perfectly clear that a.) I was going, b.) I was going, and c.) furthermore, I was going. Not to worry about perceived obstacles (doors are very apparently being opened for me), I’m expected and highly desired to have my butt in a seat in September, and our mutual courtship of each other–rabbinic school and potential student–is Adonai, not accident. (As well as several other amazing things that at the moment his ability to see in my is greater than my own.)
So as I now begin to let that finally sink in, search for appropriately flexible employment, and continue to drown myself in modern and biblical Hebrew, Jewish history, and other preparatory subjects to help ensure I don’t drop dead on day one, here is what I wrote in my personal statement. I drew some of it from my earlier writing on my experience as a Jew-by-Choice, as well as from things I’ve blogged regarding what I see as the limitations of contemporary denominational rabbinic training.
My path is a different one. I’ll be studying at Hebrew Seminary, formerly Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf, in north-suburban Skokie. The program’s original intent was to train rabbis specifically to be of service to deaf Jews wherever they may be, either in deaf Jewish communities or as members of majority hearing communities. In recent years, the school has enlarged its focus to embrace rabbinic training for service to all types of Jews including deaf Jews.
It is a non-denominational program drawing on wisdom from all streams of Judaism. It is heavily text based with a high expectation of Hebrew fluency. It embraces religiously mixed families. And it is a 45-minute transit ride from my Chicago apartment. That last part is actually pretty significant. No, you actually don’t need to leave Chicago–one of the most heavily Jewish areas in the country–in order to attend a non-Orthodox rabbinic program.
So, you know. Holy crap. I’m a rabbinic student.
A wise woman once said to me, “The inherent nature of Jewish tradition is to wrestle with the status quo, not to be the status quo.” That woman was Marcey Rosenbaum and I have a feeling it’s something she learned at Hebrew Seminary. Much like Marcey, I’m approaching rabbinic school midlife. I had to chuckle the first time I read through the application form. What were my honors in college? What have I done since then? You know what? It’s been quite a life that led me here. I don’t think that makes me in any way unique. It’s quite a life that leads all of us wherever we end up. Here’s how I ended up sitting at my desk in the final hours before Shabbat writing this statement.
My Family and Religion of Origin
After my conversion to Judaism, I began to describe myself as “An observant Reform Jewish Chicagoan born to unobservant Roman Catholic New Yorkers.” I was born and raised in Queens, New York, not far from Kennedy Airport. My family of origin was never particularly close. My brother and sister, both a generation older, had a different father and when he died, they became lifelong substance abusers (a thing which ultimately killed my sister in her fifties.) I never knew my birth father. He died in Santa Ana, California, shortly before I learned of his existence and began looking for him in the 1990s.
My mother, raising me on her own, tried to shield me from the drama of our family by sending me to parochial school. Throughout six years of Roman Catholic education that my mother could barely afford, my clearest memory is sitting in religion class knowing that I did not share the same beliefs as everyone else around me, and that I never would. I will never forget the sense I had as a child that miracles are actually everywhere, but virgin birth is not one of them. I was angry at God for putting me in my tumultuous family. But I didn’t need a priest as a go between. I told God that directly, and often.
Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York and Holiness
I never once thought God didn’t love me for being gay. (My mother told me when I came out to her at the age of 16, “This is okay. I still love you. Just don’t turn out like your brother and sister.”) The same year I tested into the Bronx High School of Science, and there I found other brainy, nerdy, insecure gay teens just like me.
Through my new friendships, I eventually became a steering committee member of the first, and at the time largest, peer-run gay youth rap group in the United States, Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York (GLYNY), a position I held until I aged out of the group at 21. Facilitating three hours of weekly Saturday discussions among a group of more than 100 teens yearning for validation and acceptance taught me a lot about how we should and shouldn’t treat each other on this planet. In hindsight, I realize that Saturday became a holy day in my life long before I became a Jew.
GLYNY was also the time in my life when I realized I was searching for God. I couldn’t say the “G” word in public yet without feeling a twinge of discomfort, and I knew that I wouldn’t find what I was seeking in Christianity. By my teenage years I was well aware I simply wasn’t born a Christian. I spent a lot of time reading through works on eastern spiritual traditions–mostly ways of getting to God and community without having to make a public declaration that you were looking for either one. And that agnostic in-between zone is where I let it lay for the next twenty years of my life.
My Education and Urban Planning Career
I’ve been a city boy my entire life. I used to draw trains and buses while I was sitting in front of the TV watching Sesame Street in the early 1970s. I commuted to junior high and high school on the subway. The only two cities in which I’ve lived (New York City and Chicago), don’t require a car to get around, and at the age of 42 I still don’t know how to drive one. I started college in 1990 with the intention to go on to grad school and study urban planning, and that’s exactly what I did–entirely at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Even as an undergrad, my studies and practical work centered around urban public outreach and urban politics. I graduated cum laude.
When I finished grad school, I was given the choice of a doctoral fellowship in planning at Rutgers University in New Jersey or what was at the time my dream job–joining the staff of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the Metropolitan Planning Authority/NYC Transit Riders Council (PCAC) as staff transportation planner. I eventually became the organization’s associate director and spent four years advocating on behalf of the needs of rank-and-file New York transit riders. It was ethical work and I loved it.
How I Became a Chicagoan
The year after 9/11, my hometown changed for me. I found the security state that New York City was turning into very unnerving. It was hard for me to make sense of seeing National Guard rifleman patrolling Grand Central Terminal and NYPD tactical teams armed with automatic weapons stationed in the middle of Times Square. But what bothered me most was the lack of public discourse about the changes. It reminded me of the message of the Christianity of my parochial school years– “This is for your own good, so don’t question it.”
I had also just begun a new job as a community planner at a privately held engineering firm. For a year, I was paid to keep silent as I watched the firm’s owners send their clients inflated bills for work that had never been done. It was unethical work and I hated it. I didn’t yet know that what I now identify as God was leading me to finally grow up. Like everyone else, I had heard many stories of people needing to leave their place of birth in order to become the people they were meant to be. At the time of course, I knew nothing about Parashat Lech Lecha. But like Abraham, I never saw the change coming.
A friend had moved to Chicago and I knew I needed a break from New York, and from my life. I spent a weekend in the city–my first in several years–and something struck a chord in me. I came back every two weeks for three months until I was almost out of money, and then I spent a weekend at Disneyland in California trying to decide what to do. While I was there, an old PCAC colleague who had moved to Washington D.C. and become a Buddhist told me over the phone, “New York will always be there, but if you don’t leave you’ll never know what could have been.” Two weeks later I was in Chicago looking for an apartment.
My Time in the New York Diaspora
After ten years in Chicago, I’ve never regretted the move. The city reminded me of the sense of community I had been seeking since my teenage years, and which I felt slowly dying in my hometown after 9/11. At first I thought it was the laid-back friendliness of the city that drew me here (versus what a friend once called the “aggressive ambivalence” of New York.) I changed careers and spent several years doing research and communications work, full-time and as a consultant.
I also started a blog to diary my experiences as an ex-New Yorker in Chicago. [Ed. note: this one!] I’ve written my blog for eight years, and from time to time I’ve used it to weigh in on civic issues. Several times my blog has generated local (and once, national) news coverage of issues that sometimes go unremarked upon by people who grew up in the Chicago area. If there’s one thing I brought with me from NYC, it’s my fearlessness in speaking my mind. Over the years, writing my blog has helped me come to see the importance that I place on everyone having a say in the decisions that affect their lives–and on helping people get to the point where they find the bravery inside to speak up. (In modesty I share that I regularly receive email from around the world from people thanking me for my writing, and for inspiring them to be outspoken, as well.)
Writing about my life, my blog also taught me that my exit from New York had as much to do with running away from as running towards something. I could not find a way to engage with the changes I saw in my hometown. But until I left New York, I had no idea just how hard being an adult could be. Moving to Chicago, I was faced with all-new challenges on top of the inner limitations I had brought along with me. Carving a new career niche for myself while managing to pay my bills was hard enough. Doing it while being diagnosed with ADHD–I use years of learned time- and task-management techniques to stay focused, and entering recovery for codependence–after my childhood spent in an substance-abusive household, took things to an unexpected level for me.
It all gave myself no choice but to engage directly with my city and with my life. My first few years in Chicago were a struggle, but I persisted in seeking a connection with something greater. With encouragement from my Washington friend, I began learning about Buddhism and engaging in Buddhist meditation, and although I never formally joined a sangha, I identified as Buddhist for several years in my thirties. But things still didn’t feel right.
Not a Reform Jew, Not an Anything Jew, Just A Jew
In August 2010, shortly before I turned 40, my recovery and my Buddhism brought me to the point in my life I know now that the previous 39 years had been leading up to. Through my recovery work, I reached a place where I yearned to be able to share my lifelong growing experience of a power greater than myself publicly. I knew that could not happen in the anonymity of the rooms, and I also knew that could not happen within the context of my Deity-agnostic Buddhism.
That month, I finally realized that from parochial school through Buddhism, all along I had been spiritually homeless. I remember sobbing for an hour in my bedroom and wondering where it was I actually belonged. At my beit din nine months later, I shared the story of how, that afternoon, I got on the Brown Line, pulled out my Android phone, and asked for guidance. I was headed from downtown Chicago to Lincoln Square to blog at Starbucks. I began Googling the religious traditions of people I have known in my life. Very quickly, I began reading about Judaism.
As I told my beit din, it took a long time for me to begin to walk down the stairs from the ‘L’ when I arrived at my destination. I had spent most of the trip reading about Judaism and finding reflected back at me everything I’ve ever felt, or yearned for, or simply known about my relationship with God and with the people with whom I share the planet. I could say it was a difficult realization, that I had doubts along the way, or that it was a struggle to discover my inner Judaism. That would probably be more believable than saying that I knew in an instant who I was when I got off an ‘L’ train, although that is how Hashem finally found me. But the real shock was all of my Jewish friends from New York City–which in retrospect I realized was virtually all of my friends from New York City–telling me that they had waited my whole life for me to figure out something they had always known about me.
I get that you want me to tell you about why Judaism is important to me. You’ve asked about my connection with observance and ritual, how Judaism lives through me. I think you have the question backwards. You should ask me how I live through Judaism. To me, Judaism is both spiritual and practical. It was meaning discovered bit by bit in moments of “doing Jewish to learn Jewish” during my conversion journey, and is continuing moments of insight and inspiration arrived at through living Jewishly in the two years since then, which together taught me that exploring and adopting one mitzvah does, in fact, lead to another and another.
Judaism creates a wholeness in my life in many ways. First and foremost, it is a spiritual vocabulary for me that helps and guides me to express what I feel about God, justice, and fairness, and an ethical user’s guide for helping me make the decisions that affect my life. If offers me a body of prayer that helps me feel grounded and rooted in ancient tradition, yet allows me to express myself and gives me permission to actively engage with God and with my faith–and most importantly to doubt and to question without guilt or fear.
I have been affiliated with Emanuel Congregation in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood for most of the past three years. Throughout that time, I have lived a life informed by the Reform Jewish principles of ethics, fairness, and an open mind about the nature of the commandments. However, I’ve always found myself in the deeper end of the mitzvah pool, so my level of observance, voluntary though it may be in a Reform sense, often reminds me that I am a Jew first and a Reform Jew second. (There were, of course, no denominations standing before God at Sinai.)
I have tried to create as many opportunities as possible for Judaism to inform my day-to-day life and to allow me to express my sense of awe and gratitude for my life and for Creation. I attend Shabbat services regularly on Friday evenings and often on Saturday mornings. Last year, my partner, Ryan, and I moved to the block where our synagogue is located to make Shabbat services easier to get to without driving or carrying. I daven three times a day or as close to it as I can manage, in the morning with tefillin and a rescued tallit from a Jewish family that no longer continues. I recite brachot before eating or drinking. I study Hebrew and do my best to understand the liturgy and the Torah without transliteration.
Every Sabbath I bake (and take) challah, do kiddush, and and sit down to dinner with Ryan. Together at home we observe the rich calendar of Jewish holidays, often hosting friends and neighbors for holiday meals. As you might expect, I blog regularly and frankly about my Jewish life and experiences. My Jewish blog posts have often been carried by national Jewish websites including the Reform Judaism blog, Jewcy.com, and InterfathFamily.com. Through my Jewish blog posts, I am blessed to have made many Jewish friends around the world with whom to learn and to debate differences of Jewish opinion (including an incredibly candid haredi student in Mea She’arim who shares my interest in Disney parks, and an equally thoughtful Orthodox mom living across the Green Line who shares my belief in a Jewish people that includes all types of Jews.)
I wear a kippah at all times. (How could I not? Since my last name is Doyle, without one on my head, being introduced by name to someone for the first time would instantly erase a Jew from the world.) And each year on the Hebrew anniversary of my conversion, I return to mikveh to reiterate to God my commitment to Klal Yisrael.
I do none of this out of a sense of obligation. The best I can say is that I pray and observe Jewish ritual in the manner that I do because I cannot do otherwise. It is my connection with Creation and humanity, with my jewish heritage and the generations that came before me, and ultimately with life. Judaism is in my life because Judaism is life to me. I joined the Jewish people because I fell in love with something that I never knew that I’d always been. From day one the sense in me has been of wanting to dive as deeply into Jewish teaching and tradition as I can and never come up for air.
As I told my rabbi, Michael Zedek, the day he told me I was ready to go to mikveh, in response to being asked what more I thought I needed to learn about Judaism, there is a lifetime to learn. At the time, I told him I had already chosen to engage in that lifetime of learning, so it made no sense not to continue it as a Jew. That’s what I’ve done over the past two years since mikveh–I’ve lived through my Judaism to engage with the world, and to learn. That includes learning and re-learning to be humble every day, often in spite of myself.
I Don’t Ever Want to Expect to Be the Most Important Person in the Room
More than anything, my Jewish life is a struggle. Over the past three years I’ve come to realize that’s how I know I’m doing it right. My style of observance is not in keeping with the norm of my congregation. Although I belong to a Reform synagogue, I do not always agree with the policy decisions of the board, much less the policy decisions of the Union for Reform Judaism–or any single denominational body. I do my best in my daily activities to help, in the words of Rabbi Daniel Bogard [Ed. note: And, of course originally, Isaac Luria], “heal the broken shards of Creation”. But that doesn’t mean I place the goals of peace and mutual understanding before the goals of justice and fairness. I have never been that kind of a fan of the status quo. I much prefer to wrestle with it.
Am I fluent in Hebrew? Not yet. Am I well-versed in Torah? Not yet. But these things will come.
You ask about my commitment to serving the deaf Jewish community. It doesn’t seem like an exceptional question to me. A rabbi must be competent in several languages–Biblical, Rabbinic, and Modern Hebrew, and Aramaic, besides the one they brought with them. Why shouldn’t the list of required linguistic competencies include the sign language appropriate to the nation or community in which a rabbi intends to serve? As a Jew-by-choice, I was not raised under the assumption that deaf Jews are unable to be fully included in Jewish community, nor do I find it persuasive that we must abide by halacha that limits deaf Jews’ participation in communal life simply because the last Sanhedrin capable of changing the law was dissolved 1,655 years ago. I think a Judaism unable to find a way within the halacha to include and uphold human rights–or that holds only those rights recognized in Biblical or Rabbinic times are valid today–is not a living Judaism.
Rabbi Zedek has made a point of saying that rabbis often fall into the trap of thinking that they are the most important person in the room–or even expecting to be so. It’s an interesting observation for me. There are so many rabbinic models–in theory and in person–to learn from. From them, I have an idea of the rabbi I want to be. I want never to expect to be the most important person in the room. I want never to forget that it is a wide and wonderful Klal Yisrael, and that my approach to Judaism is not the only valid approach. I want always to remember that ruach comes in many forms, and that if I’m not aware of the way those who seek out my guidance best connect with the Ephemeral, then I’m not doing my job. I want to have the courage to cede leadership to others the moment I know that I don’t feel inspired anymore.
But Why Do I Want to Be a Rabbi in the First Place?
Still, there are many other things I could spend the rest of my life doing. Of the many things I’ve been told in response to voicing my desire to join the rabbinate, most often from Jewish clergy:
- Judaism doesn’t need another rabbi, what we really need are more congregants who know how to lead services;
- We have too many rabbis, you could always be a Jewish educator instead;
- Why would you want to take on so much debt when you’ll never find a job?;
- Even denominational programs can’t place graduates in jobs these days;
- Denominational programs turn down so many people because they have to protect the existing pulpit jobs for rabbis who are already working;
- I’m not happy where I am, I don’t know if I’ll be able to find another pulpit job, and I can’t tell you how many fellow students of mine are unemployed or working in jobs that have nothing to do with their training;
- I can’t tell you not to do it, I can only tell you what the dangers are that you’re going to face; and
- I think you’d make a wonderful rabbi.
I happen to agree with the last bullet point. As for all the others, who said my life was easy now? Or more to the point, should be in the first place? I’m not approaching rabbinic school to fix my problems. I’m approaching rabbinic school because I embrace them. Judaism is about living life, not avoiding it. Why should the life of a newly graduated or mid-career job-seeking rabbi be any different?
Although my partner and I may never have children, Jewish continuity is important to me, as well. After half a life behind me not lived Jewishly, I feel a duty to use whatever may be remaining in front of me to make up for lost time. I feel an inexorable desire to help other Jews to embrace their Judaism more fully, and to inspire potential members of our people to begin their own Jewish journeys. To use Jewish teachings to help Jews and non-Jews find within themselves the courage to speak out, live out, and be who they are.
Yes, I could do that as a Jewish educator. In point of fact, I do that now as a Jewish blogger. And I have no way to be certain to the core of my being that becoming a rabbi is the absolutely right decision for me. I only know that every time I think I have a choice not to pursue the rabbinate, a still, small voice leads me back to the idea. And every time I tell myself that still, small voice is full of baloney, I turn around and choose to pursue the idea, anyway.
Six months ago, when I originally met with Rabbi Benay Lappe to discuss applying to Hebrew Seminary, she suggested I give myself a break, follow Rabbi Lionel Blue’s lead, and simply let the answer of why I want to go to rabbinic school find me in rabbinic school. I am just mystical enough to believe that the answer will find me there.
Judaism Must Include Those Who Are Not Yet Jews
And then there is Ryan, who is not yet Jewish. Two years ago, he found so much inspiration in my Jewish journey that he decided to begin his own. At the moment, that journey is on hold in an official sense while he seeks a rabbi with whom he feels comfortable enough with to continue formal study. He is quite Jewishly knowledgeable, together we keep a Jewish home, and long ago he began to self-identify as a Jew. I love him and share my life with him, and I make no apologies for his timeline.
I did not apply to HUC-JIR because of their restriction on accepting rabbinic students in relationships with non-Jews. I happen not to consider intermarriage to threaten the extinction of the Jewish people any more than I consider mere survival to be the best we as Jews can hope to achieve from our existence on this planet. But I do believe that telling rabbinic students that their partners make them unworthy candidates for the rabbinate is a good way to make the Jewish community smaller–by alienating, by extension, the many non-Jewish partners and family members whom we should instead be including under our communal tent. For if we don’t include them in love and understanding as non-Jews first, how can we ever hope that they will ever say “yes” when we invite them to join the Jewish people?
And Rabbis Must Help Build Communities
Finally, why am I applying to Hebrew Seminary? Because the program is rigorous, rooted in original text, and mindful of the breadth and depth of Jewish tradition. Because I’ve been guided there. Because I found Rabbi Lappe’s Talmud class which I audited in October immense fun. Because I found Rabbi Goldhamer’s open-mindedness remarkable when we spoke in January. Because Marcey Rosenbaum would be disappointed in me if I did not follow through.
And perhaps most of all, because Hebrew Seminary is a small community. Given the inestimable ways I would personally learn, grow, and improve by attending Hebrew Seminary, what I possibly have to give back cannot compare. Yet everyone I’ve spoken with at the school has shared with me the wish that the program had a larger community of students. If a rabbi’s central task is to serve the Jewish community, as a rabbinical student I think I should be helping to build that community every step of the way, too. That’s not easily possible attending a large, ponderous, legacy rabbinic school. Because of Hebrew Seminary’s size, together with its curriculum together, the program is my first and only choice.
So this is who I am, how I live, and what I aspire to. I hope you found meaning in it. It was extraordinarily meaningful to me to have the opportunity to share it with you.
Michael Benami Doyle