Many important conversations have resulted from the Rabbi Barry Freundel episode. (The spiritual leader of Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., has pleaded not guilty to charges that he used a hidden camera to watch women in his synagogue’s mikveh.) These dialogues touch on a variety of interrelated concerns — safeguarding mikvaot, the vulnerability of converts, the need for clear reporting policies regarding allegations of improper conduct, and the need for greater involvement of women in the power centers of religious life. A less-discussed but equally critical topic is the psychological health and well-being of our clergy.
The rabbinate is a lonely vocation. From the moment a person announces the intention to become a Jewish spiritual leader through study for ordination at a yeshiva or seminary, he or she is set apart from the lay community. We expect our rabbis to be learned, wise, kind and to lead exemplary personal lives. We want them to teach, inspire and offer pastoral guidance in normative life cycle events as well as in times of crisis or tragedy. Clergy are first responders in times of emotional upheaval, including for those who have no formal connection to religious life. In contrast to mental health therapists, who conduct their sessions at scheduled times and in professional offices, rabbis hear profound and wrenching stories while greeting people at kiddush, in the middle of dinner, in emergency rooms, and at the hospital bedside.
How do we prepare and support our rabbis to juggle these multiple roles? Some women and men may be instinctively talented as listeners and advisors. Those who are not naturally inclined or trained to attend to pastoral needs are likely to stumble through sensitive situations, sometimes to the detriment of those they are trying to help. Pastoral education, however, goes deeper than learning a set of skills. Rabbis need to identify their own personal issues. As religious leaders who work in the hot zone of spiritual life, conflicted relationships and complex feelings, they must get to know themselves first. Every day, rabbis counsel men and women going through religious transition, couples whose marriages are on the rocks, teens in crisis, and families making end-of-life decisions for their loved ones. This work demands constant emotional output that leaders cannot provide unless they are in touch with their own feelings.
Clergy face challenges from many directions. What happens when the rabbi doesn’t know the answer? When the cantor feels that she has failed a congregant? When the rabbi’s own marriage has hit a low point or his synagogue appears to be failing? What about when the rabbi finds a congregant alluring, boring, or repellent? While most rabbis have an advisor they can consult regarding questions related to Jewish law, it can be harder to find someone to turn to for support when they feel stuck in a personal or pastoral quandary. Has their education taught them that exposing vulnerability and sharing strategies is not only useful but essential? Does the rabbi have a friend from rabbinical school, a mentor, a therapist or a supervisor?
These exhortations in no way excuse clergy violations. Rather, they are a plea for the urgency of putting the psychological health and pastoral competence of the rabbi front and center in the ordination process. Admissions committees at rabbinical schools need to include men and women with sophisticated psychological training and perspectives. Rabbinical schools must support the value of personal psychotherapy and help students access affordable treatment. Communities should provide supervision for their rabbis and other spiritual leaders. Most of all, clergy themselves must work to create relationships in which they can air challenges, express feelings and share strategies. There will always be rabbis who transgress boundaries. Good clergy and communities suffer each time a rabbi slips into darkness. In order to cherish the sacred work that we want our rabbis to do for us, we need to care for them.
Dr. Michelle Friedman is director of pastoral counseling, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School.