What's in a Name
Detroit Jewish News (September 17, 2005)
Many rabbis use informal titles as a way to be more accessible.
SHELLI LIEBMAN DORFMAN
While a rabbi once was expected to be seen only in the classroom, the sanctuary or at milestone events, many modern-day spiritual leaders have shed their formal roles, formal clothing and formal titles.
Times have changed from when the rabbi’s role was to teach, guide and answer questions of Halachah (Jewish law) — and little more.
Nowadays, rabbis are taking positions both inside and outside the synagogue, working as educators, with youth groups and in Jewish agencies. Many are becoming more hands-on and available to their communities in new ways — and sometimes doing what once would have been unheard of.
One of the most noticeable changes is in the use of less formal titles.
“I’m an informal guy,” said Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg, whose formal title is Rabbi Arnie. “A lot of people just call me Arnie. I think people feel closer to me when we’re on a first-name basis.”
He may have been among the first Detroit rabbis to expect such an informal greeting, but now Rabbi Arnie is one of many local rabbis of various denominations who lean toward informality.
For more and more rabbis, the choice of title is just part of the new role they have chosen for themselves.
“I think that the trend to call young rabbis Rabbi Lauren or Rabbi Jon reflects a trend in religious leadership in America across the religious spectrum,” said Rabbi Lauren Berkun, director of lifelong learning at Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
“In churches and synagogues, the goal is to create an intimate and participatory environment where religious leaders are accessible contemporaries of their lay community, rather than formal authorities on a pedestal. It is important for a rabbi to be a Jewish role model and spiritual mentor. Therefore, the title ‘rabbi’ is an important honor that is earned after much training.
“However, I am always happy when I am called Rabbi Lauren because it signals to me that a congregant both respects my training and leadership and also feels comfortable and intimate with me.
“Another popular way we are addressed is simply as ‘Rabbi,’” she said. “As in, ‘Hi, Rabbi, how are you?’ or ‘Rabbi, I have a question for you.’ I also love that greeting. I can’t quite explain why. It feels deeply respectful and informal at the same time.”
Choosing A Name
“When I came to Temple Israel, everyone called Rabbi [M. Robert] Syme, of blessed memory, Rabbi Syme, so by extension they called me Rabbi Yedwab,” said Rabbi Paul Yedwab.
“I never liked that much, as the real Rabbi Yedwab is my father, Stanley. So I thought of using Rabbi Paul, but that sounded too much like an apostle. Rabbi Josh has a much more Jewish ring to it,” he said of colleague Rabbi Joshua Bennett.
“In Israel, people call me Micha. Most of my friends here just call me Paul, and switch over seamlessly to Rabbi Yedwab when I am officiating at a funeral or other life cycle event in their family’s life.”
For Rabbi Joseph Krakoff, what people call him signifies whether they want him to address them as rabbi or friend. “When a friend calls and says, ‘Rabbi,’ I know by way of what they call me what kind of call it is,” said the Congregation Shaarey Zedek leader, often referred to as Rabbi Joey, which is emblazoned on the black kippah he bought at a recent Rabbinical Assembly convention in Houston.
“The way I introduce myself depends on the context,” said Rabbi Michael Moskowitz of Temple Shir Shalom, who often refers to himself as Michael or Rabbi Mike. “One of the most important things to me, in the rabbinate, is to be approachable.”
Some congregants want a rabbi named Rabbi Moskowitz or Rabbi Schwartz, and that’s fine, too, he said of himself and colleague Rabbi Dannel Schwartz, whose license plate displays his longtime, informal nickname, Rabs.
In the college town of Ann Arbor, where some rabbis prefer to be greeted by only their first names, Rabbi Jason Miller has settled for being called, Rabbi Jason, although some refer to him as just Jason.
“During rabbinical school, I always thought if I worked in a congregation I would be called Rabbi Miller,” said the assistant director at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation, where he works with college students and young adults. “Rabbi Miller seemed to be distancing to college students.”
“Rabbi Jason is a good compromise as it is not too formal but still has the respect value,” he said. “And it fits for those who are looking to me to be their rabbi and counselor.
“If I ever am in a pulpit position, I might choose to go by Rabbi Miller,” he said.
But for now he’s comfortable enough with Rabbi Jason to have just purchased the Internet domain name: rabbijason.com.
For some rabbis, first names are reserved for colleagues. “Using a rabbi’s first name — even with the title rabbi before it is like calling your parents, ‘Dad Jack’ and ‘Mom Ann,’” said Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg of Sara Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield. “You wouldn’t do it because it’s not respectful.”
Rabbi Silberberg is typically referred to as merely ‘Rabbi,’ a name often given to a teacher. “And a rabbi who is doing his job should be a teacher,” he said of the title.
And that’s how Arye Zacks of Oak Park refers to his rabbi, Rabbi Reuven Spolter of Young Israel of Oak Park. “Usually I just call him Rabbi, as in ‘Hello, Rabbi,’ ‘How are you, Rabbi?’” Zacks said.
“In front of a group of people, I call him Rabbi Spolter. If it is just he and I together or in a small group of peers, I will call him Rabbi. I don’t know if the name I call him makes a difference, but I think that in order for the rabbi to have authority as rabbi, there needs to be some type of boundary between him and his congregants. I want a rabbi that I can look toward as a religious leader, not someone I go play hockey or basketball with.”
An exception to Rabbi Silberberg’s opposition of the first-name option is “using a more informal title to get students or congregants involved,” he said. “Ultimately, the rabbi’s job is to bring people closer to Torah and Judaism and, in some situations, the name is part of the hook.”
That’s exactly the case for 29-year-old Rabbi Alter Goldstein of the Chabad House at the University of Michigan. “I work with college students,” said the rabbi, who is not much older than many of those he serves. “They are in my home all the time. I think they feel more comfortable talking to me more freely when they call me, Rabbi Alter.
Some people call him Rabbi Goldstein, which is fine with him, though he works in the same town with his father, Rabbi Aharon Goldstein of the Ann Arbor Chabad House.
“Rabbi Alter is a comfortable combination of who I am, for the work I do. It can be a reminder that I am not only a friend, but that I am an adviser and that I also represent the Torah,” he said.
Besides, he said, “Until the students get to know me, half of them think Alter is my last name anyway.”
Going With The Tide
“For me, the title is situational,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. “There are times when I would be uncomfortable being referred to without my title and times when I’d be unhappy with the title. Most rabbis of my generation struggle with this issue, and there is no uniform standard, in my mind.”
“It really is less about me than about a role I am playing at a certain time,” Rabbi Nevins said.
“It is actually something we discussed in rabbinical school,” Rabbi Miller said. A very powerful moment for him happened when, as a rabbinic intern in New Jersey, he was asked to officiate at a funeral in the absence of the congregation’s rabbi.
“Everyone knew me as Jason because I was still a student,” he said. “The rabbi called me and said, ‘Jason, you have to be Rabbi Miller for this family.’ That family didn’t need Jason to be there. They needed a rabbi.
“The next week, of course, I went back to being Jason to everyone, except for that family, for whom I remained Rabbi Miller.”
Rabbi Nevins said: “I think of myself as informal and approachable. The rabbi title can seem authoritarian and pompous at times. For that reason, I used to prefer to be called just Danny, but I realized that many people really needed me to be their rabbi, not their buddy. In a way, avoiding the title was being disrespectful of the role of rabbi.
“I am comfortable being Danny when a person needs a friend,” he said. “As for ‘Rabbi Danny,’ I use that in youth situations like the nursery school or teen trips. It helps the kids feel a bond with their rabbi.
“But I find it silly for adults to use that shorthand. It doesn’t really work either to create intimacy or respect, which are the two considerations in the whole name game.”
For Shaarey Zedek member Karen Katz of West Bloomfield, respect given to her rabbis is not determined by a title. In fact, in some instances she is even more respectful of the rabbi who refers to himself or herself less formally.
“When the rabbi phones and says, ‘This is Joey Krakoff,’ I know he’s the rabbi; he knows he’s the rabbi and yet, in making this personal connection, it’s not lessening his role,” she said. “It’s enhancing it to me.”
Katz may change the way she greets her rabbis depending on the setting. “Sometimes I call Rabbi Krakoff, Rabbi Joey and other times I call him Rabbi Krakoff,” she said. “It depends on who else is around and the formality of the occasion. If I’m talking to his wife, Susan, I’ll refer to him as Joey because otherwise it would seem bizarre. I’ve never called him Joey to his face.”
She is also comfortable calling the rabbis what they are comfortable being called.
“I always call Rabbi Groner ‘Rabbi Groner’ and couldn’t imagine calling him Rabbi Irwin,” she said of the Shaarey Zedek rabbi emeritus. “I don’t think he could imagine it, either! Congregants who call him by his first name only have a social relationship or a longstanding one with him.”
She compared the informal reference to a rabbi to the lack of necessary titles among members of the Israeli Defense Forces, where she said, “Everyone is on a first-name basis. Do you think the rank and file have any less respect for the officer or commander they call by his or her first name?” Katz asked.
She finds referring to her rabbi less formally as “humanizing, connecting and removes a layer of separateness. Now, if my doctors would only let me call them by their first names, we’d finally have gotten somewhere,” she said.
Getting The Name You Want
Unlike some of her peers, Rabbi Tamara Kolton of Birmingham Temple said, “My preference is either to be called Rabbi Kolton, or Tamara, and I’m comfortable with either one. I am either seen in the capacity of the rabbi — or I’m just a person.
“I prefer not to be called Rabbi Tamara because I feel like it dilutes either one. I’d like to have the integrity of either the rabbi — or of just me.”
But she added, “I’m not really attached to the title. I think the authority we have comes from how we work and how we help people and that’s given by our deeds and not by our title,” Rabbi Kolton said.
“In other congregations, it should also be what the congregation and the clergy person decide is a fit for them,” she said. “And that’s what’s nice about what we are today; that we can decide for ourselves and our own community what to call our rabbis and how our rabbis would like to be addressed.”
And that’s often something that comes with discussion. “I like to be asked how I want to be addressed,” Rabbi Miller said. “It shows respect — that they are aware of my title,” he said.
He also feels the cue of what to call your rabbi should come from how the rabbi introduces himself or herself.
“I don’t insist on any one way of being addressed,” said Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm. “For some people, titles are off-putting. For others, titles are a sign of respect and an important part of communicating within the relationship. The title comes with the job of being a rabbi and I am proud to be a rabbi.
“But the truth is, you can serve as a rabbi even when the title isn’t used. In the end, it is the relationships that I establish with the people around me that will make me their rabbi, not the title,” he said.
© 2005 Detroit Jewish News
© Rabbi Jason Miller 1996-2007