Your Jewish Journey Starts Here.

Fiftieth Birthday Reflections

Rabbi Ranon Teller

January 20, 2018


At the age of 10, I was living in Southfield, Michigan. My father was an Assistant Rabbi at Sha’arei Zedek. My mother was a Hillel Director at the local college. I was attending a Modern Orthodox day school. I was riding my bike with no hands with my neighborhood friends and my sisters. We would play Rain on the Roof until it got dark, when my mother would call us home for dinner. She would force us to watch a ballet on PBS, and listen to records of Peter, Paul and Mary, and Shlomo Carlebach. My father would host USY meetings and programs at our house with the synagogue staff, the teen leaders, and the young adult advisors. My parents would send us kids up to our beds, but we’d all lie awake listening to the bursts of laughter from the family room downstairs. We were rabbi’s kids. We ran through the tunnels behind the bima, we tagged along on trips to Israel and weekend retreats and conventions. We were living in two worlds, at an Orthodox day school and in a Conservative community. My father finished his PhD in Education, left the pulpit for education, and we shifted to a fully Orthodox lifestyle.

At the age of 20, I was back in America after spending 18 months in yeshiva post-graduation from Skokie Yeshiva High School. We all went to Israel for a yeshiva gap year after graduation. I spent the first six months at a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Bayit v’Gan, a lovely neighborhood in Jerusalem. After the first six months, I wanted more. I wanted more intensity, more spirituality, and more depth. I had visited some friends who were at a black-hat, haredi yeshiva, and the intensity was palpable. The learning was deep and the religiosity was...intense. So, I switched to Toras Moshe in Me’ah She’arim for the next twelve months of learning, davenning, and immersion. There were a few weeks when I was completely in the zone – studying gemara morning, noon and night, davenning, learning, davenning, and learning. I was intimately connecting with our legacy of Torah and Talmud and rabbinic text and Jewish learning, and I was soaring in the heavens – swimming the sea of Talmud. At 20, I was back in America, attending Yeshiva University, and decompressing from my Israel experience. But, I couldn’t find the intensity of spiritualty I was seeking and I also couldn’t find my educational interests while taking Macroeconomics and Chemistry. It was time to get off the bus and start a new journey.

At the age of 30, I completed my winding road through college and the first years of working in my field as a television writer. I graduated from Columbia College in Chicago with a degree in Television Writing, worked for a few years as a writer in downtown Chicago on a Sunday morning talk show, “Good Morning Chicago, with Your Host Wanda Wells”. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue the Hollywood Dream. Then, I responded to a stronger calling, and I moved to Jerusalem to pursue my relationship with Vicki. All the while, my Jewish life lay dormant in the background. But, there were signs along the way. I remember sitting the front porch of one of my Chicago apartments, dreaming with a friend about creating a davenning experience that would just be pure joy without all the perceptions of restriction and coercion. I learned to play guitar and I became a songleader at a Solomon Schechter school. They sent me to a songleader retreat with Jeff Klepper and Debbie Freidman. I had my first experience with intense, meaningful, spiritual Progressive Judaism. Back in Israel, I found some work writing and editing scripts, when I was offered a job as an Educator Guide for NFTY summer teen tours. The offer included a six-month crash course in basic Jewish education to train a cadre of tour guides to travel with the buses. The course in education was amazing and the summer job was even better. As tour guides for teens, we had to get to the essence of each site quickly and creatively. Our guiding had to be simple and engaging, thorough and relevant. We were taking this group of willing participants on a journey through Israel and a spiritual journey to discover their own Jewish neshama. It was incredible. My eyes were opening to the possibility of discovering my calling as a Jewish educator. At the age of 30, I entered rabbinical school and a Master’s program in education with the goal of becoming a Jewish educator for teens.

At the age of 40, I was three years into my pulpit at Congregation Brith Shalom. Right after rabbinical school, my dream of becoming a rabbi for a Jewish high school got delayed. I interviewed at four or five schools, and was offered a job at every one. Then, I interviewed at a few synagogues as an Assistant Rabbi. Most of those didn’t work out, as I found most Senior Rabbis a bit pompous. Except for the rabbi in St. Louis. Rabbi Eric Cytryn, a super nice guy who looked exactly like Jerry Garcia, giant beard, glasses, and a gentle, knowing smile. I put my dreams on hold and went into the pulpit for three years to develop my rabbinic identity as an Assistant Rabbi before returning back to education.

In October, I found out that Rabbi Cytryn’s contract wasn’t being renewed. In November, I found out that the Cantor’s contract wasn’t being renewed. The Executive Director left in the summer. I was all alone. It was me and the Board of Trustees. We interviewed a few rabbis, but none worked. We got an interim Senior Rabbi for a year, Rabbi Leonard Cahan, alav hashalom, a strong and capable retiree – though a bit eccentric. We kept interviewing for Senior Rabbis, but to no avail. For my third year, we contacted the Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Lipnick, to come back to service as the interim Senior Rabbi. Rabbi Lipnick, alav hashalom, was an iron horse, with the deep resonant voice of God. He ran the shul with grace and skill and old-fashioned hard work. When they finally found a new Senior Rabbi, it was time for me to embark on my journey. Again, I mainly interviewed for school positions, got serious about a few, and I applied to a few shuls just for kicks – one in Memphis, Tennessee, and one in Houston, Texas. I followed the advice of my pulpit mentors and my father. The pulpit life offers the potential for creativity, fun, significant life moments, passion, depth, community and innovation. And they were right. These blessings are present at Brith Shalom and in my life.

At the age of 50, I’m here on the bima, reflecting on the blessings of my life. At the top of the list, I am blessed with a perfect life partner in Vicki. Hugh Hefner, a man who lived a very long time, once said, “What keeps me young is surrounding myself with beautiful women.” I have surrounded myself with one beautiful woman who surpasses them all. Happy birthday. Vicki is my true bashert, my soulmate and my eizer kenegdo – my life partner who supports me and challenges me. My children are remarkable wonders of nature who make me laugh and give me the ultimate gift of soul satisfaction. I am blessed with an extraordinary congregation. I am blessed with extraordinary colleagues. My congregation is supportive and receptive. We’re doing much sacred work together and we’re poised to enter to new phase of even more holiness and more spiritual intensity and religious connection.

At 50, the hope is you’ve developed some wisdom through experience. In Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of Our Tradition, it says, “at forty, one is fit for discernment; at fifty, for counsel; at eighty, for special strength. Ben arbayim l’vinah, ben hamashim l’etzah, ouven shmonim l’gevurah.” The great educator, John Dewey, asserts that all education is experiential. As opposed to the purely academic approach, he asserts that in the end, authentic learning can only come through the application of knowledge -- through experience.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, The Outliers, claims that mastery requires 10,000 hours of hands-on experience. As I turn 50, I embrace and celebrate my mastery over a great many aspects of my life and my rabbinate. And equally important, I embrace the challenge of continued education, experimentation, challenge and growth. Turning 50 brings with it a sense of urgency and a release from the pressures of societal expectations and social pressure. As Albert Einstein grew older, he said, "I have reached an age when, if someone tells me to wear socks, I don't have to." Turning 50 brings a sense of urgency and awareness that time is growing short to realize the vision.

Ribono shel Olam, Source of all life, thank you for the gift of life. Fill me with inspiration and Your light. Bless my family with health and strength. Bless this congregation with spirit and peace. Bless my mother and my father, Ema and Abba, and my in-laws Mom and Dad, with health and nachas and love. Baruch ata Adonai eloheynu melech Haolam shecheyanu v’keemamanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh. V’imru: Amen. Shabbat Shalom.