Many years ago, I was offered two rabbinical positions. One was to serve as assistant rabbi at a prominent congregation in Manhattan. The other was to start a new Orthodox congregation in West Orange, New Jersey.
I was told that the board of directors of the New York congregation had already approved my candidacy, and I was requested to meet with the senior rabbi. I met with him, and the meeting went well. At the conclusion of the meeting the rabbi broached the question as to the proper seat for the assistant rabbi in the synagogue. He pointed to a special seat, cordoned off with a velvet rope, in the front of the shul.
“This seat,” he said, “belonged to a previous rabbi of the congregation who was truly beloved by all. Since this rabbi passed away, no one has sat in this special seat. Yet, there is no reason why not. It’s a wonderful seat and you, Rabbi Cohen, you merit such a distinguished seat on Shabbat.”
I thanked him and left.
When I came home, my wife, full of joy, greeted me and informed me that the rabbi called and extended mazel tov on our new position. To her surprise, I told her that I would not under any circumstances accept that position.
“Could you imagine,” I said, “what would happen if I came to shul, removed the velvet cord, and sat in that seat on Shabbat? A seat relegated to the honor and memory of a wonderful rav? I would be lynched by the congregation. People would deem it the height of chutzpah that I would even dream of sitting in that reserved special area. The rabbi must have been annoyed that the board appointed me to serve as assistant rabbi. Suggesting that I sit in this seat was his way of displaying his displeasure. No, this shul is not a healthy place for us. We don’t need to start our life with aggravation.”
So, I accepted the other offer and moved to West Orange. Today, West Orange is a thriving, dynamic Orthodox community. But not when we moved there. At that time our shul had 20 families. Today it is a thriving major Modern Orthodox shul. What a rabbi’s seat can accomplish…
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