The Path That Led Me Here: Shabbat Message from Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates

Shabbat Message by Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates graphic for Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

In 2022, I will mark my 20th year with Temple Beth El and so I have been thinking a lot about that career path.

I never grew up wanting to be a rabbi.

I got my first job after college by luck more than anything in the British Reform movement. My boss was a leader in the British Jewish community, Rabbi Tony Bayfield. A brilliant, kind and caring person, he sat me down one day and said, “You should really think about the rabbinate as a career.” I do not know if he remembers the conversation, but I do… and it changed my life in so many positive ways.

A decade before that, I had learned that it was possible to love where you work. I had a middle school holiday job in a chocolate store. When a piece was damaged or broken it was put aside for us to snack on, and thank God I only worked there one season is all I have to say about that. But I loved it.

Standing in front of the ark at Shabbat services recently I thought how lucky that I was set on this unexpected path to the rabbinate and ultimately Temple Beth El where I get to work somewhere that brings me as much joy as working in that chocolate store.

I share with Moses an unexpected career path.

Moses’ unexpected career path is laid out in the book of Exodus. Chosen by God to serve as leader of the Jewish people as they journey from slavery to freedom, Moses is in disagreement with God in regards to his abilities to take on that role. He hems and haws and makes excuses as to why he can’t lead the Jewish people. Moses had this gut good inside of him that Torah shares and God sees.

Rav Yonatan Grossman sees biblical Moses as a “man of robust moral fabric” with an “aggressive commitment to helping the oppressed”.

In the same way that Rabbi Bayfield saw something in me that I had never seen in myself, God saw something in Moses that he had not seen in himself.

Over my desk hangs a quote from a lecture at Hebrew Union College, my rabbinical school, delivered in 1959, nine years before I was born and 43 years before I arrived at Temple Beth El. It reads,

“If you do not love those to whom you preach, you will not preach successfully.If, secretly, you do not respect those who listen to you, then you will not touch them deeply…If you do not care passionately, you will not convince your hearers that they should. If you preach from outside your subject, you will leave your hearers outside. If you preach from within, you will take your hearers into that same inner place.”

That is my Torah.

That love of those we preach to and teach and pray with is not my sole dominion. I am part of a clergy team that gives 110% of their being into everything they do, the most wise and devoted laypeople and top-notch staff that leaves me pinching myself to make sure my life is real from time to time.

When a rabbi interviews with a synagogue as I did over 20 years ago, the synagogue puts together a search committee to conduct interviews. I met one of my best friends at Temple Beth El on that search committee and when she succumbed to cancer 9 years ago, I mourned right there with her family. This last week, I named her granddaughter, whose mom was only 10 years old when I met her. When you are around long enough, moments as rich and precious as that are better than any chocolate.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year!

Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

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