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A Rabbi’s R&R: So Near, So Far

A Rabbi’s R&R: So Near, So Far

Saturday, the rabbi stayed home.

In December’s newsletter of Woodlands Community Temple, a 400-family Reform congregation in White Plains, Rabbi Billy Dreskin, who has served there as student rabbi, assistant rabbi and, since 1995, as senior rabbi, informed congregants that he was taking a six-month sabbatical, “a gift from you.”
“I’m going to reacquaint myself with my wife and kids,” he wrote. “I will (for all intents and purposes) cease being your rabbi.” No lifecycle events, no counseling “or anything else going on at temple.” The sabbatical’s over, Rabbi Dreskin returned to the pulpit recently (the shul’s cantor and assistant rabbi assumed his duties during his absence), and The Jewish Week asked him about the experience.

Q: It’s not unusual for rabbis — or other mid-career professionals — to take a sabbatical. But not many stay close to home with directions that they will not be “doing temple” for six months. Why did you choose to do your sabbatical this way?

A: The simple answer is that my children were at home. My daughter Katie was finishing up her graduate work at Columbia Teachers College and my son Aiden was finishing his senior year at Ardsley High School. With both of them poised to leave home, I didn’t want to miss out on these last months with them. The second answer: I was in no rush to go anywhere. I’m not a traveler, although we did spend two weeks in Israel in February. Everything I love to do — write, read, make music — is available right at home.

You wrote in the temple bulletin that you were “tired … physically and spiritually.” Are you less tired now?

When the first sabbatical … in 2005 … arrived, I was physically tired. I’d worked as a congregational rabbi for 18 years and needed the break. This time, however, there had been an additional stress. In March 2009, my son Jonah died while away at college. While I was taking care of my congregation, they were very much taking care of me. When this sabbatical arrived, I was more worn-out than ever.

I did not attend Woodlands while I was on sabbatical. I worshiped at other congregations in the area. And I also enjoyed Shabbat at home, which was at the top of my list for religious observance. Rabbis may “observe” Shabbat, but I doubt many of us really get to experience it in the way our congregants do. A Friday night Shabbat meal that lingers until late into the evening? That’s so indescribably sweet, and something I only see during sabbatical.

How did you spend your time during your sabbatical?

I read a lot, something that’s actually very difficult to do during my regular workweek. I had intended to write music, an important hobby, even semi-professional activity. But the sabbatical moved in another direction …

Rabbi Joan Farber invited me to write “Ten Minutes of Torah,” the Reform movement’s weekly online Torah study project, for the Book of Leviticus. Then, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow invited me to contribute a chapter to a book the Central Conference of American Rabbis is preparing on sexuality.

The third project was the creation of The Jonah Maccabee Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to continue some of what Jonah might have done had he lived — this foundation will support organizations and projects that help empower young people to build strong, healthy lives for themselves. Enough infrastructure is in place so that I can continue to manage the foundation (, while I serve my congregants.

Are you a better rabbi now? How has your rabbinate changed?

The goal of the sabbatical was not necessarily to change, but to come back ready to do what I’ve done at Woodlands. I’m re-enthused to pick up where I left off. I’m ready to resume teaching. I’m ready to resume pastoral work. I’m ready to resume partnering with both my professional and volunteer leadership.

Would you recommend this type of sabbatical to other rabbis?

It’s vital that all clergy take time away. We are on-call seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Due to the intensity of the job, the rest of weekly Shabbat is just not enough to keep us strong. Congregations that love and value their rabbis and cantors will want to offer this gift to them. I believe it pays itself back many times over.

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