One search string I’ve noticed more than once on the list of terms that brought people to this blog from a search engine: “What to give a rabbi for a gift?”
A donation to the rabbi’s discretionary fund is always a fine thing to do; it’s a gift that allows the rabbi to do something good for others. (Discretionary funds cannot be spent on personal purchases of any sort.)
Here are some other ideas:
Donation to their honor to a charity you know they support
Gift certificate to a bookstore
Gift certificate for the rabbi and spouse to attend a sports or cultural event (Tickets for a particular evening can be tricky – rabbis work many evenings.)
Gift certificate for restaurant
Gift certificate for something you know they enjoy
Gift certificate for something you think they would enjoy with their family
Homemade preserves or baked goods.
A bottle of good kosher wine.
The key to this, as with all gift-giving, is to think about what the person might enjoy. If you know of a particular interest or hobby that your rabbi enjoys, then that will make this an easy choice. Things that they can enjoy with their spouse or family are thoughtful gifts, as time with family is often particularly precious. Something that will provide a small comfort: a free cup of coffee, for example, can be very nice.
You might be surprised that Judaica is not on this list. Many rabbis have all the candlesticks, kippot, tallitot, seder plates, and so on that they can use. The same is true of Jewish-themed ties, earrings, and so on. The exceptions to this are things made by children: if your child colors something for the rabbi, it will be treasured.
“Why can’t Jews get married on Shabbat?” a reader asked me recently. She and her fiancé had made a lot of expensive wedding arrangements, only to discover that very few rabbis will officiate on Shabbat (between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.) Now they are scrambling to find an officiant that will agree to officiate before sundown on a Saturday evening in the summertime.
TRADITION – At weddings, couples do many expensive and inconvenient things to honor tradition. Brides may pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for a dress they will only wear once. Couples mull over the “old, new, borrowed, and blue” custom. People who do not frequent synagogues or churches suddenly need a rabbi or priest. We do these and other things because on one of the biggest days of our lives, tradition matters. And it is Jewish tradition that weddings do not take place on the Sabbath and certain other days.
SHABBAT – Shabbat began at creation: as the story goes in Genesis 1, in six days God worked to make the world, and on the seventh, God rested. One of the traditions of Shabbat is that like God in the creation story, we don’t create new things on that day. What happens at a Jewish wedding is the creation of a new household among the Jewish People. It’s one of the most important events in not only the couple’s lives, but in the life of their Jewish community and the Jewish world. It should have a good start, and for a Sabbath-observant Jew, “breaking” Shabbat is not a good start.
RABBIS – Rabbis become rabbis because they care deeply about Judaism. Shabbat is the holiest day of the Jewish week, and it actually “outranks” nearly all the holidays. It isn’t a judgment on the couple or the family; it is a question of the rabbi’s personal boundaries.
So what is a couple to do?
1. Talk as a couple about what you really want out of this wedding. Is Jewish tradition important to you? If so, get in touch with a rabbi and include them in the process. They will be happy to take you through a process of learning the Jewish traditions for weddings and making educated choices about what you do and don’t want.
2. If you are in the early stages of planning your wedding, talk with your rabbi before you put deposits on the venue and the caterer!
3. If you have already made arrangements that cannot be changed, then it’s more complicated. There are some rabbis who officiate on Shabbat, but you may have to look out of town to find one. If it is actually not all that important to have a rabbi, maybe you have a relative or friend who could officiate. Many states have arrangements for one-day officiants. Any marriage that is recognized by the state is also recognized by the Jewish people.
Please don’t be mad at the rabbis you call who say they won’t officiate on Shabbat. They are exercising their right to observe Judaism according to their beliefs. You are exercising yours as well. You and that rabbi just aren’t a good match. Getting angry or calling them names will not persuade them to do what you want.
Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your life. Take your time figuring out what you really want out of it, and the tone you want to set for the rest of your life together. Your wedding day truly is “the first day in the rest of your life.”
I’m preparing for a big adventure. This week I am traveling to Chicago to attend the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. That’s the organization of Reform Rabbis in North America. I’ll see old friends, we’ll study and pray and tell tall tales, and it will be grand. The night of April 1, I’m going to shave my head.
This is the first time I’ve traveled so far in a long time, and I am a bit nervous about it. You see, my world has gotten rather small in the last few years due to troubles with chronic pain and arthritis. Nowadays, if I want to go farther than a couple of blocks, or if I am going to need to stand in line, I use a scooter. This will be the first time I’ve traveled with it. So there is a lot on my mind: the airports, the airplane, transport from O’Hare to the hotel, the reactions of colleagues when they see me on wheels — it goes on an on. I’m still self-conscious about using this thing. But if I don’t use it, I can’t go. And I am tired of letting my life get smaller; I have work to do!
I had coffee today with a friend who is an old hand at wheelchair travel. He was very encouraging – I might say he even gave me a gentle little kick in the tuchus. It’s easy to hide at home, but there is too much life to be lived, too much Torah for me to live, to give in to that impulse. I’m glad we had coffee, and I’m going to keep him in my heart as I buzz down the hallways of OAK and ORD and down the sidewalks in Chicago.
So wish me luck! Life is about to get really interesting.
I’m sorry I haven’t been posting. I have been engaged with something my spouse once called “Rabbi Camp.” Once a year the Reform rabbis on the Pacific Coast and thereabouts meet in the desert in Southern California. We don’t camp. We stay in a hotel, we eat, we pray, we study, we sleep, we schmooze, and we catch up with old friends. That’s what I’m doing.
The first night here I sat up all night and chatted with my usual roommate here. She’s another rabbi who teaches Intro classes, and we have marathon conversations about all sorts of things. There’s a lot of professional stuff, and also discussions about our dogs.
This morning, at breakfast, I saw a dear friend from my ordination class, and we had a lot of catching up to do, since we hadn’t seen each other in almost six years. She’s back on the West Coast, so she’s here at PARR (Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis). Yay!
We did some text study this morning as a group, and more study sessions later on, along with some plain ol’ schmoozing later. Prayers, of course. And then more connection.
When we are rabbinical students, we’re like puppies in a litter – we live in each other’s laps. Then after five or six years of that, suddenly we are scattered all over the country, some of us even farther than that. And suddenly folks who were part of every single day for years are no longer around. Also, most of us have little time to spend learning with other rabbis. We teach, we officiate, we counsel, we study with our students – but study with other rabbis is very precious.
So this is a special time, getting all “filled up” with new ideas and old friends. I’m not posting much now, but just you watch, lots of good stuff is coming soon. Because I will be renewed!
That said, many people these days don’t find rabbis through the synagogue. Moreover, there is nothing preventing a person from putting “Rabbi” in front of their name and simply setting up a website and some business cards. While there are laws against practicing medicine or law without a license, pretty much anyone can go online and get “ordained” for a fee. There’s also nothing preventing someone from setting up an online “rabbinical school” that requires little of their students.
You may be wondering, why does this matter? If you are looking for someone to stand up front for a ceremony and read a service, maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe then you’re just as well off asking a cousin or a friend – why worry about the title “rabbi” at all? If on the other hand, you want a real rabbi: someone qualified to do premarital counseling, or someone who can be a resource in making Jewish choices, or someone to guide you through a conversion process, then perhaps you will want to choose more carefully.
Particularly where conversion is concerned, the rabbi’s credentials will determine not only how and where you are accepted as a Jew, but how your descendants will be accepted. An ethical rabbi will be honest with you about exactly what conversion with them will mean to other Jews, and they will not charge money for the conversion.
So what is a layperson to do, especially one who is new to the Jewish community? Three things will tell you a lot about any rabbi: ask about their Education, Affiliation, and Experience.
Education. Where did this rabbi study? How many years of study were required? For comparison, I can tell you that Hebrew Union College (the Reform rabbinical school) as well as the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles (both Conservative rabbinical schools) require five years or more of graduate study (meaning, incoming students already have a B.A.). All three require students to live for a year in Israel, studying texts and immersed in the Hebrew language. Their coursework includes not only Jewish text learning, but training in counseling, education, and professional ethics. The Orthodox world has a lot more variety, as does the nondenominational Jewish world, but the same question applies: how many years did you study before you got the title, Rabbi? Were you ordained by a single individual, or by a faculty of learned Jews?
This relates to more than just academics. What was this person willing to invest in becoming a rabbi? How many years, how much inconvenience? It is not only a question of money (although trust me, five years of grad school is expensive) but also a question about dedication to the Jewish People.
Affiliation.To what professional organizations does this rabbi belong? The reason you ask this question is that a rabbi who belongs to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) or the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) or the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) has agreed to maintain certain ethical standards, and is answerable to the association if there are questions about his or her behavior. You can ask if they are members of their local Board of Rabbis, or other professional organizations. The idea is, how connected is this rabbi to colleagues? To whom, if anyone, is this person answerable?
Rabbis who are connected to other rabbis also can tap a deep well of resources for you. As a CCAR member, I can ask a quick question by leaving a message online for other rabbis to chime in. If I am concerned about how best to handle a tricky situation, I can pick up the phone and call a mentor or a more experienced senior rabbi. I participate in continuing education, and my colleagues challenge me to do my best.
Experience. Have they ever served in a congregation? Been a Jewish chaplain? Lived in Israel? Worked with Jewish youth? Done prison chaplaincy? Served the Jewish community overseas? Of course, not every rabbi has done all those things, but by asking you will get a better idea of who this person is, and what depth of experience they will bring to you.
A rabbi who has solid credentials and experience will be glad to answer these questions and proud of the answers. Be wary of anyone who seems to want you to feel bad about asking.
No rabbi is perfect. No rabbi is knowledgeable about everything, and perfectly trained in every respect. We’re fallible human beings. But asking about Education, Affiliation, and Experience can give you a better idea of who this rabbi is than you can get from a nice website or a well written marketing blurb.
I love perusing the Google searches that bring people to my blog, because it tells me what people want to know. Today someone typed, “How much to tip the rabbi.” I’m going to expand that a bit, to include the various ways rabbis are paid for their work.
– If you are a member of a congregation with a full time rabbi, the rabbi’s salary is part of the congregational budget.
– If you are using the services of a rabbi who is employed by a congregation and you are not a member, you may be asked to pay the synagogue for his or her time. That “honorarium” or fee will be mentioned when you set up the service (say, a funeral.)
– If you wish to express your thanks, you can always contribute to the rabbi’s discretionary fund. That money is set aside for charitable purposes (not the rabbi’s car payment). Your rabbi will use it to relieve immediate suffering (for instance, by purchasing “gift cards” to a grocery store for a hungry person) or to support the work of a nonprofit organization.
– Freelance or community rabbis (those not employed by congregations) may or may not perform weddings, baby namings, etc. The way to find out is to ask. Generally they have a set fee for these things, but the exact rate will depend on local custom.
– It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah[a charitable contribution] to celebrate happy occasions, to memorialize the dead, and at holidays. That money might go to a rabbi’s discretionary fund, or to a synagogue fund, or to a nonprofit that serves the needy.
– No respectable rabbi charges for conversion to Judaism. There may be a charge to take an “Intro” class, or to use the community mikveh, but conversion itself is not for sale. If someone quotes you a fee “for conversion” it’s time to look for a different rabbi.
– It is not rude or crass to ask up front about fees. If you cannot afford the fee as quoted, say so. The rabbi may be able to help you access assistance for low-income individuals, especially for a funeral.
This information is geared for the United States. However, the last point holds true everywhere: as Hillel said, the shy will not learn. Ask questions!
There was another one of those messages on my voicemail today:
“Rabbi, I got your name from —–, and here’s the thing, we’re getting married this March 2 and we have already reserved the hotel, we just need a rabbi and —– said you taught her Intro class and were really nice! Can you call me back so we can make arrangements? Oh, and what is your fee?”
My heart sank. I looked at the calendar and sure enough, the date in question is 8 weeks away and Shabbat. I will return the call, and I will be happy for them and friendly. And at the end of the conversation, no matter how friendly I am, they will be unhappy with me and it will just be sad. Because you see, I can’t help this couple.
Here are some tips for making your Jewish wedding plans a success:
1. CALL YOUR RABBI ASAP. Before you book the caterer, before you pick the venue, before you shop for a dress, call your rabbi. If your heart is set on a particular rabbi, the rabbi of your youth, you need to get on his or her calendar. Once something is set for a particular date, it’s hard to move. Rabbis’ calendars fill fast, faster than caterers’.
2. IF YOU DON’T HAVE A RABBI, BUT WANT A JEWISH WEDDING, START LOOKING ASAP. Even if you are not set on one particular rabbi, most rabbis will want to take time to get to know you and do some premarital counseling. This will help them give you a nicer, more personal wedding; it will also help you stay focused on what you are doing. You are not just planning an event, you are planning a major life change. The rabbi can help you prepare for it, and many rabbis won’t officiate without doing so.
3. IF YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL NEEDS OR WANTS, START LOOKING FOR A RABBI NOW. By special needs, I mean if one of you is not Jewish, or if you expect any special family challenges, if one of you is Orthodox and the other Reform, if you have any special desires like “no mention of God” or a wedding that is close upon Shabbat (between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday). Not all rabbis feel that they can officiate at weddings that will create an interfaith household. Only a few rabbis will officiate on Shabbat. And you may need a rabbi with special sensitivity if you have a complicated family situation. In any of these cases, you don’t want to be looking for your rabbi six weeks before the wedding, because you are likely not to find him.
The right rabbi can help you navigate a lot of the other hurdles you will face on the way to the chuppah. She can help you deal with overwrought relatives. He can help you not lose sight of the awesome life change you are making. She can help you with the other details of a Jewish wedding, including understanding what they mean: the chuppah [wedding canopy], the ketubah [wedding contract], and so on.
Even the not-quite-the-right-rabbi can point you to other rabbis who might be a better match for your wedding. The sooner you call us, the more likely we can help you.
I’m sure you have noticed that all my “tips” are really the same one: call the rabbi! Sometimes people delay, especially if they think they are bringing something to the rabbi that he or she won’t like. Don’t worry about that: just call. (Trust me, we’ve heard it all.) If it isn’t going to work out with that rabbi, then you will have time to find the one you need.
If having a rabbi officiate is important to you, call the rabbi first. With the rabbi at your side, you can begin to prepare for your perfect day, and after that, for the rest of your life.