Homeward Bound by Rabbi Josh Katzan
You just never know.
So, there I was, preparing for my final Talmud exam with my rabbinic-mentor in his office in February 2003, at his synagogue Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, CA, when, all of a sudden, it occurred to me that I was sitting in the very synagogue my great-grandparents had founded a century before, where my grandfather had his Bar Mitzvah, and where my parents were married. It turned out I had never been inside the synagogue, so being there brought to life the stories I’d heard growing up about various colorful ancestors of mine whom I’d never met. I was soon to be ordained and at that time had no plan for my future rabbinate. I was overcome with a warm feeling and blurted out to my mentor, “Hey, let me know if you ever retire—I’d love to be the rabbi here one day.” 13 years later, he did.
In the interim,
I spent the first five years of my career as an assistant rabbi at a large Conservative shul in Denver, CO. It was a last-minute leap-of-faith decision that wonderfully changed my life. When that term expired, I spent the next eight years as a solo rabbi in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was a wonderful experience, but there were subtle reminders throughout that I was a bit of a stranger in a strange land. As I’m sure immigrants regularly feel, as much as they try to “blend in” with their newly adopted home, the natives periodically remind you where you’re from. There were inflection points where the subtle culture clash between West and East coast made me think I was from a different country even if we shared a somewhat common language. It added spice to our relationship, but became a bit draining over time. It was following the High Holiday season of 2015 that I heard my mentor was retiring from Mishkon Tephilo, and a light appeared at the end of a tunnel I was not yet aware had been forming.
It was a thrill
to apply to be the rabbi of my ancestor’s shul, but the timing was off. I was a bit burned out after 13 years in the pulpit, and very much needed a sabbatical break, and, at that time the synagogue leadership was looking for something different, so my fanciful attempt at manifesting a cool coalescing of history and opportunity failed. Alas. But somehow, I still felt my connection to Mishkon was not over.
Realizing I was depleted,
I decided to leave my position and give myself the break I needed. I moved back to Los Angeles, invested myself in intensive study of guitar (a lifelong passion), worked parttime, and re-energized. Four years after returning home, in the middle of the pandemic, I received a call from the Mishkon synagogue president—the rabbi they had hired was moving with his wife and child to live closer to extended family, and would I re-consider applying to the position? Wow. A second chance appeared.
This past year,
humanity all over the world was forced into what I would call a “Global Elul,” that contemplative month on the Jewish calendar before Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur where the shofar is sounded every morning, and where our tradition urges us to spend time focusing on what we’ll be bringing to our prayer and repentance at the High Holidays. It’s hard to take destiny seriously if we’re not prepared, so Elul helps us activate our agency in life: I can choose to remain livingwhile-asleep, or I can wake up and address the issues that are within my reach.
Getting the president’s phone call
was an Elul moment for me. I had been feeling fairly flat and beaten down by the global lock-down and wasn’t sure I’d ever want to go back into the rabbinate. But little by little, and with each phone call I made to interview congregants, I awoke to realizing that I did belong on that pulpit, and that it was indeed the work I’d always wanted to do. It was lovely to be given a second chance, and a blessing to wake up and want to take advantage of it.
The theme of the holidays is
T’shuvah, repentance or, more literally, return. Returning to a path that is more aligned with our better selves and hoped-for direction. But it can also be read as “Coming Home.” Coming home to renew and kick-start a better future. Coming home as your better self.
Not all of us
are presented with second chances. But then again, an essential teaching of Judaism is second chances are ours to create. The pandemic has sent us all on a journey through disruption, change, and challenge. It has freed many of us from the shackles of routine and habit and given us a glimpse of what it looks like to recover from a loss of control. We have a precious opportunity to restart, reframe, and return home to a better self with renewed perspective and spirit. It’s worth trying, because, well, you just never know.
coming home was, at first, disorienting. I felt like a different person from the one I had left more than a decade prior. The community in Los Angeles had evolved, there were new kids on the block, and I felt like a bit of a tourist—even if I happened to know where everything was. Perhaps we are all a little like Abraham and Sarah: like all heroes, we are to leave our homeland to be tested and stretched, so that we can better craft the “mensch within.” I left home to discover who I was, and having done that successfully, I have returned a more refined, if not also a travel worn and battle scarred, version of myself. Having been humbled by experience, I feel like a better version of myself and I’m ready for what comes next. We should all be so blessed.