After retirement, rabbis redefine their identity, discover freedom

Now, 39 years after receiving smicha (ordination) from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Miller is reclaiming control of his life. At 65, he's retiring from his pulpit. And as much as he's enjoyed his work, he's more eager to rediscover himself.

"The rabbinate is a very taxing and demanding calling," he says.

Every summer, longtime rabbis worldwide leave their pulpits. Retirement brings rabbis a challenge. They must break their decades-old routine of conducting services and preparing sermons every Shabbat and holiday, making plans for the congregation, grading papers — and, most importantly, living each moment awaiting the synagogue's next crisis.

Although some rabbinical organizations offer guidelines on preparing for retirement, rabbis rarely discuss the issue until absolutely necessary. Many seek guidance from peers, friends and family before finalizing their decision. Ultimately, each rabbi handles the matter differently.

"I don't use the word `retire,'" says Rabbi Bernard Glassman, rabbi emeritus of Tifereth Israel Congregation in New Bedford, Mass. "I like to talk about changing directions in the rabbinate, because I'm still a rabbi."

But he's no longer a pulpit rabbi. To help himself and his former congregation feel comfortable with that, Glassman and his wife, Susan, moved to Cambridge and now rarely interact with Tifereth Israel.

Staying away from the pulpit, Glassman and many of his colleagues say, is the hardest part of all. Let the new rabbi and the congregation bond, they urge. Find other interests, Judaic and non-Judaic alike. Retired rabbis who don't are often miserable, and just their presence in the synagogue may call the congregation's spiritual leadership into question.

"The saddest retired rabbis are those who seem to want to hang onto the past, to hang onto their congregation," says Rabbi Samuel Chiel, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Newton, who retired two years ago.

Proper planning can prevent this. Many rabbis start the process a few years before retiring. They start pondering projects they would like to tackle and start arranging financially for their new life.

Chiel, for example, notified Temple Emanuel of his intention to retire three years early. He also discussed the topic with colleagues and loved ones. Soon after retiring, Chiel went to Israel for several months, partly to let his successor, Rabbi Andrew Warmflash, develop a bond with the congregation.

Now Chiel spends his time studying. He's also active in Temple Emanuel and local Jewish organizations such as Hebrew College, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Anti-Defamation League. This year Chiel taught part of the Genesis Forum, a study session held regularly by CJP and Hebrew College.

"The study of Torah is something the rabbis felt keeps you eternally young," Chiel says. "I've chosen to do things, each one of which I really love. But I don't have to worry about 1,400 families."

Miller started planning for his retirement five years ago. The decision "wasn't difficult," he says, because he knew he wanted to retire at 65.

"Why not retire?" Miller asks. "Why should a man have to work until the day he dies?"

Without the burden of being at a congregation's beck and call, rabbis may develop their interests more fully than they could before accepting their first pulpit. Miller plans to get more active in CJP and the Rashi School in Needham, Mass., broaden his Judaic study on the Internet and find a warm winter home.

Rabbi H. Bruce Ehrmann, formerly of Temple Israel in Brockton, Mass., reads and travels when possible. In addition, he has joined Randolph's Democratic Town Committee. As a rabbi, he says, "I could never identify with politics."

But he recently attended a town meeting.

"I'm still waiting to clean up my basement," says Ehrmann, who attends Brockton interfaith clergy meetings and is a chaplain at many local nursing homes.

Meanwhile, Glassman is pursuing his first love, Judaic studies, as a student at Harvard University. He takes classes through Harvard's divinity school. Also, the Glassmans attend a worship study minyan every Saturday morning and holidays at Harvard Hillel. The lifestyle change makes Glassman feel "35 years younger."

"I don't have the pressures of grades. I can tell a professor what I really think and feel," he says.

"Most people can't stand their own company because they're living solitarily and they're desperately unhappy," says Rabbi Arthur Goldstein, 89, rabbi emeritus of Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, Mass., since 1973.

"I find solitude a considerable blessing. I have a chance to write my soul and not wait for Rosh Hashanah to consider how my life is spent, was spent and is going to be spent. I do it frequently."

Besides finding activities to stimulate their minds, rabbis must evaluate their financial security when planning for retirement. Reform rabbis find that easier to do today than they once did, Miller says. In the past, the rabbi's last congregation funded his or her pension, so elderly rabbis with small pulpits received small pensions. Now, the rabbi and the congregation contribute to the pension. Overall, rabbis get about 60 percent of their salaries plus Social Security and income from personal investments, Miller says.

"You ought to know that your finances are reasonably in order," Ehrmann says. "To retire too soon without the proper finances risks disaster."

With this and a lust to explore new interests, rabbis may find life after the pulpit as fulfilling as leading a congregation, if not more so.

"I've discovered I have a first name, which I never knew before," Glassman says.