Helping to Create New Spiritual Leaders: "You’ve Got This!"

Inside Leadership

Helping to Create New Spiritual Leaders: "You’ve Got This!"

Author Rabbi Billy Dreskin and his mentee Rabbi Jason Fenster smiling with their arms around one another in celebration of Rabbi Fensters ordination

Woodlands Community Temple has been part of the HUC-JIR rabbinic fieldwork program since 1976. I didn’t start it, but I did benefit from it, having served as Woodlands’ intern from 1985-1987. During my time as one of Woodlands’ rabbis, we have welcomed seven interns, plus another nine summer interns, and even two “pre-rabbinic” interns. Some spend a year, most spend two, occasionally three.

We have high expectations for each intern during their time with us. We want them to serve as powerful role models and mentors for our teens. We also want the intern to spend time with our adults hoping that (believe it or not) the intern will be seen like a son or daughter, or grandson or granddaughter, in the affection that congregants feel for them. For us, these are the vital pieces that keep us renewing our involvement in the program.

These rabbinical students bring much knowledge and Jewish experience to the internship. We strive to add to that body of wisdom by inviting the intern to share their knowledge, as well as their passion for Jewish values and Jewish living, their desire to contribute to the strength and integrity of Jewish community, and their idealism and menshlichkeit. For us, these are the special ingredients that make for great rabbis.

We benefit greatly from each intern, and not just by learning from them. They elevate our Shabbat worship, wow our adult and teen classes, and add a welcome presence to any committee meetings they attend. Through it all, our professional staff and temple leadership make themselves available to guide and to debrief so that the experience is as helpful to the intern’s growth as possible.

But here’s what I think is the most important component of every internship. We try to help each student feel welcomed and valued as young “almost rabbis.” Our hope is that, with each hour spent among us, our interns grow in their sense that, once they do become a rabbi, they’ll carry with them a clear sense that they can do this, that they can ably serve the Jewish community as spiritual leader, teacher, and friend.

That’s why we get so excited when one of our interns is ordained, as happened with Rabbi Jason Fenster at Temple Emanu-El in New York City this past May 7th. It was a bit like seeing one of our own children up there. And of course, he is.

It is a holy thing to open one's home to another, to welcome them in, to help them grow, and to nurture their confidence in building and meeting their own future. This is what our synagogue community has tried to do for all of the young people who have spent time with us as interns. To join in such a journey, to reach out to any young person navigating their way in life, to embrace them, guide them for a bit, and mostly just to say, “You've got this” – this is a holy gift. In fact, it’s the gift of a lifetime, for what could be more important or caring than to help a young person feel great about stepping into a future that they love?

We happened to have done this for Rabbi Jason Fenster, for Rabbi Dan Geffen before him, for Rabbi Mara Young before that, and for many, many others. (Here’s a list of all of the extraordinary individuals who have served as interns at Woodlands Community Temple through the years.) Once upon a time, this synagogue did that for me, as well. I remain grateful to this day.

Time, attention, support and affirmation are gifts that any of us can give to anyone anytime we want. When an entire community does that together, you can bet it has a powerful impact. And when it’s over, when the intern leaves us, we miss them but we can’t wait to meet the next one, to welcome them in, and to let them know, again and again, “You’ve got this!”

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Rabbi Billy Dreskin is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, New York. His writings are online at his personal website and at The Jonah Maccabee Foundation.

Rabbi Billy Dreskin
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