One Shabbat last year, Yitz Richmond, a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University, was speaking with some members of the New York-area congregation where he was serving as a student rabbi. A teenage friend of one of the families’ sons, clearly frustrated, approached Richmond.

The young man was having some problems “transitioning into adulthood.” He was bothered by what he saw as inconsistencies in the behavior of his parents; they weren’t living up to his ideal of how so-called religious people should act. And he didn’t know how to deal with it.

Richmond sat with the young man for an hour and did something he might not have done the year before. He listened — without offering advice. He didn’t interrupt or judge. He encouraged the teen to consider his parents’ point of view.

A resident of Teaneck, N.J., now in his fourth year at YU, Richmond, 26, said he applied in his informal counseling session some of the skills he has learned in a collaborative pilot pastoral training project now wrapping up its first at the school. The project for YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) students who plan to enter the pulpit rabbinate offers a unique partnership with the university’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. It consists of a specialized curriculum that emphasizes a type of “client-centered therapy,” an approach to pastoral care that most rabbis and future rabbis in standard rabbinical school training do not receive, Richmond said.

“The program teaches you how to listen” before trying to solve someone’s problem, he said. “You have to go to where the person is at — not just give advice. I was able to go back in time to where this kid was. I was able to get his perspective.”

The hour with the young man was productive, Richmond said. “It was very helpful. I was able to give him perspective, to step outside of the [immediate] situation.”

The new YU mental health program, which YU calls the first-such joint effort between a graduate school of psychology and any rabbinical school in the country, is preparing rabbinical students to deal with a wide range of the issues they are likely to face once they are in a pulpit position, including family crises, drug abuse, eating disorders and mental illness.

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“While [rabbinical studies] prepare us to know what the crises are, this program prepares us to give first aid,” Richmond said.

Over the last two years of their rabbinic studies, students accepted into the program are exposed to a curriculum that supplements the pastoral training that all students receive.

The program is headed by Dr. Lawrence Siegel, dean of Ferkauf; Rabbi Menachem Penner, the Max and Marion Grill Dean of RIETS; and Dr. David Pelcovitz, professor of education and psychology at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Education and Administration.

One of the earliest mandatory pastoral training programs at a rabbinical school is based at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the 18-year-old Open Orthodox institution in Riverdale. The program, a pioneering effort in in-depth pastoral counseling, was designed and led by psychiatrist Michelle Friedman, and includes a heavy dose of role playing, with rabbinical students taking the parts of rabbi and congregants.

The establishment of expanded pastoral training programs at New York City’s three major rabbinical schools was part of a recognition, following the Jewish Healing Movement a generation ago, that young rabbis were entering their first pulpits unprepared to deal with increasingly complex counseling issues they faced, said Dr. Nancy Wiener, director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The Blaustein Center, founded in 2000, is the oldest-such programs among the three institutions.

“There was a growing awareness” in the wider Jewish community, said Weiner, “that healing was something that people did not see as central to why Jews come together.” In other words, many congregants did not see succor for their personal problems as a reason for participating in synagogue life.

And, said Wiener, who also was ordained at HUC, a survey of the school’s graduates indicated a need for such advanced training. “It was a gaping hole.”

Before HUC established the Blaustein Center, she said, there was “an assumption that offering care to people was something you learned on the job.”

HUC rabbinical students — and a growing number of cantorial students — take part in a year-long (or sometimes longer) combination of classroom training and supervised placement in such institutions as hospitals, nursing homes and hospice units.

Today, said Wiener, she has seen “anecdotal evidence that [newly ordained rabbis] feel better prepared for the types of things they are expected to do when they arrive” at new pulpit assignments, and need to spend less time “shadowing” senior rabbis.

At the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Mychal Springer established a Center for Pastoral Education in 2009.

The rabbi, who previously served as a hospital chaplain and director of Beth Israel Medical Center’s Department of Pastoral Care and Education, said Arnold Eisen, JTS chancellor, learned on a nationwide listening tour before he began his job at JTS a decade ago, that members of Conservative congregations felt that new rabbis “didn’t have adequate training” in pastoral work.

Rabbis “already out in the field,” and future clergy of other faiths, are welcome to enroll in the JTS pastoral training courses, Rabbi Springer said.

Pastoral training, she said, “goes far beyond common sense.”

Yeshiva University’s expanded pastoral training features a wide variety of guest lectures by practicing health care professionals and veteran rabbis, and people who have experienced mental health challenges; it also includes role-playing (based on true cases) with professional actors and a focus on “the inner life of both the rabbi and the rabbinic family,” according to a statement issued by the rabbinical school.

The curriculum stresses the applied, clinical aspect of such theoretical issues as grief counseling, substance abuse, eating disorders and infertility that the students are likely to see in their future pulpit settings.

In other words, other introductory classes teach what the mental issues are; the new curriculum teaches how to deal with them, how to help congregants, how to bring an attitude of objectivity without being influenced by a rabbi’s own feelings.

The purpose is to teach the students to “see the mindset of a therapist,” says Dr. Rosalyn Sherman, a clinical psychologist who teaches in the YU program. The rabbinic students, she says, are “very analytical. They ask very intelligent questions.”

“If you’re better at this, you’re better at everything” the pulpit rabbinate requires, says Avi Levinson, a YU rabbinical student from Highland Park, N.J.

The key, Pelcovitz says, is how a rabbi reacts the first time a congregant approaches him with a problem. “The first encounter can make a great difference.”

While pulpit rabbis are often the first responders for congregants with various problems, the students learn what their limits are as counselors, and when to advise a congregant to seek the help of a psychologist, psychiatrist or other trained therapist.

“People approach their pulpit rabbi with all kinds of problems, and many of them are well beyond his purview,” said Rabbi Neal Turk, coordinator of mental health programs at RIETS. “Even if consultation with the rabbi is not the long-term solution, he needs to know what to look for and when to refer his congregants to mental health professionals.”

The new program offers “a basic overview,” Rabbi Turk said. “You need a broad understanding of what people are going through.”

Rabbi Turk says rabbis who were ordained by YU before the program began tell him they wish it had existed when they were preparing for the rabbinate.

“We’re not here to make them mental health professionals,” he said — pulpit rabbis don’t get paid for their therapeutic interactions with congregants, don’t write drug prescriptions (as psychiatrists do) and often see their congregants over long periods of time in social and worship settings.

About 60-70 percent of the rabbinical students who apply to the pilot project are accepted, said Rabbi Turk. They pay an additional tuition to enroll.

“Our students have always received extensive training to help them understand others, but they’ve had few opportunities to understand themselves,” said Rabbi Menachem Penner, RIETS dean. “This new initiative will ensure that rabbinical students are equipped not just for leadership roles and for pastoral counseling but to deal with the many stresses and personal challenges that shul rabbis face.”

Richmond said the training he has received in the last year taught him “to apply certain psychological techniques” on the job as a student rabbi, and in day-to-day dealings with friends and family. In the meeting with the young man last year, Richmond said, he otherwise “would have been more curt. I would have gone straight to problem solving.”

steve@jewishweek.org