My Life as a Dog Rabbi

Recently I read a wonderful article entitled "Dog Rabbis and Cat Rabbis" in the CCAR Journal.  The author, is a rabbi and a professor of Jewish studies his name is Dan Cohn-Sherbok.  Several years ago, he went to rabbinical school, intent on becoming a congregational rabbi.  After his ordination, he started working as an assistant, and it didn't work out very well.  So he left that first congregation for a second assistantship, which also didn't turn out so hot.  In a desperate attempt to reorganize, he got his own pulpit, and that bombed completely.   That's when he went back and got a Ph.D., wisely deciding to become a professor instead.  

Twenty years later, reflecting on his experiences in congregational life, as disastrous as they were, and the great happiness and tremendous success he's found as a first-rate scholar and a professor, he has developed  a theory to help explain his (congregational) failure on the one hand, and his (academic) success on the other.  Professor/Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok says that in life, in the world there are two kinds of rabbis:  There are "cat rabbis" and there are "dog rabbis". 

A "cat rabbi" is someone who would rather be alone.  A "cat rabbi" upon seeing a crowd, wants to walk away.  A "cat rabbi", when faced with a room full of people who want to kiss and say, "Shabbat Shalom", freezes in panic.  A "cat rabbi", when his or her spouse goes away for a week thinks "great," this is a chance to curl up with a really good book and put on the music quietly."  A "cat rabbi", thinks that he has way too many acquaintances, and just the right amount of friends.  Such a person, says Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok, and he counts himself in among the "cat rabbis," should not go into congregational life. 

 A "dog rabbi" on the other hand, positively salivates at the opportunity of kissing everybody as they enter the synagogue.  A "dog rabbi," sees a week away from the spouse as the perfect chance to catch up with absolutely everybody he hasn't spoken to in the last fifteen years.  A "dog rabbi" looks forward to when the service is over as a great time for schmoozing with everybody.  And so it goes.  "Cat rabbis" like individual sessions, "dog rabbis" like big classes. 

 According to Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok's perspective, the really painful part of the Rabbinate, particularly for someone who's a "cat rabbi," is being expected to be an extrovert, when it goes against the grain.  Having to always be cheerful, always be on, always be warm and hospitable when, in reality, all you want to do when the service is over, is go home. It isn't easy being a cat rabbi in a dog's world.

But what about a "dog rabbi?"  What about someone who loves being with people?  What about someone who loves his congregation?  What about someone who loves the chance to be part of the life of a community and considers that, the greatest privilege of his life?  What's the challenge for such a rabbi? The article didn't mention that perspective, because Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok doesn't know what's difficult about being a "dog rabbi." 

Challenges for an Extrovert

To be a good rabbi, to be a rabbi at all, you must love your congregants.  You must identify with your congregants.  You must identify with your community, and you must be passionate about each and every member of your congregation.  If you can't love your congregants, you cannot be their rabbi.  No amount of eloquence, administrative skills, or bedside manner can compensate for disdain, or distance, or disinterest.  You have to love your congregants, without qualification.  You have to love your congregants, unconditionally.  And here comes the painful part of being such a rabbi.  If you love your congregants unconditionally, if you love your congregants thoroughly, then when they come to you in pain, you feel pain.  When you go to someone's home, who suffered a loss, and you have to be there for them and to help make a Shiva minyan, you cry because they're crying.  When you stand by the hospital bed of someone you love, you feel pain.  When you hear that they're going though family troubles, you cry with them, and for them. 

As a rabbi, you must love your congregants, each and every one of them, so what do you do when a congregant says, "I love the synagogue but I'm leaving."  A part of you breaks, with each and every time.  You watch your congregants struggle with financial difficulties, you watch them get into disagreements with each other, and stop speaking to each other.  You watch them argue with each other and take theoretical arguments to a personal level.  And as a parent would with a child, you hurt — because you love your congregants. 

Yet, there's no alternative:  dog rabbis can't help loving their congregations.  We can't help our feeling of unity with each and every one of our people.  So what does a "dog rabbi" do to get over the pain?  What does a "dog rabbi" do, to be able to get up everyday, and keep going back to it again, and again, and again?  This is important to consider, not because everyone is going to become rabbis someday, but because being an extroverted rabbi is not so different from being a people-loving congregant, from being a part of a sharing community. 

What gives me the strength to go on is the remarkable nurturing that our love for one another brings.  We have all felt it when going to someone's home for a Shiva minyan, and we're there supposedly to offer comfort to the mourners, and they see the tears in our eyes, and so they give a hug.  When I pay a sick-visit to a hospital room and the family comes up and takes my hand and ushers me to the bedside of their loved one, to the holy-of-holies of their family life.  I have been at someone's death bed where I was praying for them as they were dying, and they reached out to take my hand, to comfort me as I was crying.  And I treasure that moment as the kind of special love only a synagogue community can generate. 

A synagogue and its rabbi have something so precious, so rare.  We have a heritage that we share with each other, we have each other's children that we all of us are helping to raise.  We nurture each other though difficult times and we share each other's joyous and happy moments.

Think of the range of memories, that we have because of our association with our own congregations.  The people we know and have known, the times  that we've laughed and cried.  The great joy of being a "dog rabbi" is that I always anticipate more connections, more belonging, more involvement.  A "dog rabbi" knows that people are basically lovable and good, kind and wonderful. A "dog rabbi" knows that all you have to do is wag your tail, and pant a little bit, and someone will pat your head and offer you a goody.  And a "dog rabbi" knows that this is true not only for rabbis, but for congregants and congregations too.

It really is a dog's world. Thank God.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).