I am going to start with a story about snow but the weather is just a pretext for where I want to go. So bear with me while I begin.
We cancelled services the last Friday night in January. The forecast predicted snow and ice right at the time my congregants and I would be driving to and from services. The president called and told me he just didn’t feel comfortable having services. The driving would be too hazardous. And so we agreed to cancel, no small decision in a small rural congregation whose services are only biweekly to begin with.
From the time I was hired almost 20 years ago, the congregational leadership was direct about how they handled weather challenges. Most of our members drive fair distances to the temple, they said; we don’t want them to feel obligated to come to services if it means endangering their lives. So if the weather is bad, we cancel services. And you, rabbi, you live further than we do. If the weather is okay out by us but bad by you, don’t come. They were true to their word. We once had a bar mitzvah scheduled for early December when the forecast predicted a snowstorm. As we got closer to that Shabbat, the family called. Can we move the bar mitzvah to March, they asked? And so we did.
That was only one of the many reasons I took the position but it was a major one. In my last congregation, they claimed never to have canceled services. The previous rabbi had lived within walking distance of the temple, so he could walk up and open the building regardless of the weather. If no one showed up, he just locked up and went home. All this was apocryphal, of course. I later learned that he had canceled services many times over the years. But the congregational non-cancellation myth lived on.
Since I lived about 15 minutes from that temple, however, inclement weather presented me with a greater challenge. I wasn’t the only staff member with a conflict. The cantor commuted out from New York City. The organist had a 30-minute drive from his home in New Jersey. So I raised the issue with my leadership. How do we decide whether to cancel services, I asked. But there was no conversation to be had. We never cancel, they said. Even when the rabbi, cantor and organist have to drive to the temple, I asked. Yes, they said.
One day in March when I was still working in that previous congregation, there was a freak snowstorm. We knew it was coming. The warning had come days in advance. And so I asked again: what do we do if we have a blizzard on Shabbat. And I received the same answer: we never cancel services. As I drove to the temple Shabbat morning, the first flakes had begun to fall. The bat mitzvah family had already received word that their florist, caterer and photographer were canceling. Family members and invited guests were stranded at airports around the country. The cantor, the organist and I all made it. I recall that the worship that morning felt almost defiantly intimate in the way that communities sometimes band together when they face a common threat.
By the time Shabbat morning services were over, a foot of snow had fallen. When I walked out the front door of the temple, the president himself (somewhat guiltily) was shoveling snow off of my car. I held my breath as I drove home over icy roads. The moment my car skidded down one particularly steep hill was the moment of my epiphany. It’s one thing if they don’t care about my life, I realized; but it is another thing if I don’t care about my life. I knew right then that this was the wrong congregation for me.
It wasn’t about the snow, of course. It was about feeling that I wasn’t valued the way I needed to be valued. It was about feeling like the hired help, not the rabbi. It was about not being able to have the conversation. It was about not having a venue for discussing and resolving conflict. It was about being unable to create the covenantal partnership of which I dreamed. And it was about not being willing to sacrifice my life for someone else’s fantasy of what the rabbi should be.
My present congregation and I have a different kind of partnership. When we canceled that Friday night at the end of January, I had already done the preparation. The cantor and I had met to plan the service. I had learned the Torah and had prepared something to say. The president and I were both disappointed that we had to cancel, but we were also in agreement that the value of a life – mine and theirs – superseded Shabbat.
We made the same decision this past Shabbat, on a snowy February weekend. Canceling feels a bit more poignant to me since I am aware that my shabbatot in this congregation will end come July. But it also heightens my sense of gratitude for being in a place where we can have the conversation.
Rabbi Ellen Lewis (www.rabbiellenlewis.com) has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals. In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision. After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata. Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (www.jcnwj.org).
Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies (www.cmps.edu) and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (www.acapnj.org). She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org). She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.