Growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, Rabbi Michael Silbert didn’t envision becoming a rabbi. The Jewish community is structured differently there compared to the United States. While an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town, he became involved in Jewish life and a visiting professor from Brandeis University encouraged him to consider graduate school at the Boston campus.
With every intention of returning to South Africa, Rabbi Silbert began his Master’s studies at Brandeis in 1994. He earned degrees in Jewish Professional Leadership and Non-Profit Management and began his career in the Jewish community. While working in Financial Resource Development at Boston University Hillel, he realized “that I really wanted and needed to be working with Jewish students, their Jewish lives and their Jewish growth.”
During this period, Rabbi Silbert met Rachel Kest, a religious school director (at the time) whom he would eventually marry. “One day Rachel called and needed me to sub for a teacher for 6th grade Hebrew,” says Rabbi Silbert of the position he thought would be temporary. “It lasted six years and I really enjoyed it. Along the way, I began teaching Hebrew to adults. These were people still interested in growing and learning about themselves in the Jewish world.”
At age 35, and “married, with a newborn and a mortgage, I realized that becoming a rabbi made sense for me, even if the timing didn’t!” says Rabbi Silbert. While a Conservative-movement rabbinical school would have been an obvious initial choice for him, he learned about and explored the newly established Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in his then hometown of Boston, a unique, Jewishly pluralistic five-year program which was about to graduate its first class.
“There was an open house weekend and I saw that many students were in their 40s, 50s and 60s, embarking on second careers. This convinced me that I could do this,” says Rabbi Silbert. “The school was a great environment, and we could stay in Boston. Through internships, I had the opportunity to connect with Jews at all points. Young children, high school, college, families, empty-nesters, the elderly. The variety was meaningful and engaging.”
Pastoral care is one of the most important aspects of the rabbinate for Rabbi Silbert. “My experiences surrounding the loss of my mother when I was a teenager taught me that pastoral care is not something that all rabbis are comfortable with, even though it ought to be one of the most important areas of their jobs,” says Rabbi Silbert. “My chaplaincy internship at a hospital in Boston was key to this aspect of my own personal growth. You learn when to talk, when to stay quiet. You have to know that you may not have the answers. As my teacher Rabbi Arthur Green once said, ‘there are times when love is all you have to offer.’”
As Rabbi Silbert looks ahead to his position at Temple Beth David, he comments, “Relationships. That is the single most important thing. It’s not always about programming, it’s about building meaningful Jewish relationships. People don’t have relationships with synagogues, they have relationships with people.”
To accomplish this, he says, people have to be made to feel welcome, to feel wanted and to give them a reason to return. “We will wait a long time if we are waiting for them to come to us, to temples,” he says. “We need to go to them. Invite them personally into our lives. I am excited to get to do this work that means so much to me, to enter a place that values community.”
More importantly, Rabbi Silbert understands the core of Temple Beth David. “We have a lot to offer. Jewish life has a lot to offer. It’s a good place to make it all happen.”
Rabbi Silbert and Rachel, who is Director of Education and Engagement at the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester, have two children: Elie (Elijah) and Davi (Nadav); and a dog, Golda, whom Rabbi says was named for a strong Jewish woman.