As I write this, I am winging my way back from California- Camp Ramah in Ojai, California to be exact- and three days of a rabbinic retreat called "Beit Midrash in the Hills." The program was sponsored by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, part of the American Jewish University of Los Angeles, in partnership with the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis, which I currently serve as president. The title of this piece is not entirely accurate; I actually was a member of the faculty. But I taught only one session, and the rest of the time I was a student, along with the twenty or so other participants.
Before saying anything at all about the program, I must say this: I'm not sure a New Yorker- a New York City resident- should be allowed to evaluate the relative worth of a program that takes place in Ojai, California. I love New York. I've lived my whole life either in New York City or on top of it in New Jersey, and no one has to convince me of the riches of city life. There is no place in the world like this city.
There are those moments when California just takes your breath away, especially northern California. Ojai embodies just about every image of California that New Yorkers love to belittle: the slower pace, the quirky quaintness of the town center, the over-abundance of bicycles and hybrid cars, and the gentle manner- dare I say it, the politeness- of the locals. I am obliged to admit that, even for this hardened New Yorker, it was charming. But all of that pales in comparison to the sheer natural beauty of the setting where Ramah in California is. I really don't know how to do it justice in words. It is just stunning. If you've traveled in northern California, you'll know what I mean. It defies simple prose. If your goal is to provide some kind of idyllic setting for dedicating oneself to the study of sacred text and the joy of hevruta– of partnership in study – you are way ahead of the game in Ojai before you even start.
But in truth, I don't mean this article to be an elegy to the wonders of California, though they are many. It really is about rediscovering the joy of sitting at the feet of a teacher and learning.
Rabbis like myself spend an inordinate amount of time teaching, and preparing to teach. That is as it should be, because when all is said and done, the primary function of today's rabbi is to teach, in a wide variety of ways. Obviously, classroom settings with come to mind, with all ages and for all reasons. But preaching a sermon is also teaching, as is writing an article or advocating a cause. We teach by how we live our lives. There are few pieces of the rabbinic endeavor that are not about teaching, and all of them require study in order to make the teaching more authentic, enjoyable and effective.
But most rabbis- unless they make a conscious effort and decide that it is going to be a part of their rabbinate on an ongoing basis- most rabbis don't afford themselves enough of an opportunity to be learners as well as teachers. I have friends and colleagues who do, and I envy them their ability to sequester enough time to make Talmud Torah a central aspect of their rabbinate. But aside from a few efforts at a regular hevruta, I've never been able to sustain that kind of commitment. For whatever reason, I've always allowed the myriad other commitments of my life to get in the way.
And so it is that attending this particular retreat- ostensibly as president of the Rabbinical Assembly- also had the very welcome ancillary benefit of allowing me to spend a few days thoroughly engaged in the study of Torah. It was wonderful! The fact that the teachers were all men and women whom I know and respect as colleagues but have never learned Torah from significantly enhanced the experience, because their Torah was new to me.
I find in my own teaching that if I keep returning to the same favorite books as sources for my inspiration, my teaching becomes stale, and repetitious. So it is with learning as well. It's wonderful to have favorite teachers, but changing them up every once in a while can offer new and challenging perspectives on the same texts. It wasn't just novel to study with different teachers, it was exciting. The learning was actually exciting. It felt like my own personal experience of revelation, with familiar (and sometimes unfamiliar) texts coming alive in new ways. And, of course there was the joy of meeting new colleagues- many of them relatively new to the rabbinate- and new teachers. I left the experience with a newfound appreciation of what my colleagues on the West Coast bring to the "table of Torah," and I am much the richer for it.
So it's back to NYC, and the urban charms of city life. There are no majestic mountains when I look down Queens Boulevard, or Broadway, for that matter. I realize, of course, that what my beloved New York lacks in natural beauty, it more than makes up in culture, energy, and variety. I live here because I love it. But the West Coast does have its charms, and its beauty both physical and spiritual. It was a wonderful few days…