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Let Me Clarify: I’m Not a Rabbi!

Let Me Clarify: I’m Not a Rabbi!

Three congregants during worship services

I am not a rabbi. It seems curious that I would start with those words isn’t it?

In fact, though, it has often been the case that some people think I am, in fact, a rabbi – specifically, the rabbi of the synagogue where I am a member, a religious school teacher, and a volunteer lay leader.

I live in a small town with only one functioning synagogue, and our rabbi flies in from out of state twice a month. In the meantime, lay leaders like me sometimes lead Shabbat services or provide a reading from one of our Torah scrolls.

While I certainly don’t mean to give anyone the impression that I’m a rabbi, it’s happened more than once that, after seeing me lead services at our shul (Yiddish for synagogue), a guest or visitor has assumed I am.

Aside from the fact that I’m sometimes the one standing up there on the bimah (pulpit), why do people confuse me for the rabbi? For starters, I suspect my sartorial choices have something to do with it.

When I lead services, I dress more formally than usual, donning polished shoes, black socks, slacks, and a collared dress shirt. I put on my yarmulke (head-covering) and don my tallis (prayer shawl) the moment I ascend the raised platform and prepare to lead Shabbat services, armed with a Chumash (synagogue Bible), siddur (prayer book), and a printed copy of my sermon.

Quite different from my usual uniform of decent tennis shoes, good jeans, and a collared, short-sleeved shirt, isn’t it?

I dress up because I take seriously the responsibility to lead services and represent my congregation – whether or not I am a member of the clergy. My congregation doesn’t require individuals to wear a head-covering or prayer shawl while leading services or standing on the bimah, but I dress more formally and wear these ritual garments because I feel that they add to the dignity of Shabbat and the Torah service.

Recently, while chatting in the social hall, the rabbi and board president told me how much they appreciate that, without hesitation, I always clarify who the actual the rabbi is and explain that I just fill in on occasion by leading services when she is out of town.

Would I like to explore the rabbinate? Sure! Why don’t I? There are a number of reasons, and I have written at length about the ways I’ve often struggled with ADHD – including the fact that I have not yet been successful in obtaining a college degree, which is one of the first requirements for becoming a rabbi.

In addition, becoming a rabbi requires a massive amount of schooling, training, and time, not to mention the cost of graduate school – and living in Israel for a gap year away from my family would be difficult. It is, however, a requirement of the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, that every rabbinical student spends a year of study in Israel.

I would like to enter rabbinical school and try to become ordained, but it’s not the right career option for me right now – though I’m not ruling it out permanently. The occasional confusion about my role, paired with kind words about my service-leading abilities, serve as encouragement and positive reinforcement, should I someday reconsider the option.

For now, I am instead content to lead my synagogue in other ways, by volunteering my time, reading from the Torah, and, yes, occasionally leading services. I deeply enjoy and value the opportunity to help my congregation in such a meaningful way, but I make sure to clarify that, no, I’m not a rabbi – currently.

Whether you live in a small town a large city, or somewhere in between, you can find a congregation nearby.

Christo A. Chaney converted to Judaism on Sunday, July 30, 2017, the day after his 34th birthday. He is a lay leader & religious school teacher at Congregation Shaareth Israel in Lubbock, TX.

Christo A. Chaney
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