The Conspiracy

A Rabbi, a Reverend, a Minister and Two Muslim Chaplains Walk Into a Documentary…

Eschewing every stereotype of what the life of a member of the clergy is like, a new four-hour documentary called “The Calling” debuts its first half on PBS tonight.

The first half follows five people — Presbyterian Rob Pene, progressive Muslim Tahera Ahmad, African Methodist Episcopal Jeneen Robinson, Open Orthodox Yerachmiel Shapiro (the one at the wedding in the trailer above) and progressive muslim Bilal Ansari — from their lives as seminary students, interns and chaplains into the early days of their ordained professional lives. (The website says there are seven in “The Calling” — presumably the remaining three will be introduced in the second half.

Shapiro is a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the seminary founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, the controversial leader of Open Orthodoxy who also ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz last year. Shapiro’s struggles make up an interesting look into modern left-wing Orthodoxy. While most of the Orthodox Jewish world is drifting to the right, Shapiro is struggling to find a balance between his chosen profession and his wife’s. She is finishing dental school at the same time that he finishes his rabbinical education. And then they find out that they’re pregnant.

Over the course of a few interviews with the couple and a meeting between them and Weiss, it becomes clear that their notion of a woman’s role is not part of the same rightward drift that characterizes most of Orthodoxy today. Weiss offers Shapiro a job at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the best job a YCT graduate could possibly hope for. But the Shapiros don’t want emphasize his career over hers or hers over his. Throughout the first night of “The Calling” he struggles with whether to take the HIR job or take a part-time job at small and dying congregation in Red Bank, NJ, that would allow him time to be a father. I won’t give away which he picks at the end of the first night, but I can’t wait to find out what happens on the second night.

The documentary itself is beautifully shot. Although it was filmed by several different directors, it is pieced together nicely. The topics and locations meander, but the core of the film is a look at a new generation of religious professionals, generally of a liberal stripe. Despite the title and despite shoe-horning in clips of each one mentioning their “calling” at the beginning of the film, most of “The Calling” isn’t about a calling. It’s mostly about personal struggles, personal identity and the personal choice to become a rabbi or a reverend, etc. And that’s probably just symptomatic of the way modern Americans conceive of themselves and their relationship to community.

Watch “The Calling” on PBS tonight and tomorrow night. Check local listings for times.

3 Older Responses to “A Rabbi, a Reverend, a Minister and Two Muslim Chaplains Walk Into a Documentary…”

  1. David Zarmi
    December 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm #

    It’s sad that you think this isn’t a totally ordinary struggle that any two working people have, whether they’re orthodox or Hindu. The only reason I’ve seen that a husband’s career “takes precedence” is when he started working earlier than she did and is established and/or makes more money so that it just makes sense for them to put his job first. And not always then. I am able to earn than my wife currently, but my job as an attorney is more flexible, so when my son is sick or needs to eb taken to daycare, etc., I’m the one to do it. If her job was more flexible, then the opposite would happen. And I know many people like that. I would guess that beginning dentists make more than beginning rabbis, but maybe I’m wrong. That he can get a part-time gig is amazing. She may nto be able to. On the other hand, if they can earn enough for daycare that’s ideal (and what we do). But come on. Get out of your prejudiced mind when you write for publication.

  2. David A.M. Wilensky
    December 26, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    Thanks for your comment, David.

    When I look around and see struggles over whether women can sit on the boards of or be presidents of Orthodox shuls, I see a norm of gender inequality. I don’t wanna wade into internal debates about different ritual roles for men and women, but this goes beyond that. I know several YCT guys, so it’s unusual to me to see any of this. But it may be a much-needed look at a reality of liberal Orthodox life that most people who watched The Calling on PBS aren’t aware of.

  3. kpodgers
    January 5, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    If you found this interesting come look at the companion site for The Calling at http://wha­tsyourcall­ We have and we are doing interviews with people around the country to explore religious and secular ideas of ‘calling’ and also what people feel most passionate about doing with their lives and why.

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