A new look at a big question. Inspired by The Calling, a PBS mini-series.
Everyone tells me that you can find “your calling” — the guiding force and vocation that will define your life — when you sit quietly and really figure out what makes you passionate about life each and every day. But sitting quietly has never been my forte, and introspection is still a work-in-progress for me. In fact, I needed two mentors to quite literally “call” me before I figured out what my calling had been all along.
These two friends could, at first glance, not have been more different. Paul Sorrentino is Director of Religious Life at Amherst College. Hedy Peyser (who is cited in my “What’s Your Calling?” video) is an experienced social worker and Director of Volunteers at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington. The former is an Evangelical pastor. The latter is an Orthodox Jew. But both called me — quite literally — to become a Reform rabbi.
I initially met Paul through the Amherst College Multi-Faith Council, which we co-founded in order to improve inter-religious relations and get the student leaders of religious organizations on campus together to collaborate on initiatives and proactively address challenges. Paul often worked long hours, really giving his all to Religious Life on campus. One night, as I was serving food with great gusto at one of Hillel’s Shabbat Dinners and schmoozing with everyone as they moved along in the line for food, Paul poked his head out of his office and made an observation: “You really like working with Hillel, Josh. And you’re really good at it, too. Have you ever thought of becoming a rabbi?”
Never before had my food-scooping skills been so lauded. But Paul (who had also seen my other work as co-Chair of Hillel) was onto something. If even the mundane tasks involved in leading the Jewish community on campus filled me with great joy, I might really have found my calling. I mulled over his question for nearly a year, in the meantime hedging my bets by dabbling in other areas of interest and delving into my academic majors.
The summer after Paul initially asked his perceptive question, a second transformational mentor “called” me to the rabbinate once again. As Director of Volunteers at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, Hedy Peyser had a vision: she wanted to interview seniors living at the facility and record not only their accounts of the most significant moments in their lives but also what they learned from those moments in a document known as an “ethical will.” The seniors could then pass along the document to their families and closest friends as an ‘ethical legacy’ and treasure trove of wisdom for future generations.
I thought Hedy’s idea was fantastic and let her know so. She asked if I had thoughts about setting up a program to record ethical wills at the Hebrew Home and if I had any previous experience running programs. Before I knew it, we were launching Lessons of a Lifetime together and training groups of high school and college students to work with seniors and record their reflections on significant moments from their lives.
Hedy, rather than explicitly stating it, invited me to pursue my calling. She asked me all sorts of questions about my beliefs, what I found significant in my Jewish practice, and taught me a great deal about Judaism’s oral traditions — a topic that directly related to our work with Lessons of a Lifetime. She also asked me about what I wanted to do after graduating from college, using what she observed from my work at the Hebrew Home to discuss avenues that would be of interest. More than once, she mentioned that I “had the mind of a rabbi” but that my experience at the Hebrew Home could be applied to many different fields.
While neither of my mentors pressed me to become a rabbi, I found their voices ringing in my ears. “You really like working with Hillel…”; “You have the mind of a rabbi”; “You really like working with Hillel…”; “You have the mind of a rabbi.” I started thinking about their words during long stretches each day and even started dreaming at night about what it might like to be a rabbi. It was becoming clear that I was called to become a rabbi.
Now as a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, I continue to turn to Hedy and Paul for advice. They remain mentors and dear friends. Still on my path to the rabbinate, I find myself engaging, grappling, struggling, and enjoying the process of learning and self-discovery. I have felt “called” by many a teacher and colleague, classmate and friend to change different elements of my practice, belief system, and worldview. But these new voices are adding to the already extant chorus Paul and Hedy started years ago. Without the two of them — profoundly different though each of them is from me — I may never have ventured to become a rabbi.