The High Holidays are a stressful time of year for any rabbi, but in the days leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Rabbi George B. Driesen was more nervous than most.
A newly minted rabbi at age 66, Driesen stood before the 300 or so families at the Columbia Jewish Congregation and lead his first Rosh Hashana service.
He worried that something would go wrong or that he would offend somebody, or he wouldn't fit in. He worried that some congregants -- the ones who usually come only during the High Holidays -- would turn from religion once and for all.
But then the service began, and everything went more or less smoothly, and Driesen became more and more convinced that he had made the right decision in becoming a rabbi.
"It felt so right," he said. "It felt like I belonged."
With Yom Kippur to begin at sundown today, Driesen faces the second major test of his fledgling career, having prepared as any good rabbi -- or lawyer -- would.
Driesen became interim rabbi of Columbia Jewish Congregation in August after more than 30 years as a labor lawyer.
In his new post, he follows in the footsteps of the synagogue's founder, Rabbi Martin Siegel, a well-known Columbia activist who during his tenure established the congregation as a significant presence in the Baltimore area.
"He's really an extraordinary guy," Siegel said. "Very well educated. He has made a career as a successful attorney and always wanted to be a rabbi. That was always in his background all his life. With great courage, he chose to [leave] his law practice and follow his dream."
Driesen decided he wanted to be a rabbi when he was growing up in New York City. But when he went to rabbinical school after graduating from Harvard College in 1954, he didn't much like it. And a friend told him he was too argumentative to be an effective religious leader.
Instead, Driesen quit school to become a lawyer. For more than 30 years, he represented workers, fighting for fairer working conditions in the Baltimore-Washington area and around the country.
But the rabbinate called Driesen. And Driesen said he has quickly adjusted to his role as a leader and mentor, rather than as a litigator and fighter.
"The instinct I have for reaching out to people and for literature and the lovely things in life is pretty much wasted in the law, but can be put to use in the rabbinate," he said.
The transition isn't quite complete, Driesen said, and probably never will be.
"It's still dangerous to get into an argument with me," he said, "but I think I have it under control."
Driesen decided he wanted to be a rabbi when he was a boy at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City, a synagogue founded by the creator of the religious movement known as Reconstructionism. The liberal movement, one of the four main branches of American Jewry, treats Judaism as an evolving tradition and emphasizes Jewish tradition, language, art and history.
After college, Driesen enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative seminary in New York City, because there were no Reconstructionist seminaries at the time. But he felt unhappy and out of place.
"I really didn't agree with them Jewishly, philosophically, theologically," he said. "I thought that the Jewish world was like them, and I didn't think I really fit in that mode."
Left for law school
Driesen left to attend Yale Law School, where he first took an interest in labor law. "The instinct that led me to be a rabbi also led me into the law," he said.
In both professions, his goal was to help people. As a lawyer, Driesen represented individuals and labor unions, including the Baltimore and Montgomery County lodges of the Fraternal Order of Police. He taught labor law at the Yale, Georgetown University, University of Virginia and George Washington University law schools as a guest professor.
During his long career in law, Driesen remained active in religious issues. As a newcomer to the Washington area about 30 years ago, he and acquaintances formed a Bible study group. A friend who was a member of that group said Driesen naturally drifted into the role of leader.
"He led us not only in Bible study but in experimenting with ritual and having Sabbath dinners together," said Bob Hausman, a Washington lawyer and chairman of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington.
Hausman said he and Driesen joined the same synagogue in Washington and that, even as a layman, Driesen would lead services and give sermons.
In 1985, Driesen became a member of the board of directors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.
"Hanging around a rabbinical college for me was kind of like a young man hanging around a pretty woman," he said. "I really more and more found that old feeling of being stimulated."
Driesen began to think more and more about fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a rabbi, at an age when most men would be thinking about retirement.
Driesen said he talked to his wife and three grown children before making his final decision. He said their advice, especially from his children, came in the form of the Jewish aphorism "If not now, when?" He enrolled at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College at age 62.
"He's the first person we've had in his 60s to graduate," said Rabbi Reena Spicehandler, dean of students at the college. She said there has been a small increase at the school in recent years in the number of students in their 60s. She said their life experience can only help them succeed at a job that is part counseling, part public speaking and part teaching.
"If you've experienced loss, disappointment, suffering, in addition to the happier things in life, you're more able to be with people in their own ups and downs," she said. "There's a broader outlook, a certain calmness and maturity."
Driesen believes Judaism is at a crossroads, with many Jews trying to figure out how to abide by ancient religious laws. He hopes to write and speak in ways that will help people with that conflict, one he says he struggled with a great deal as a layman.
"It's a tough time because we have to make these changes in our thinking and our practice, and it's very difficult," he said. "You need continuity with what went before, but the world is so different. And we're so different."
Although he occasionally misses the law, Driesen said fighting and litigating were getting harder for him as he got older. Even in the midst of the High Holidays, the busiest time of year for any rabbi, he feels right at home.
"At this stage in life," he said, "I'm more interested in love than combat."
Pub Date: 9/19/99