Don’t become a rabbi, I was told — but I am glad I didn’t listen

Rabbi Jonathan Romain reflects on 40 years in the pulpit


One of the most common questions I get asked by schoolchildren when invited to talk to their class is “what made you become a rabbi?”

I know, however, that my answer will usually disappoint them. Some expect to hear about a momentous thunderclap when my future was suddenly revealed to me; others assume I come from a long line of rabbis and went into the family business.

Neither is true. I am the first rabbi in the family. While I cannot pinpoint the exact moment of my decision, it was somewhere between ages 12 to 14 and a gradual realisation that it would be, on a selfish level, something I would enjoy, and, more altruistically, a way of spending my life that might be reasonably useful. The former has certainly proved true and I shall leave it to others to judge the latter.

But what prompted that feeling about the rabbinate? A combination of three great teachers at religion school, which was then reinforced by involvement in the youth movement and the Jewish nurturing it provided.

Initially, I had a naive concept of what being a rabbi involved. I imagined thundering down hellfire and brimstone from the pulpit to a quaking congregation. But even though I quickly learned we Jews did not believe in hellfire and brimstone, I remained committed to the career path.

Still, I was nearly derailed before I had even started. In my late teens, whenever I was visiting a different synagogue, I would chat to the rabbi after the service and ask their advice as to what steps to take in preparation.

It was very disconcerting to be told by several of them: “Don’t do it”. On pressing them as to why, they replied that it was a tough job, long hours and little appreciation.

With the uninformed confidence of youth, I decided I would not give in to such negativity and went ahead anyway.

My next big decision was whether to approach Jews’ College or Leo Baeck College. Though intellectually at home within Reform Judaism, I still had strong emotional ties to my original upbringing in the United Synagogue, as well as family Sephardi roots. Which way to turn?

I decided that I could be more effective as a Reform rabbi, as I would be able to speak the same language as most of my congregants, relate better to the lifestyle and worldview of my members.

But I made one big mistake. I assumed that I would follow the usual path of starting off in a small community, graduate to a medium-sized one, and eventually (if considered worthy) be appointed to a large one.

So, after ordination, off I went to a Jewish backwater called Maidenhead and became the first full-time minister of the 75 households there. I was explicitly told that having me was an experiment, as they had not grown in several decades, had come into some funds thanks to selling off the garden and could only afford to have me for three years.

Forty years later, I am still there. Like a business investing in its first ceo ,having a rabbi made a difference and we now stand at 850 households. Staying put in one place for so long carries both benefits and dangers. The downside is that one can become stale, lose creativity and sink into a rut.

I have tried to avoid that by constantly setting new tasks for myself within the shul, as well as being involved in national causes (reaching out to mixed-faith couples, campaigning to limit faith schools and supporting assisted dying).

The upside is that you become the family rabbi and span the generations. I am doing the baby blessing of parents, whose own baby blessing I did, whose parents I married and whose grandparents I buried. I have shared their joys and their sadnesses, as well as some of the messy bits in between.

The richness of that experience, to my mind, vastly outweighs the pitfalls of remaining in one place for so long. As my current chair put it so elegantly: “Forty years — you don’t get that for murder!”

Of course, this pattern is not for everyone, so I am not advocating it as the ideal way, just as one of many rabbinic options that, given the right circumstances, can work well.

What is beyond doubt is that those original rabbis to whom I spoke were needlessly off-putting. Yes, it is a demanding job, what worthwhile one is not? But it can be enormously rewarding to be a teacher of Jewish history and values and greatly satisfying to be involved in so many people’s lives.

So, a message to my younger self — and anyone else considering the rabbinate — it is a wonderful job for a nice Jewish boy or girl.

Rabbi Romain will celebrate his 40th anniversary at Maidenhead Synagogue on September 1

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