Why a Reform Rabbi Became an Uber Driver – and What It Taught Him

November 27, 2015Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein

To prepare for the High Holidays this year, I did what any rabbi would do: I went undercover as an Uber driver.

Uber, a ride-sharing app that links passengers with drivers, is changing the way we get from point A to B. Drivers make $2.40 per ride to start, plus 10 cents per mile after that. What better way to leave the comfort of home and get some unique perspective?

Reading the drivers’ forum, I totally empathized with the Uber driver who posted this message:

“It's odd that sitting in an air conditioned car would be so draining, but I'm still in my Uber honeymoon phase and the app is making me lose sleep. It's weird, but the ‘ping’ I receive when someone requests a ride is like a drug – I get an instant endorphin rush every time.”

This was true for me as well. I got nervous before each ride, as each one was different. I never knew what to expect, who I would meet, or where I would go. (Maybe it’s not that different from being a rabbi!)

I received my first tip – $10 – on an $8 fare taking a young man from the train station to his girlfriend’s house. Wow, he was in a good mood! I was floating. My only other tip was $8 on a $20 fare. I’m sure it was no accident that I made a total of $18 in tips – a nice Jewish number that equates to the word chai, meaning life. The bills are now framed in my office.

In this unique engagement between strangers, I confess, sometimes I played a high school gym teacher, a businessman between jobs, or just a guy trying to find himself. Once I was even a retired minor league baseball player. I was from Glencoe or Lake Forest, Toledo or Miami Beach. The identities were endless.

But for the several passengers who really probed, I was, in fact, just a rabbi learning about Uber, hoping to write and reflect on the experience. During the 40 rides I gave, I kept a log of the unique stories my passengers shared from the back of my car.

Some people wanted to talk, others didn’t. Some wanted to be “friends” and get to know me. Some didn’t want me to say a word; I was just their chauffeur.

I drove a young man who shuttles between his parents’ homes, alternating which divorced parent he stays with each night.

I drove Luis and his family (including his grandma, who had never used Uber before) on the day of the Air and Water Show – not a fun day to drive around, even at 1.4x surge pricing.

I turned off my meter early for Liza, the pediatric oncologist from Nashville in town for cancer research meetings.

I had a blast with the three incoming Northwestern Law students (or so they said. They thought I was a minor league baseball player!) I can’t wait to see what kind of lawyers they turn out to be.

When I met Carl from New York, I gave him several suggestions on where to attend High Holiday services in New York – certainly not the usual recommendation from your Uber driver.

I talked with Anna from Macedonia, who works two jobs to make money. She has been in America for two months, loves it, and only uses Uber when it rains.

The ads say drivers can earn up to $90 an hour, but I earned just over $11, not counting gas and insurance, for the 25 hours I was online. I wound up doing slightly more than 40 trips and earning $335.05, which will be donated to charity. In the 20 percent they took off the top, Uber, a $10 billion company that operates in more than 300 cities, received $87 dollars from my efforts, while the city of Chicago received $40 to help fight its budget woes.

The good news is that I now have a 4.8 out of a possible five-star rating. (I wish I knew my “rabbi rating” at shul!) Uber offers a $200 referral bonus for every new driver, so if you’re interested…

In venturing out on our own, we all have new encounters and experiences in so many unique and wonderful places. If we’re lucky, we gain new wisdom and insight. Sometimes, we can’t have those experiences until we’re willing to leave familiar places and journey forward into the unknown.

The book of Genesis is filled with many of our ancestors, including Abraham and Jacob, looking to find their true selves. Even without Uber, they traveled forward into new discovery, as do we. I continue to learn from my Uber experience, helping me understand that we can encounter a sacred piece of our own humanity – even in the front seat of a 2014 Grand Cherokee.

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I'm a self-proclaimed book worm. Since I could read, my default setting has been to research anything new at the library before implementing it. However, adulthood has taught me that some of the best lessons are learned after acting and truly living, which is why Rabbi Yanklowitz's perspective so resonates with me. Even so, I always start new adventures by studying.