It’s not easy to retire after 33 years at a more-than-full-time job.
Not if you’ve been fully emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually engaged by your work, which you see as a calling. Not if your position of authority and leadership has given you an intimate understanding of other people’s lives, desires, and decisions, and through that you’ve also come to a deeper understanding of your own. Not if you feel that you have much more still to offer, even if you have come to believe that you will serve your community best if you leave when you’re strong rather than waiting until you start to falter.
Not if you’re Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, leaving Congregation Ahavath Torah, a prominent Orthodox shul in Englewood, on a great and public swell of love and admiration, making aliyah but leaving part of your heart behind.
So if that’s you, what do you do?
Rabbi Goldin was planning on making aliyah with his wife, Barbara — their flight took off this week — and teaching and writing in Israel. He, like Barbara, was thrilled at the idea of fulfilling their lifelong dream of living in Israel. The Goldins are the parents of five grown children. Three of them live in the United States — one just became a father for the second time, and another one is pregnant and due in the fall — but another two, both rabbis and teachers, live in Israel. Shmuel and Barbara Goldin planned on going back and forth between the United States and Israel often, dividing their time between their children. And he was going to work.
He’s putting the finishing touches on a Pesach haggadah, he said; “I hope it will be available this year,” he added. He would teach, among other places, at his sons’ schools. And he had ideas for other projects.
But it didn’t seem like enough. “I knew what was bothering me, but I couldn’t verbalize it,” Rabbi Goldin said. “I felt that I had worked hard for 40 years here in the States” — most of that time at Ahavath Torah, but for the first few years after ordination elsewhere — “getting myself to where I am now. It sort of hurt me to think that I was leaving all that, breaking all my connections.”
He had always believed in establishing real personal relationships as a rabbi, making clear that he too was a person, with identifiable relationships, goals, dreams, and problems. That made his time in Englewood much more fulfilling — but it also made his saying goodbye to it much more painful.
But it was time to leave the full-time pulpit rabbinate.
So what to do?
“I didn’t want to be another unhappy rabbi in Israel,” Rabbi Goldin said.
But sometimes things work out. Sometimes a lifetime of relationships and friendships, a reputation for decency, goodness, and genuine belief, sometimes those things combine and a brand new path opens up.
In this case, Rabbi Goldin was in Israel with a group from his shul on Yom Yerushalayim. The holiday — Jerusalem Day — commemorates the reunification of the city after the Six-Day War in 1967. This year, it fell on May 23. Rabbi Goldin’s group was part of a delegation representing the Religious Zionists of America. “I was talking there with a great friend of mine, Lenny Matanky” — Rabbi Leonard Matanky, dean of the Ida Crown Academy in Chicago, followed Rabbi Goldin as president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “I said that I wish I had more to do, and he said, ‘You know what? You have to speak to Nefesh B’Nefesh.’”
Rabbi Matanky, like Rabbi Goldin, is a devoted Zionist, and like Rabbi Goldin has many connections with Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that promotes aliyah, particularly from the English-speaking world. Shmuel Goldin will be the organization’s senior scholar. It’s a part-time position — that’s what he wants — and a brand new one.
His job will be a slight deviation from Nefesh B’Nefesh’s primary mission. He is going to work not to promote aliyah — although certainly he never would discourage it — but to promote a love of Israel among people who remain in the diaspora.
“They told me that they are concerned about the future because they are seeing that some of the passion is going out of Zionism in the States,” Rabbi Goldin said. “And that is something that my colleagues and I have noticed for some time, even in our religious Zionist communities.
“The best example of that is that I fill my shul for Yom Hashoah,” the annual memorial for the victims of the Holocaust, he said. “But I struggle to get people to come for Yom Ha’atzmaut,” Israel’s Independence Day, a much more upbeat experience.
“Another one — it used to be that no one would miss the Israel Day parade,” he continued. “It was the place to be seen. It was the place to go. It was the place to be. Today, there’s a sense that ‘I gotta go because my kids are marching,’ but that’s not the same thing.
“It’s not that people aren’t connected to Israel,” Rabbi Goldin said. “They are. They are deeply connected. A lot of people in my community own places there. They will go there for bar mitzvahs. But the sense that we are living in historic times, a time when the thing that we have dreamt of for centuries has been fulfilled — that’s not there any more.
“The sense that something historic happened that will change my life, that my life will be different because we now have a state of Israel — that excitement isn’t there any more.”
That isn’t surprising, he added, because “how do you keep that passion?” After all, Israel isn’t new any more.
Also, he said, “and I say this to my community all the time, you don’t recognize that your children aren’t necessarily going to be where you are philosophically. There are certain things that you expect your children will know, that you don’t have to say because they just will know them. That can be a terrible mistake. They, our children, are growing up in a different world.
“Sometimes things can be so self-evident that we think we don’t have to teach them,” he said, but often when we think that we are wrong.
He asked an educator at a leading school about his Israel curriculum. “We don’t have an Israel curriculum,” he reports being told. “We have an Israel advocacy curriculum, but we never thought we had to have an Israel curriculum.” But that is unwise, Rabbi Goldin said. “We can’t teach them how to advocate for Israel if first we don’t teach them why to advocate for Israel.”
It is also true that the wider culture is not kind to Israel now. “What kids are hearing now about Israel is much more complicated and complex than what they used to hear,” Rabbi Goldin said. “And many people within the Jewish community themselves are making support of Israel conditional on what they think is important, so instead of saying I will lobby for what I believe in, but I will never withdraw my support, they are thinking of withdrawing that support.
“Then we are creating the perfect storm, because the passions are not there, and they are being fed all this other information. And when they go to college campuses, that’s where the vulnerability shows itself.”
So the American Zionist community is facing a real problem.
He plans to speak as a scholar in residence in synagogues and schools in North America — one of his first engagements is in Toronto — as well as to brainstorm about how to teach the curriculum that he believes must be taught. He does not plan on working only with the Orthodox community, although he will start there, in the world he knows best. But he plans to reach out to the entire North American Jewish world.
He’s excited about working with Nefesh B’Nefesh. “If it was almost any other organization, I would hesitate before doing this,” he said. “But there are very few that in my mind have accomplished more than Nefesh B’Nefesh. They don’t talk about it. They do it.
“We are not creating a think tank. We are creating a rabbinic board — at first a small one, so that I can have people to work with. But it is not an advisory board. There are so many advisory boards! It is a rabbinic action board.
“They are not saying, ‘Let’s spend years thinking about how to do this.’ Instead, we are trying to be as action-oriented as we can be.
Rabbi Goldin knows that this is a huge undertaking. “Obviously I am not crazy,” he said. “This is a job for Moses. But it is so important, and it is something that I am passionate about.”
It works for him on a personal as well as a theoretical level, Rabbi Goldin added, and in fact those levels come together inextricably. “I am no longer leaving behind everything that I have created in my lifetime,” he said. “I am building on those foundations and relationships, and on everything I have worked for and believed in. I feel that instead of leaving things behind, instead I am moving on to the next step.
“There is nothing else I could be doing now that would be more important. For me, this is bashert. It is making my whole transition different.
“If I can do something, if we can make a dent in this problem, if we can make the community aware of the issues and wake up to them, if we can have parents talk to their kids about it, if we can realize that we have to be intentional in the ways we talk about this — if we can do that, then we will have accomplished a tremendous amount.”