Often mentorship is thought of as a relationship that can help younger workers get to the next step of the corporate hierarchy. But many people work in settings that are not at all corporate. How is mentorship different for these careers? What kinds of coaching and support do people need when their work focuses matters of spirituality and faith?
For The Atlantic’s series about mentorship, “On The Shoulders of Giants,” I talked to Rabbi Scott Perlo and Rabbi Shira Stutman about their work together at Sixth & I, a historic synagogue in the heart of Washington, D.C., where Stutman serves as Perlo’s mentor. The two have worked with each other to engage more deeply with thousands of years of Jewish tradition, and spoke about how their relationship has helped each sharpen their understanding of what it means to be a rabbi in 2017.
The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
B.R.J. O’Donnell: Tell me about when you first met Rabbi Shira Stutman.
Scott Perlo: We met over video first. I was overdressed for the interview. Shira almost didn’t hire me because I was wearing a suit and tie.
Shira Stutman: Right, you were overdressed, and we were worried because Sixth & I is a very informal place. We try to do things a little bit differently here. We have our own special sauce. To bring someone in at such a senior level, rather than having them from the start, was different for us. And so from day one, I think we have had a relationship that is ... what’s a more positive word than contentious?
Perlo: One of the things I think that defines Jewish mentorship is challenge. If someone never challenges you, you’re not in a mentorship relationship with them, which is challenging in its own right. But that’s how you know it’s real for us.
O’Donnell: Scott, did you always know you were going to be a rabbi?
Perlo: I was in college, and a rabbi of mine told me to just “go to the seminary and get it over with already!” I think he saw the love for it in me. My father was upset, he had grown up with a model of rabbis that he didn’t want me to be: in poverty, out of touch. Now he has changed quite a bit.
O’Donnell: Can you tell me about how your bond with Shira fits into Jewish traditions of mentorship?
Perlo: There’s this relationship in Judaism called chevruta. There’s not nearly a good enough translation; it means partnership, or fellowship. Chaver means friend, but, essentially, it refers to a very deep two-sided relationship that’s usually based off of learning. I think it’s the most sought-after relationship we have.
First of all, you can have a chevruta with someone where you just study, but if someone is your chevruta, it means that it’s a years-long relationship surrounding Torah and study—in which it’s like you let someone into your mind. And you know most relationships between rabbis, as is just normal, don’t develop into that. But ours did.
O’Donnell: When did it become evident to you that you could cooperate on that level, to really be a catalyst for growth for each other?
Perlo: There was a point in time in which I think it was clear that I was very interested in what Shira had to teach. I think what makes a chevruta is that I actually cared deeply about what she was doing. I think that at a certain point, even though I gave her hell all the time, it was probably clear that I was taking what Shira was doing seriously.
Stutman: The joke is, and it isn’t really a joke, that every rabbi has one sermon—and they preach that sermon over and over again from different angles. So I think the first thing that we had to do was to figure out what each other’s sermon was, because then you understand the person in a deeper way.
So one of the things that we often say about Scott for instance, is that he believes more deeply than I do in the power of redemption for human beings. Whereas I am much more ... the positive way of saying it is “accepting of human beings just as they are,” but the negative way of saying it is believing that humans can’t really improve that much.
Perlo: And our approaches have changed because of each other. We both realized that the distance between us was the right kind of distance.
O’Donnell: And all of your mentors have been women?
Perlo: All of them! I have never not worked for a woman at this point. Liberal religion has become a space for intensely intelligent young women or people who are queer and looking for mentorship and model-ship of people who look like them.
O’Donnell: Trust is such an essential part of mentorship. Can you tell me about the role that trust has played in the development of your bond?
Perlo: We were able to build up trust with each other, that we were in this, and not going to hurt the other person, or use things against them. And eventually what happens is that the other person starts to know exactly what you are thinking, and you get to be honest with them.
The value of this kind of relationship is that this person can see exactly who you are, and exactly what you think. And that’s why this relationship is so powerful, because it’s only in a space where you can be really honest about what’s going on that you can begin to change and grow.
Through Shira, I came to figure out what I was trying to say. You have someone that’s opposing you, but in a way that is holding you up, instead of tearing you down.
Stutman: I mean in a traditional mentorship relationship, where I’ve served as mentors to people in a formal mentor program, they don’t know anything about me, right. So it’s really much of a one way thing. Now Scott knows things about me that no one else in this world knows. And so part of building trust was the building of personal trust.
Perlo: In this chevruta relationship, it becomes impossible to keep your personal life out of it. One of the ways that it’s built is that you end up showing up as yourself.
Stutman: It’s really about showing up.
O’Donnell: How does having this bond support you in your toughest moments as a rabbi?
Perlo: In the moments when we lose faith in what we are doing, we can come to each other. As a rabbi, we can’t go to many people. If we went to our students and said “I just don’t know if I want to do this anymore” or something like that, and that’s a normal part of what it is to be a clergy member, you have these moments when you don’t know if you are doing the right thing, you don’t know if it’s working, and what we can do for each other is to say what’s on our minds.
I would say that Shira is one of the most important people in my life, and I think it’s true that it’s the same way for her.
O’Donnell: So how has Shira’s influence changed the way that you want to work with people?
Perlo: Shira has taught me the most important piece of it, which is that unless people feel loved, they are not going to understand, or to want to give love back out. So the first lesson is always to give. And then the second lesson is to ask them to give. Never in this model do you receive, because that’s not what it means to be a clergy member. The arrow points in one direction.
The first thing that Shira taught me is how can you ask people to be loving, to be accepting, how can you ask for growth, if you are not giving them the love and acceptance that they would need to grow? One of the things that Shira has helped me understand is that when people come through the door, they are looking for a message that they are wanted.