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Preparing for a Rabbinic Sabbatical From the Perspective of the Congregational Leadership

In Leviticus 25:2-4 we learn:

“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord.”

It is upon these verses that the idea of a sabbatical year for professionals has been built. Just as we are told to let our land lay fallow in order to rest the land after six years of growth, we understand that a valued professional and teacher too should have the chance to revitalize after six years of harvesting their creative fruits.

There is a great deal that we can learn from this agricultural idea in terms of our own synagogue communities. In communities that practice this land sabbatical year, the “shemitah” year, they are aware that it is coming and must make provisions for this year. They are aware of the biblical cycle and they build their agricultural cycle upon this progression. So too in our communities we should understand that these seasons are a part of a good use of our resources. We need to treasure the professionals who help us to grow up sacred community and we should nurture them for the good harvest that our community will yield if we properly attend to the growth and wellbeing of the resources we have in our communities.

This document is meant to help Reconstructionist communities to look ahead to this time of sabbatical as a time of growth for their rabbi and for their community. In planning well for this time, the community can also look to this time as a time for re-evaluation, re-growth and creativity as the community too, will have a chance to grow and learn as their rabbi leaves them for a period of time. The community will need to work together to plan for this time so that it can be a time that ultimately will be a time of positive growth for the entire community. Some of the issues that will need to be dealt with are outlined here.

Planning for the sabbatical should begin two years in advance of the sabbatical to assure that all of the issues and logistics of this time are well planned out.

It would be best for the community to develop a committee that will help the community and the rabbi plan for this time of renewal.

1. Probably the first issue that will need to be dealt with is: how can our congregation afford to cover this time, financially?

  • Have funds been segregated to cover additional clergy for this time period?
  • Will we hire a professional to be with the congregation during this time? If yes, be in touch with the RRA Placement office to let them know that this is on the schedule (when, how long etc. so they can help you to decide if a rabbi or a student rabbi would be most appropriate and discuss the costs that this would entail).

2. How can our congregation prepare to cover some of the rabbinic duties on our own?

  • Evaluate the liturgical needs of the congregation and who may have the skills to meet these needs.
  • Perhaps a class can be taught in the time before the sabbatical that would prepare congregants to be Shelahei Tzibur in the absence of the rabbi.
  • A similar approach can be taken with teaching and Divrei Torah.

3. The congregation will need to evaluate the timing of the sabbatical in terms of lifecycle events. Is there a way to schedule lifecycle events for this year that will cover these events in a manner that best reflects the needs of the community?

  • Are there particular lifecycle events that the congregation would expect the rabbi to return for?
  • Can these lifecycle events be scheduled in a way that these issues are not affected by the rabbi’s sabbatical?
  • Will the rabbi be needed for Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations?
  • Will the interim rabbi be able to work with all families and perform the Bar/Bar Mitzvahs during this year?
  • How will we handle deaths in the absence of the rabbi? Are there any situations when there is a death that the rabbi would need to return?
  • Are these even reasonable questions?

4. The congregation will need to evaluate what this time can mean for the life of the community. The sabbatical year represents an opportunity for the congregation to stop and revitalize their fields as well.

  • Do we want to hire an interim rabbi who can help us to do some of the visioning that we have needed to do for our future?
  • Do we want to try new liturgy this year?
  • Do we want to experiment with new programs or new formats?
  • Do we want this to be just a “stand in place” year?

5. Communicating to the community the need for a sabbatical: 

  • In many Reconstructionist communities we are blessed with congregants from academic settings who understand the concept of sabbatical year. We can make use of those professionals to educate the congregation about why sabbaticals are valuable and how the congregation will benefit from the sabbatical.
  • The process of how this time will be handled should be shared with the community as the process unfolds so that everyone is involved in the chance for learning and planning for this period.
  • The rabbi should share the plans that he/she has made for this time with the community in advance of the sabbatical
  • Newsletters should have information about who will handle all of the aspects of synagogue life in the rabbi’s absence.
  • A celebration should be planned the Shabbat before the rabbi leaves to wish him/her well on this journey.
  • A celebration should be planned for the rabbi’s return. The rabbi should plan to share some highlights of the sabbatical with the community.

6. The community should have in place a means of evaluating what the community has learned during this sabbatical period. 

  • What were the strengths that we discovered that our community possesses that can enrich our community?
  • What did we learn about the scope of the duties of our rabbi and how best the rabbi can help our community?
  • If you did a visioning process with a visiting rabbi, how will this plan be shared with the rabbi and how can it be implemented?
  • If you tried any new programming, how will you share this with the rabbi and assure that the rabbi can be a part of such programming in the future?

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