The Part-Time Dual-Role Rabbi: Secular and Spiritual Entwining

If I’m a Jewish trendsetter, it’s at least partly by accident and, because “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9), the trend that I am setting is a rabbinic “Back to the Future.”

I am North America’s only pulpit rabbi simultaneously maintaining a full-time public oath of office.  I serve full-time in the New York Judiciary, and part-time as rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY).  Judicial ethics rules generally bar me from fundraising and politics, and specifically bar me from engaging publicly about Mideast matters that most inspire “tribal” affiliation.

So how can a 21st century pulpit rabbi succeed if he can’t fundraise, can’t pull Judaism’s tribal heartstrings, and doesn’t serve full-time?  Very well, it seems. My synagogue is growing, Shabbat and adult education attendance are high, internal community cohesion is strong and growing, and congregants and visitors report coming away feeling touched and sometimes even transformed by their experiences.

Increasingly I understand my community’s successes flow from a perhaps counter-intuitive approach to rabbinic identity and service that force the spiritual over all else.  My experience as a part-time dual-role rabbi offers lessons for a rabbinate whose calling demands more focus on spiritual experience than money, tribalism and administration.  In turn, this experience validates the propositions of Megatrends and presses them somewhat beyond their initial forms.

Jewish life too often forgets a key truth: today’s prevailing rabbinate is a relatively new construct, not fixed in stone and certainly not descended from Sinai.  The rabbinate’s broad public evolution from function to calling to profession happened only two centuries ago – barely a blink in Jewish time.  In their days, Hillel was a woodchopper; Yochanan ben Zakkai was a businessman; Huna was a farmer who raised cattle; Chisda and Pappa were brewers; Rashi was a vintner; Rambam was a physician.  When the Talmud’s rabbis went “out into the market to see how the people are accustomed to act” (B.T. Berakhot 45a; B.T. Eruvin 14b), they immersed themselves in the community’s daily routines with regular jobs, sometimes struggling to make ends meet.  At least in these respects, the rabbis positioned themselves among – not above – the people and communities they served.

In hindsight, this dynamic seems no accident.  Part-time clergy service is so qualitatively different in ways that, I am coming to believe, are demonstrably healthier for Jewish life and that resonate with the propositions of Megatrends.  

That a part-time rabbinate might more “successfully” serve Jewish community sounds counter-intuitive to many in modern institutional Judaism.  To be fair, this intuition has pastoral legs: part-time status accords limited time for keiruv (connection and engagement).  In like fashion, judicial ethics strictures on what I can and can’t do also may seem like a straitjacket, if the standard for a successful pulpit rabbi is engagement with the “tribalism” of past-decade affiliation and identity dynamics.

In reality, however, I’ve come to discover that the part-time nature of my role and the judicial restrictions on my rabbinate each is a focusing device for my rabbinate, and that together they frame a far more spiritual and engaging rabbinate than the stereotypical pulpit rabbinate.

As a part-time rabbi, I must get to the “point” efficiently: there’s no time to fall down the endless rabbit holes of administration, and most everyone knows (or quickly learns) that ethically I can’t fundraise.  What’s left to do as a pulpit rabbi? To me, what’s left are the three pillars on which the “world” (Jewish community) stands: Torah, prayer and acts of lovingkindness (M. Avot 1:2) – not administration, not the politics of tribalism, not fundraising, not stroking egos.  Clergy colleagues hear this and express a mix of shock, incredulity and jealousy: a rabbi whose job is to be a rabbi?  Wow, what a concept!

With the freedom of my part-time, dual-role “straitjacket” (that actually is quite liberating), I’ve found that experience is the beacon, fulcrum, glue and guts of Jewish life.  On the “wisdom” axis, I can speak the language of contemporary culture wholly outside the spectrum and strictures of tribal identity.  I’m freer to weave Torah, Hasidut, Talmud and cousin traditions to help illustrate, differentiate and light a known and felt Jewish path.  I can speak the language of “deep ecumenism” (not just tolerance but deep engagement), on wholly Jewish terms, in ways that honor the spiritual experience of a diverse community (and community of communities), for I too live in that diverse community (and I represent it in my judicial role).  As a result, often I hear, “I didn’t know that Judaism could be like that.” Congregants become learners, teachers and ambassadors for an alive Judaism whose covenantal core is collective experience.

This covenantal core drives all that we do, and all that I aspire to be as rabbi and fellow seeker.  As a fellow traveler “in the marketplace” with my congregants, I can’t preach about social justice from the safe convenience of my rabbinic perch: I’m busy with a “non-Jewish job,” like so many others in my community.  So, when I engage in acts of social justice as a cornerstone of Jewish life, I do so from where we are together – busy, caring and often distracted. It helps that my day job is in the justice arena: as a “symbolic exemplar” against my will, I represent justice and inspire others to put tikkun olam first.

This social justice message threads through synagogue life.  Every service speaks it somehow (e.g. “What we say here is irrelevant if we don’t do it there: it’s Aleinu, on us, to make these words real”).  Social justice is a core covenant of our community creed.  Volunteer opportunities sometimes attract more volunteers than we can accommodate.  This year, the synagogue Board – always strapped for funds – donated fully 10% of its annual budget to a nearby church that lost its roof in a storm.  

A communitarian feel arises in response.  It helps that the synagogue is based on an island in the vast sea of New York City, literally adjacent to the sea of Long Island Sound.  Islands – even urban ones – tend to arouse an “island feel” of community cohesion, informality and closeness. But it’s more. The fact of part-time clergy means, as Megatrends identifies, that the congregation itself must fulfill some functions that past decades devolved to “professional Jews.”  Administration, fundraising, tikkun olam, some pastoral care, and some service leadership, all must arise from the community (with clergy support and training, but still from them).  Put simply, my part-time role means that I can’t be my community’s “professional Jew,” and this message of empowerment also wends its way through community life.

A further benefit of the part-time rabbi is its potency to diminish the dangers of charismatic leadership.  I’ve seen too many communities that define a successful rabbi as one whose charisma shapes a sense of belonging and connection.  Charisma and positive transference have their place, but a rabbi who relies on charisma puts the community at risk if/when he or she leaves.  Even more, charismatics tends to conflate clergy relationships with community itself. Part-time service cuts against charismatic dangers in ways that uplift resilient community building and empowerment.

The fourth proposition of Megatrends – sacred purpose (kedusha) – follows from the other three, and from something more.  My part-time rabbinic role isn’t a profession: I already have one of those.  By design and identity, my part-time rabbinate locates itself as a calling amidst holiness – sometimes very inconveniently so, and thus all the more so.  I’m there for holiness – not for a paycheck and not because I’m a professional Jew. And as for me, so for people I serve. And because I must focus on the spiritual over tribalism and administration, experiences of transcendence and purpose are all I can do.

The teacher of some of my teachers, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, famously quipped that it’s okay for a synagogue to be a business, so long as we know what business we’re really in.  Perhaps by accident, my “back to the future” part-time dual-role rabbinate accords me the great blessing and freedom to immerse in the spiritual business we’re in. Along the way, I’m learning that this spiritual/covenantal approach is what more and more people most crave in their own lives as Jews, seekers and citizens in a changing world.


Rabbi David Evan Markus serves as rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY), rabbinics faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion (New York); spiritual direction faculty and past Board Co-Chair at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal; and senior builder at Bayit (a spiritual innovation start-up). In his parallel career in government service, he presides in the New York Judiciary as North America’s only pulpit rabbi simultaneously to maintain a full-time oath of office.

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