What I Didn’t Learn in Rabbinic School

by Rabbi Julie Wolkoff

When I was a congregational rabbi, I used to think I should make a list of all the things I didn’t learn in rabbinic school. The list would cover the unexpected, unplanned, “who woulda thunk it” things that popped up in the course of my work. It would include all those events, activities, and comments I was not prepared for, the ones that blindsided me.

Eventually I figured out that no school could prepare you for the unexpected other than the school of experience. And no matter how many stories I heard from friends and colleagues about the things they weren’t prepared for, they never truly prepared me for unusual events when they occurred in my rabbinate.

I don’t worry so much anymore about things I’m not prepared for. I’ve become skilled at taking a deep breath and listening, activities that usually point me in the right direction. I’ve learned to pay attention to how I am feeling and reacting to a situation, taking a mental step back before jumping in. Sometimes all this helps. Other times I’m not so sure.

Last week I was meeting a colleague for coffee. We were both at Starbucks – just not the same Starbucks. As I was waiting, a woman came up to me and asked about what was on my head – my kipah. I answered her question and she followed it with other questions and comments about things in the community that, “as a rabbi you certainly should know about.” It quickly became clear to me that her reality and mine were not the same.

Oh my,” I thought. “I’m wearing a kipah and a name badge that says “Rabbi” in big, bold print. This is like the early days of my rabbinate, when there were few women rabbis and lots of us felt we had to be hyper-aware of how we presented ourselves because our actions would reflect on all women rabbis. My actions in this encounter may give someone, for good or ill, a picture of how rabbis act.”

“I’m in a public place. I feel safe. All I need to do is be a ‘non-anxious presence’ as I learned from the work of Edwin Friedman.”

“Damn. Why did I tell my colleague to meet me at this Starbucks. No one ever notices it and every time I try to meet someone here, they end up at a different Starbucks.”

So I took a deep breath, listened, and politely asked questions. I agreed that this certainly sounded like something I should know more about. And when she gave me her name and spelled it so I could Google her and find out more about her truth, I wrote it down.

Later, after she had gone and I was waiting for my iced tea, a young woman came up and complimented me on how I had handled the situation. She told me that watching the interaction had given her ideas on what to do and how to respond in similar situations.

In retrospect, I realize that in many ways I am now prepared for the unexpected, the unplanned, the “who woulda thunk its” and, yes, the differing realities. My day-to-day work has filled the gaps that no educational program could. Thirty years in the rabbinate provides the experience and the perspective. I no longer feel the need to make a list of the things I didn’t learn in school. Instead my list is one of the unpredictable, unforeseen, surprising encounters that keep my work ever new and constantly stimulating.


Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min, CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts. Find her at: https://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/     Cross Posted from Kol Isha, the WRN Blog

About wallcough

Trying to find beauty and joy in the world around me . I am many things, among them a quilter, a knitter, and an incessant reader. There is not enough time for them all, so I jump in between them as the mood hits me. Professionally - a rabbi; a hospice chaplain.
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