What is a rabbi, and who can be one? | Worship

By Glen Pickus, Temple Beth Or | Jul 12, 2017

My mother’s maiden name is Robinson. The name was created by an immigration official when my grandfather came to America in the early 1900s from what was then called Palestine.

I say created because there’s no doubt that is not how my grandfather, who grew up speaking Arabic and Yiddish, would have pronounced his last name.

The family legend is Robinson refers to the fact that my grandfather was the son of a rabbi – with “Robin” being an English speaker trying to make sense of the Arabic “rebbe.”

This is consistent with the traditional Jewish naming convention of adding “son of” or “daughter of” after a first name. My grandfather was Shimon ben – son of – rebbe – rabbi. Or in America, Simon Robinson.

However, the reality is my grandfather was the son of a baker. On a trip to Israel, my relatives took me to a still-standing building in Jerusalem where my great grandfather did his baking.

This does not mean my great grandfather wasn’t also a rabbi. Back then you couldn’t make a living as a rabbi. Jewish teachers had to learn a secular occupation to make ends meet.

What rabbi means today is different than what it meant in the 19th century and before.

From ancient times until the 20th century, rabbi meant master or teacher, a person learned in Torah and Jewish ethics. The term rabbi was an honor without special duties.

While today’s rabbis are well versed in the Torah and other sacred texts, they are also trained to be pastoral counselors, prayer service leaders, ministers at life cycle events, and more.

Because of their expanded role, today’s rabbis can make a living without having to bake bread on the side.

That said, today’s relationship between congregants and rabbi is not all that different from ancient times. In Judaism, the rabbi is an honored individual because of his or her education. However, Judaism is a faith that does not exalt the ministry above the laity. Jews do not place the rabbinate in a position of intercessor between laymen and God.

When Temple Beth Or was founded, having a rabbi was unaffordable. Members stepped up to lead worship service and to teach religious school. We learned how to run a synagogue and create a Jewish community without benefit of having a rabbi.

As the Temple Beth Or community grew, we were able to hire a rabbi. However, our experience of living without one has paid off during the times of transition when Temple Beth Or was between rabbis.

We find ourselves in this time of transition once again as Rabbi Jessica Marshall, who served the congregation for nine years, has moved to Colorado to pursue non-congregational rabbinic opportunities.

Yet, life at Temple Beth Or will not skip a beat.

While we go through the search process to find the right rabbi for us, a process that will take at least nine months, members once again are stepping up to fill rabbinic roles.

So, life at Temple Beth Or – worship services, religious school, and more – will continue similar to how it has for the past nine years.

It is my expectation that in about nine months I’ll be writing a column to introduce Temple Beth Or’s new rabbi to Mukilteo Beacon readers.


Glen Pickus is a member of Temple Beth Or, the Jewish synagogue serving Snohomish County. The synagogue is at 3215 Lombard Ave. For more information, visit www.templebethor.org.

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