Categories
member support mental health

Rabbis, Can We Talk?

Life in the ministry is one of contrasts. There can be great joy, a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and also loneliness, frustration, and pain (Hileman, 2008, p. 121).

Clergy families experience stressors that are unique to their situation, including lack of privacy and heightened visibility, extra expectations and higher standards, significant time demands, frequent moves, and intrusiveness and boundary ambiguity (Cooper, 2013, p. 2).

I don’t think that most of us need academic articles to tell us how uniquely challenging it is to be a rabbi and, for many of us, to be part of a rabbi’s family. In ways large and small, those of us employed by organizations and congregations have experienced such “loneliness, frustration, and pain.” And now that we are living in Covid-world, these feelings are multiplied seven-fold.  

All of this, of course, is exacerbated by the ongoing challenges, stresses, and too often injustices experienced by women, people of color, LGBTQIA colleagues, older rabbis, the unemployed, and the underemployed. The rabbinate can be the best of callings and the worst of jobs. We find ourselves having to navigate through the constantly changing landscape of working for/with bosses we are tasked with leading. Reflecting back on his career, one of our most respected and “successful” past-presidents once said, “The rabbinate is the perfect place to have your heart broken.”

Studies have shown (Kress, J.S., et al., 2007), and most of us can attest to the unique meaning and fulfillment that comes from serving communities as rabbis. I have felt so very blessed to be part of people’s lives in their most joyous and most tragic moments, playing a unique healing and transformative role unavailable to persons of other helping professions. And I would imagine that you have felt so blessed as well. For many, this balances out the unique challenges we face and the hurt we endure.

But there are moments in our lives when this is not enough. Many, like myself, have had difficult if not devastating experiences in our organizations and congregations. Many, like Joseph, have risen and transcended; many have not, framing themselves as failures and despairing of ever having a satisfying rabbinate again. And even in the absence of such, so many of us know the pervasive feeling of being alone.

Through surveys and conversations, CCAR has heard you.

I am honored and grateful to have been welcomed into the CCAR staff as a Special Advisor for Member Support and Counseling. I, along with our amazing colleague, Rex Perlmeter, am here for you. I bring to this position my thirty-nine years as a congregational rabbi, my experiences of advising and nurturing other rabbis and cantors, and my ongoing training as a marriage and family therapy intern. I am offering to walk with you–and, if desired, your family–as you cope with the emotional issues with which you are dealing in your professional and/or personal life. And of course, our conversations are totally confidential.

Final words (for now)–a story:

A man walked into a psychiatrist’s office, fell onto the couch and, with deep sadness, blurted out, “Doctor, I hope you can help me. There is no joy in my life. I constantly feel depressed, unworthy, and filled with despair. Nothing, but nothing lifts my spirits.” Said the psychiatrist, “Sir, I have just the remedy for you! Go to the theater tonight where Carlucci the Clown is performing. He brings laughter to every face and joy to every heart. I guarantee you that Carlucci will lift your spirits!” Said the man, “Doc, you don’t understand. I am Carlucci!”

Have you ever felt like Carlucci? I have. So often we have found ourselves fulfilling the needs of others while hiding and suppressing our own. Loneliness bears down as we feel unable to share our vulnerabilities and self-perceived failures with our peers and with others who understand, sometimes even with those closest to us.

And so, in the words of a great Jewish sage, “Can we talk?”


Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff, D.D., R.J.E, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey. He is certified as interim clergy by the national Interim Ministry Network, and he is currently pursuing an MS degree in Marriage and Family Therapy through Capella University.

Cooper, N. (2013). Resilience and clergy families (Order No. 3604924). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1477549275).

Hileman, L. (2008) The unique needs of Protestant clergy families: implications for marriage and family counseling.Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10(2), 119-144, DOI:  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19349630802081152

Kress, J. S., Cohen, S. M., & Davidson, A. (2007). Perceptions and roles of conservative rabbis: Findings and implications related to identity and education. Journal of Jewish Education, 73(3), 191–207. https://doi-org.library.capella.edu/10.1080/15244110701653967

Categories
chaplains Healing mental health

Bikur Cholim: Bringing God with You on Your Visit

“One should follow the attributes of the Holy One of Blessing…Just as the Holy One of Blessing visits the sick as it is written with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision: ‘And the Eternal appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre’ (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick.” (Sotah 14a)

Bikur cholim is, of course, a large part of our job as rabbis, especially these days during the midst of the pandemic.  And the visiting is hard, because it is all virtual. We don’t get to be like God and visit Abraham while he was sunning himself outside his tent as he healed from his formal, ritual entry into the b’rit with God. And yet, we know how important our presence is, even an online one or a phone call. The visit is real, even if the technology is virtual.

As someone with chronic illnesses, both “physical” and mental, I am often on the receiving end of bikur cholim. Whenever I am in the hospital, I always ask for a visit from the chaplain office, Jewish or not; I like a chance to talk theology and theodicy, and I find relief in a visitor that is concerned for me, but not so upset at my illness that I have to comfort them in return. Over the years, I have (as I am sure many of you have), collected favorite “what not to say” sayings. One chaplain (a lay person, not Jewish) came into my room as I was recovering from a medication reaction. With a big smile, she said, “Hi, I’m Marie, from the chaplains office. I understand you are Jewish. I love the Jews!” It’s hard to follow up on that. I mean, I want to be loved, but…

We all know, at least in theory, that bikur cholim is all about the “I-Thou” moment, the being together, person-to-person, recognizing the Divine in the other, and opening ourselves up to the other, to risk showing who we are, the Divine in ourselves. And truly doing that, creating that safe, gentle holding space for the sick person to just be—well, that, after a while may be, not only moving and profound, but also exhausting. Being vulnerable is risky; it may be frightening. And in the midst of all the other things one has to do these days simply to keep one’s congregation, one’s nursing home or other job function, summoning all that energy to be fully present when calling/ Zooming with yet another sick person may simply feel like too much. 

Instead, we text or email: “I’m thinking of you.  R’fuah sh’leimah.” And that is not nothing. Being remembered matters, at least to me, when I am ill. It is not, however, the same as the gift of your presence—even if our time together is only a short phone call. The warmth of your voice on the phone (even just a message on my voicemail) feels healing, and I save it for months to play back in hard moments; if we actually connect, you might make me laugh for a moment or let me cry in your presence. All of this matters more than you can imagine.

And all the more so when my illness is psychological and not just physical.  From the depths of my depression, I do not have the energy to reach out, to figure out what I need and ask for the help I need. When you extend your hand, it can be a lifeline into my abyss. 

In the time that I have been struggling with my depression (over 35 years and counting!), as well as my struggles physically with my stroke and its aftermath, I have been visited by rabbis and friends of all sorts. So many of them, of you, have talked with me, made jokes, sat with me in silence (although most people find that hard to do, it is necessary at times; a good thing to remember!). And many, virtually all of the rabbis, as well as my best friend, who is an Episcopal priest, have offered to pray for me, to put me on their Mi Shebeirach list. I was, and am, always grateful for that; praying for me, for anyone, is, in my belief, is a way of placing me, metaphorically, from one’s heart into God’s hand. But in that time, only one person, a rabbinic friend, has ever offered to pray WITH me at that moment. 

And that is also what I needed. When I am depressed, it is not just that God feels hard to reach. It is that when I reach out to God, I experience a deep, dark, whirling abyss, and I fear that I shall fall into in, falling forever into nothingness. I can’t pray. But if someone were to pray with me (and sometimes I find the strength to ask a clergy friend to pray with me), then I have a hand to hold. My theology, my belief feels tenuous at best, but when you pray with me, I can lean on your faith, as it were, if only for a moment.  And that is a blessing.

I know it might feel awkward to ask each person: would you like me to say a prayer with you? But if you don’t ask, you don’t know. Some people might just like to say the Sh’ma together, or sing whatever Mi Shebeirach your community is using, while others might like a Psalm or a prayer you make up in the moment, just for that person or family. Especially in these days, when we cannot hold the hand of the person we are visiting, offering a prayer as part of our bikur cholim may be yet another way of connecting with those who are hurting. It is bringing the Holy One of Blessing right there, into the FaceTime call.


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs.  She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.  She may be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com

Categories
mental health

‘Coming Unglued’: Losing and Finding Myself during a Pandemic

Rabbi Cohen is well known for her involvement in national mental health outreach in the Jewish community using traditional Jewish values/ middot of compassion and respect as a model for reaching out to people with mental health issues. She is a determined advocate for those with mental illness and their families. She sees her work as both opening the topic and continuing the conversation. Here, she shares a feeling so many of us can relate to during this uncertain timethat of feeling unmoored—and the ways in which she\ copes.


The ribbons on my book, Talmud Bavli, Masechet B’rachot, fell off. There were two of them, one red, one blue, pasted to the inseam of the volume, so I could mark my place—my places, actually, since I learn this tractate with three different chavrutas, as well as having been through it twice in the Daf Yomi cycle, B’rachot being the first tractate in the Talmud. “Let’s start at the very beginning. . .“ “From what time does one say the evening Sh’ma?”

Because I am learning B’rachot with three different people, I had stopped exclusively using the ribbons as place markers; Post-its, it turns out, mark page and text well. My chavruta mostly do not know Aramaic, the language of much of the Talmud, and mine is a bit rusty (much better since beginning the Daf Yomi project, but probably not quite as good as my Hebrew and Aramaic were in rabbinical school). Therefore, the edition of the Talmud we are using is the Koren, which has the traditional version opening from the right, Hebrew style, and an annotated English version (with occasional pictures!) opening from the left. Sometimes, I would use my ribbons to mark the Hebrew daf; sometimes, they would mark an important explanation that we needed some pages later; other times, the blue ribbon would stay on a page with a puzzling picture: Did the editor think we could not imagine a donkey with saddlebags without an illustration?

And now, I have come unglued. Or, at least, my ribbons have. They lay across the white page of my journal, marking nothing. It seems right, somehow, that now is the moment they would lose their bearings, as it were, because, well, haven’t we all? Except for Shabbat, which I mark with candles, Kiddush, Motzi, Havdalah, it is hard to know what day it is. Morning runs into afternoon into sleep and morning again. I check my calendar anxiously, to make sure I haven’t missed an appointment. Is that meeting tomorrow, or this afternoon? I am trying to write a little every day. Am I יוצא (yotzei) having fulfilled today’s obligation, or was it yesterday I fulfilled it?? I think of my ancestors, who marked time by the dawn, by the stars, by the phases of the moon. How did, I, with my Google Calendar and clock on my phone, get so lost in space and time?

It’s not that I don’t have some standing appointments. Somehow, however, it’s not the same as having them in person. My weekly lunch date with a friend has become an occasional picnic on her front porch, carefully distanced, floating from day to day, depending on the week and our schedules; it no longer shows up as a “repeat weekly” on my phone. We have to seek each other out, this friend and others. I plan walks “with” friends, each of us on the phone, in the early mornings before it gets too hot. I hear the traffic in their neighborhoods, while they hear me going up and down the hills in mine. It is not the same as exercising together in person, deciding to take one more lap around the park as we hash out the problems in our lives and in the world, but it is something.

My therapist, who is still a regular appointment, baruch HaShem, appears to me on FaceTime from her kitchen or backyard, looking slightly more casual, but still there. I have finally figured out how to place a tissue or sock over the small image of myself in the corner of screen; it’s well-nigh impossible to do therapy while looking at myself. But teletherapy is still odd, different. The silences which are so normal, so important, so rich in a therapy session feel even more awkward on screen. The focus feels strange: on the one hand, my room, my home is filled with distractions from therapy and our relationship, making it hard to go deep into whatever I am wrestling with; on the other hand, having the screen filled with my therapist’s shoulders and head makes me realize how much time I spend looking at her knees during a typical session—a way of being with her, but not too intensely as I struggle with difficult material. And still. I lose track of time and days: Am I seeing her tomorrow? Or was that yesterday? And what is there left to talk about? The silence grows. A new way of coming unglued—I feel less connected to her, and that frightens me.

My chavrutas connect me, however. We check in with one another, some more deeply than others. Over the years, we have learned one another as well as B’rachot. “You say you are fine, but you don’t sound fine,” one of us might say to the other. או חברותא או מתותא (o chavruta o m’tutah), the rabbis taught: friendship/companionship or death. We argue and push and pull, laugh and wonder and struggle over the daf in front of us. What were the rabbis thinking? How does this prooftext possibly prove anything? What is the connection between the daf and our practice today? And underneath, before, and after, we hold one another with a Torah of presence: I am here for you. Sometimes we use words; sometimes, just this gentle “holding” is enough to give each other strength. 

So, these are the people in my life to ask “Where am I?” I have come unglued. I have lost my “place,” not just in the Talmud, but in my life right now. Where am I?

My enormous whiteboard looms large and colorful in my room; I am storyboarding my book in different-colored dry-erase markers. The ideas are flowing well, and I am frightened: I seem to be committing myself to actually writing a book. It has moved—no, I am moving it—from theory to possibility to something I can see myself doing. How did this happen? Who am I to write a book?

This is where I am—and I’m coming unglued. Am I crazy to think I can do this? My mind is running away…

And my circle of people responds: Here is where you are. At the beginning of the process of writing a book. We believe in you.

You play bridge with us and take virtual walks with us, say my friends.
You listen to us and make us feel heard and loved. That is where you are. 
Your place is beginning chapter 6, says my chavruta. Or page 124. 
Your place is inside yourself, says my therapist. It’s okay.
And all respond: Breathe. We believe in you. In your project. In your book. In you. 

Perhaps the ribbons will mark new space—in my book, about mental illness and Judaism, and about me becoming unglued.



Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She can be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com
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Categories
mental health Torah

Responding to and Healing from Our Own ‘Tzaraat’ Without Stigma or Shame

In days of old, when a person came down with scaly skin, weird baldness, and strange discharge, he or she went to Aharon or one of his descendants, priests all, to be diagnosed. If it was bad enough, if it was indeed tzaraat,once translated as leprosy, but understood by the rabbis as a spiritual, not just physical diseasethe ill person was isolated and sent outside the camp to get better. After a certain amount of time, the person with tzaraat would return to the community, with an elaborate welcoming ritual: mikvah, a sacrifice, and an anointing by Aharon himself. But what happens when we are all sent outside the camp?  

In this second half of this week’s parshah, there is an even stranger idea introduced: tzaraat of a house. What might look like mold on the walls of the house might be something more dangerous, more insidious – the plague of tzaraat in the house, permeating the walls and inner workings of the place where we dwell. Once again, if “plague” of the house is suspected, or feared, a person goes to the priest, who examines the house. If the house does not “heal” within seven days, it must be taken apart, brick by brick, stone by stone, and those building blocks cast outside the camp. The house is then rebuilt, plastering new stones in in place of the old, plagued ones.

What are we to learn from this? Here we are, in a time of “plague,” both separated from one another for our own good, and yet connected in our separation; here we are, alone, together. And I am struck that in the Torah, when a person is afflicted with tzaraat, there is no shame; there is simply a method of dealing with the occurrence. Indeed, we are told later in the Torah, that when Miriam was struck with tzaraat, the entire community of Israel waited seven days for her to heal so that she could rejoin the camp before they all moved on, together. (While the rabbis make a connection between tzaraat and lashon hara, I am going in a completely different direction here, so bear with me!) So, too, we might treat those of us who are struggling with stress, anxiety, depressionwhether normative, existential responses to the world we are inhabiting right now, or those of us who have actual mental illnesses. When in doubt, the first thing to do is to get help:  go to someone to check out your condition. That might be a friend, or a fellow rabbi. It might be a therapist, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. This reaching out for help is the first step in treating the problem. It is, alas, not a magic step: even Aharon, the high priest, could not instantly cure tzaraat.  But he, and we, can at least name the problem, and take steps to treat it.  

Of course, we shouldn’t send folks with mental health issues outside the camp. We want to decrease stigma, not validate harmful stereotypes! And the rabbinic interpretation of the treatment of the m’tzora is already moving in that direction. Concerning the m’tzora, the Torah explains, her clothes shall be rent, her head shall be bare; she shall cover her upper lip and call out “טמא, טמא!! Impure! Impure!…And her dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45)

Upon first reading, this crying out is a way to tell people “to go away, avoid me. I am sick, I am dangerous. I have bipolar disorder! My child is autistic!  I am so anxious I can’t get dressed in the morning! I am mentally ill: beware lest I infect you. I am impure, unclean, perhaps even God has forsaken me!!” But the rabbis turn this over upon its head. In the Talmud, in Tractate Niddah (66a) they explain, the afflicted person calls out “טמא!” so as let others “know of his sufferings so that they may pray for mercy on his behalf.” Instead of casting out those who suffer, it is our job to bring into our community those who are in pain. And until we know who is hurting, we cannot help one another.

Sometimes, when mental illness, or just overwhelming stress, enters our lives, our daily routine can become a “plagued” house. We have to look at the stones that make up our lives, and see which ones are moldy and full of tzaraat, full of things that are making our depression or anxiety worse, and cast out those behaviors. Perhaps we need moreor less sleep. How is our eating: full of sugar, or nutrients? We can look for balance: for actions that heal, and also forgiving ourselves for not being perfect, for doing the best we can. Sometimes, a five-mile run is the best we can. Sometimes, taking a shower takes as much effort and deserves just as much credit. 

We will survive this external plague of COVID-19. With compassion and courage, we can name and respond to the internal tzaraat among us as well.


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs.  She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She can be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com

Categories
Healing member support mental health Torah

Confronting Our Fears through Tazria and M’tzora

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria and M’tzora is difficult. It also has a reputation for inspiring fear and dread of any bar or bat mitzvah student who receives it for their Shabbat service. Tazria and M’tzora speak of bodily functions, illness, and quarantine. It talks about:

  • Childbirth
  • Disease
  • Contact with bodily fluids
  • Afflictions of the skin

It also speaks of how, when a person contracts a condition like this, they need to go through a series of ritual cleansings, inspections, and separation before they are allowed back into the community.

The disease, Tzaraat (which I’ll talk more about below) is not only a human disease—it can affect the walls of people’s homes as well—thereby giving it another dimension that expands its reach from that of a human disease to a more global condition.

It’s tempting to try and draw parallels from the fact that these two Torah portions speak of disease and quarantine while our community, state, nation and, indeed, the entire world is coping with the coronavirus—but, rather than succumbing to this temptation, I want to talk instead about why these chapters are included in our sacred text in the first place. What lessons can we learn—not only from the content of our parashah, but the context in which the discussion takes place? You see, I don’t think that all of these laws about tzaraat—which we translate as leprosy, but clearly is something else—are included in the narrative to teach us about cleanliness, diagnosis or medical care. Rather, I think, they are about our fears.

Tzaraat, in our text, is a disease that clearly has a powerful impact on the Ancient Israelite community. It is not only experienced physically, but spiritually. The fact that houses can be infected, as well as humans, should give us a clue that more is going on beneath the surface than is readily apparent.

This time of quarantine, illness, and loss has taken its toll on all of us. The facts that we cannot be physically close to one another; that our economy is suffering; that our national political discourse has become so toxic, are taking a toll on us physically, emotionally and spiritually. We do not know how long this will continue. We worry about our health and those of our loved ones—some of whom are dealing with the virus, others who are vulnerable, and others who are on the front lines providing medical care, research, support, and other crucial services that allow us to function. We worry about how we will emerge from our isolation and what our world will look like once we do.

In Tazaria and M’tzora, our ancestors had to deal with the unknown. They were afraid of something over which they had no control. The rituals of isolation, immersion, and re-entry were designed to provide a safe framework for the people to feel that they were not endangered by this unseen enemy.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how psychologists and other mental health professionals are keenly aware of the fact that everyone is affected (infected?) by COVID-19, regardless of whether or not they contract the virus. The radical overturning of our daily lives that we are experiencing is enough to shift our emotional equilibrium. This can manifest itself in many different forms—from depression to compulsive behaviors, to denial, revolt, and even other physical ailments.

Perhaps one of our key tasks at this time is to try to understand and anticipate our fear of the unknown and our reactions to it. As such, I want to propose the following seven questions for us to explore as we continue on our journey:

  1. Research has shown that staying physically active during quarantine is an essential part of staying healthy. Am I engaging in enough physical activity?
  2. For those who are in quarantine with others: Am I aware of the needs of others in my home? Am I doing all that I can to understand what they are going through as well me? Am I tolerant of my own missteps as well as those with whom I am living?
  3. Am I doing all that I can to be productive during this time? Are there tasks that need to be completed? Do I have outlets for creativity and meaningful outlets other than television, the internet, and other passive activities?
  4. Am I looking for ways to help others? Are there ways that I can volunteer my time or expertise as well as my financial resources?
  5. Am I willing to receive help from others?
  6. Psychologists teach us that it is important that we not dwell too long on the length of time that we have been—or will be—socially distant. We need to remind ourselves that this is a temporary situation that will be resolved someday. We also need to be “in the moment” as much as we can.
  7. There will be times when our fears will get the best of us. No one can be strong all the time. Have I been able to forgive myself for those moments when I don’t feel productive or give into the despair of the moment?

Again, these are only a few questions designed to help us process our fears of the unknown. Like our ancestors wandering in the wilderness, there is much that we do not know. At the same time, however, we also have the blessing of being part of a sacred community that cares for one another.


Rabbi Joe Black is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. 


Categories
Healing Holiday member support mental health News Passover Pesach Prayer Rabbis spirituality

The World as It Is: Passover 5780

The World as It Is: [1]: Coronavirus has forced me, like many people, to change my exercise routines. Instead of a half hour on the elliptical, I’m taking hour-long walks in the neighborhood. Sad as I was to give up the gym, I’m finding great pleasure in the walks. I have always loved springtime, and there’s the most magnificent quartet of large hydrangea trees, all fully in bloom, along my route. Often, I find myself struggling to reconcile the visible natural world, so pointedly alive this time of year, with the invisible natural world, so toxic to our lives now.

The very best moment of any of these daily walks came last week. My walk takes me past several congregants’ homes, but I hadn’t run into any until the day that my path crossed with a congregant, around my age, and his aging father, who has rather advanced dementia. He’s moving slowly, using a walker. Nevertheless, father and son were walking to the end of the street to have a look at the magnificent tulips in bloom at the corner.

In this most difficult moment in America, and in the personal life of their family, father and son together created a beautiful moment. 

Judaism offers blessings for everything. One that may be unfamiliar is the blessing for seeing something particularly stunning in nature, be that a uniquely handsome person or a magnificent landscape. The words of that blessing, though, don’t express that purpose as obviously as they might: Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shekacha lo b’olamo, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, for this is how it is in the world.”

While the blessing is intended to recognize beauty, its words suggest acceptance. We praise God for making the world as it is—with the bitter and the sweet, the devastating pandemic and the unwelcome opportunity for personal growth, the debilitating illness and the drive to continue appreciating life, the loss of life-sustaining employment and the personal reinvention that may emerge. The horrors of dementia and the beauty of the tulips.

Passover asks us to do exactly that.

Matzah is known to most of us as “the bread of freedom.” Yes, it’s true: Torah tells us that our ancestors had no time to let the bread rise as they were escaping Egyptian bondage [2]. Paradoxically, though, matzah is also “the bread of affliction, the poor bread, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt [3]. After all, slaves aren’t given time for the luxury of giving their bread the time to rise.

When I ask people, “What does the matzah represent,” the answer is almost always the same: I hear the story about leaving Egypt in haste. I almost never hear the quotation we read each year at Seder, “the poor bread.” Perhaps that’s because we wish to accentuate the positive. I wonder, though, if it’s a reluctance to accept the world as it is, warts and all.

The Seder ritual is full of such symbols. We eat the bitter herb together with the sweet charoset, reminding us that one must taste the bitterness of bondage before finding sweetness in liberation. We behold a roasted egg, symbol of the Jerusalem Temple, burned to the ground with a fire so hot that even its stones walls exploded. The Temple in ruins is Judaism’s symbol for the reality that we live in an imperfect, unredeemed world. The world as it is, as God created it, is filled with poverty and injustice—even slavery, with human beings trafficked like commodities for free labor or worse, for unwilling prostitution. And God knows, this unredeemed world today includes a devastating pandemic and the hardships of mass unemployment that accompany it.

Our Seder also invites us to open the door to Elijah—that is, to the prospect of redemption, of a better world to come. A custom that many of us have adopted is not to fill Elijah’s cup in advance, but to ask every participant at the Seder to fill that cup, symbolizing our collective responsibility to bring redemption. This year, we’ll have to do that in much smaller groups or even virtually, but the symbolism remains powerful. We can make the world better, even in this difficult time.

We are livestreaming worship services from the homes of clergy and volunteers. Yes, we miss being together—and even the inspiration of bringing our Sanctuary into our homes, which we have enjoyed in the last few weeks. More importantly, though, we will better protect ourselves from the virus and model the most important step that everybody can take to stay well: Stay home.

Some of us can volunteer in ways that lighten the burden for others. I’m grateful to be part of an effort by the congregation I serve, our city, and the Clinton Foundation, to feed families in need during this crisis.

I do not know why this world is as it is, with all its beauty and splendor, with all its cruelty and devastation. I do know that we must all do our part to enhance the service and caring, to soften the meanness and suffering. And even during these most difficult days and weeks that will stretch into months and perhaps even years, let us praise God for creating the world as it is.

Amen.


[1] I am grateful to Alan Goodis, whose song, Shekacha lo ba-olamo, inspired this reflection.
[2] Exodus 12:39
[3] The Passover Haggadah


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is the editor of  The Mussar Torah Commentary, CCAR Press, 2020.

Categories
Healing member support mental health Rabbis spirituality

The Good Enough Rabbi (Redux)

Who among us hasn’t seen the so-called chain letter entitled, “The Perfect Rabbi” (modeled on “The Perfect Pastor,” author unknown)? You know, the one that says “the perfect rabbi preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor …” etc., and then tells you to bundle up your rabbi and send him (yes, him) to the top synagogue on the list. It’s hard not to wince while smiling at this description of our laypeople’s fantasies about us. We wince a second time when we recognize how we ourselves fall victim to believing this fantasy. 

Some years ago, frustrated by the way both laypeople and rabbi had internalized this image of perfection, I wrote a parody of the parody and called it “The Good Enough Rabbi” (inspired by the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough” mother). A parody, yes, but one with underlying seriousness: What would it mean for us rabbis if we gave up the aspiration to be perfect and instead accepted the good-enough? Would we be less successful or less loved? Would we feel more inadequate, less in control, more disappointing, or more hopeless?

While you might argue that now is not the time to raise this issue once again, I would suggest that the present crisis offers the perfect (okay, good-enough) opportunity for this conversation. The coronavirus crisis highlights the basic conflicts with which we already struggle. If we normally work a little too hard, we are working even harder now. If we usually worry about how long the temple will stay afloat, we are even more concerned now. If we normally have difficulty maintaining self-care practices, whatever little we might have done before falls apart at a time like this. If protecting a day off always requires some effort, that effort feels herculean in this moment. 

It’s true that we live in desperate times. We’ve been called upon to shift our entire rabbinic life onto Zoom. We’ve been challenged to offer pastoral care remotely, a seeming contradiction in terms. We stand alone by the graveside. We scramble to create an appropriate backdrop to our teaching and services, all the while watching the disappearance of our carefully guarded boundaries between home and work. And how again do you enhance your appearance on Zoom when your gray roots are showing and you haven’t been able to get your eyebrows waxed?

The ramping up has taken every bit of our energy and then some. Many of us are exhausted. And yet we also feel strangely gratified. We’ve been surprised at how intimate a remote funeral can feel. We’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people logging on to Shabbat services. We’ve found support from each other on our CCAR and WRN Facebook pages like never before. We’ve been stretched thin, but at the same time, we feel needed and productive. 

“This is a good moment to turn that sense of self-judgment into self-inquiry. What do you yourself need in this moment? Whatever you usually do for self-care, the solution now is to do more of it.”

We rabbis love to fix things, so this productivity can be like a drug for us. The more we experience its rewards, the more we crave it.  So we feel tempted to say yes to everything. We think about what else we can offer, how much more programming we can create, how many more phone calls we can make. At the same time, we bemoan the loss of the usual time off. We complain about how many hours we spend on Zoom. We are either sad to be alone or crazed by having children underfoot. We are in such constant motion that we have lost touch with what we might be feeling and how we are really doing. We need to sit still in order to grieve all that has been lost, both the personal and the communal. And frankly, we need to accept that we just can’t fix this.

It would be lovely to offer the perfect prescription for self-care at this point, but a self-care practice just isn’t a “one size fits all.” You first have to know yourself before you can craft what constitutes self-care for you. We have all been told we should meditate, exercise, do yoga, avoid junk food, and be in therapy (guilty as charged). It’s hard to argue with any of that. But what makes one person feel restored isn’t always the same for another. Prayer might work for you, but it might not for me. Knitting might bring solace to one, while reading does it for another. Cleaning your house and rolling out your refrigerator to vacuum the coils can be surprisingly satisfying (okay, I confess). Breaking up with Facebook is the way for some, while connecting with friends on Facebook comforts others. And what would happen if we gave ourselves permission to do nothing at all. I think of the wise words of that bear-of-very-little-brain: “Sometimes I sits and thinks,” said Winnie the Pooh, “And sometimes I just sits.” What if we, the people who gave the world the Sabbath, actually allowed ourselves a Sabbath rest?

Self-care doesn’t require conformity. If anything, it asks of us greater tolerance of the variety of ways in which we live our rabbinates. We can get a little preachy, those of us who are trained to preach. And we rabbis are a sensitive lot. We bristle at others’ telling us what we should be doing. Most of us don’t need help criticizing ourselves. We already see what someone else is doing and imagine he/she/they is the “Perfect Rabbi” against whom we don’t measure up. How often do we read our own perceived failures in other peoples’ successes? This is a good moment to turn that sense of self-judgment into self-inquiry. What do you yourself need in this moment? Whatever you usually do for self-care, the solution now is to do more of it. Rest more. Clean more. Talk more. Knit more. Binge-watch more. And if what you normally do isn’t working for you, try something else. Take advantage of the CCAR coaches who are offering pro bono sessions. Find a chevruta. Try self-compassion. And most of all, let yourself feel whatever it is that you yourself need to feel. 

We don’t know yet where and when this will end, but it will. And in that future time of recuperation and assessment, our role will be even more important. That is reason enough for us to work at self-preservation in the present so we will have energy left for tomorrow. We need to remind ourselves that working harder isn’t necessarily working better. We need to remember that being resilient may be our greatest talent of all. Our people have survived calamities and disasters by virtue of our adaptability and creativity.  Save your energy. In a time where perfection isn’t the gold standard, give yourself permission to be good enough.

* With gratitude to a wonderful Supervision Group for their suggestions and inspiring support of me and each other.


Rabbi Ellen Lewis is a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and in New York City. She was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies and has served on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis. She is also certified as a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.

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The Salted Offering: Grief’s Place on the Altar

Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi wrote this piece to share with colleagues in the Hillel world (and beyond) via Hillel International’s Office of Innovation. 


I’ve been crying a lot these days. Many of you have been, too. From the increasingly distressing news, to the demands of homeschooling our young children, to mourning the loss of the senior year we had dreamed of for so long, much brings us to tears.

I have to admit, I wasn’t very comforted when first I turned to this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Vayikra. Detailing the circumstances and forms of the various sacrifices our people were commanded to bring to the altar of the Temple, the parashah starts right in with details for which animals to bring at which times, how they would be slaughtered, and what type of expiation would be thereby attained. Collective guilt, blood and sinew, the recognition that closeness requires sacrifice: the truths contained in the priestly sacrifices seemed both too distant and too close to home.

In this global crisis, there’s too much blaming, shaming, finger-pointing, and hoarding; and yet, we see also glimpses of collective responsibility, from sewing homemade masks to calling nursing home residents barred from welcoming in-person visitors. The porousness of our bodies confronts us everywhere we look; I could spin into despair, and then I hear my youngest singing, “Happy Birthday to Someone,” each and every time they wash their little hands, and I smile. On the tree-lined sidewalks of my Brooklyn street, as flowering trees begin to blossom, I find myself shuffling away from my neighbors; and then I recall with fear and gratitude the closeness to this disease of my friends and students and colleagues who are healthcare workers.

What a time to read of the sacrifices of our people—and their awe, which we understand so differently now—of our bodily fluids and the precarious barrier between life and death.

And then a particular verse caught my eye:

וְכָל-קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹהֶיךָ מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ עַל כָּל-קָרְבָּנְךָ תַּקְרִיב מֶלַח

 “You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Vayirka 2:13).

Immediately photos of emptied grocery store shelves flashed in my mind. No milk. No flour. No bread. No toilet paper. No disinfectant, or paper towels, or vinegar, or pasta, or frozen vegetables, or medical masks, or latex gloves. Salt in plenty.

A precious preservative, salt represents an everlasting covenant, a relationship between God and the people that stands the test of time, as the Ramban notes. But there is another meaning, and it comes from the story of creation.

In the beginning, all was chaos, and the waters were united. It was not until the second day that God “separated water from water” (B’reishit 1:6‒7).

Imagine how it felt for those waters: united for the eye-blink of an eternity, before there was anything at all, anything but God and the unformed void, there were waters, confusedly one. Suddenly, God begins the great act of creation, and in that act of creation, God made something new for the waters: distance, separation.

In what seemed to some a moment, in what seemed to others an agonizingly slow few weeks as the COVID-19 virus spread across the globe, the human family faced a new and stark separation. We tribal creatures have retreated to separate abodes, water divided from water.

According to the Midrash, the inevitable consequence of this separation was…tears:

אָמַר רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּה

Rabbi Berechyah said: “The waters below did not separate from those above except with weeping” (B’reishit Rabbah 5:4).

Here it is: the salt. According to the wise rabbis of our tradition, the salt we offer at the altar, the salt that accompanies all our sacrifices, has its origins in the tears of separation. The salt of the waters before creation, the waters that became sea and sky, were salty tears of grief.

What does it mean, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to season our offerings with salt? It means we bring our tears to all that we give in this crisis, and that is okay. It means that what connects us to God and to tradition and to the Jewish people, spread out as we are and isolated in our individual homes, is not only the gifts we bring, but our griefs and our disappointments as well.

Indeed, says the great Torah commentator Rashi, when God saw the disappointment and sadness of the lower waters, God decreed that the salt of the sea would forever be offered upon the altar, linking what is below to what is above, what is mundane to what is holy.

It can be this way for us, too. During this crisis, we can maintain our holy and life-giving distance, and we can mourn the loss of closeness, community, and contact. We can sacrifice what is needed, the “fat” of our material resources, and we can season those offerings with our feelings of loss.

Our tradition demands much of us: no longer the precisely rendered fats and juices of bulls and rams and turtle-doves; instead, a daily, rhythmical, cyclical attention to the blessings (quotidian and extraordinary) that surround us, and a scrupulous quest to engage in practices ethical and collectively beneficial. In such times as these, the demands of tradition can ground us. But without the salt of our grief and disappointment, we risk being crushed under their enormity.

Vulnerability is frightening. And it is deeply human. From the Torah and from modern thinkers like Brene Brown, we can gain much from looking at our vulnerability as an offering we can make alongside our resilience, strength, and pragmatism (all of which we need right now).

Ask yourself today: What sacrifices have I made to benefit the public good during this crisis? What sacrifices have I made to preserve my own safety, the safety of those I love, or the safety of my neighbors and community?

Light a candle. Breathe in for a count of four. Focus on a sacrifice you have made. Now breathe out for a count of four. As you watch the flickering flame, as you see its smoke rise, know that your sacrifices are linked to the sacrifices our people have made in the past.

Ask yourself today: What offerings have I withheld from my family, my friends, my community, at this time? How might I safely contribute my gifts?

Have you forgotten what talents and skills you possess? It’s easy, in times of high anxiety and widespread fear, to focus on what we cannot do, on how powerless we might feel. Imagine yourself, picture yourself, at your most skillful and competent. What characterizes you at your best? Make a list of these attributes. Brainstorm one action you might take to use that skill as a gift to others, whether they be folks in your household or in the wider world.

And, finally, ask yourself now: What griefs and disappointments have seemed “too trivial” to voice during this crisis? While it is true that this pandemic affects us differently, with very real and dire unique consequences for the chronically ill, the disabled, the poor (the list is far too long), we may also be holding on to grief unrecognized. I have spoken with wedding couples blessed to have one another, and yet grieving the celebration they have been forced to downsize or cancel. I have heard from students with secure places to live and plenty of food, and yet grieving the commencement ceremony they had pictured for four long years. Your griefs and disappointments are real, and need not be placed on a scale of “worst” or “hardest.”

And so the Torah reminds us: make your sacrifices, for the sake of the whole people, but do not omit the salt from your offerings. Your grief has a place on the altar.


Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, PhD, spent the first years of her rabbinate at New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. She is currently transitioning into freelance and other rabbinic work; learn more at rabbinikki.com

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member support mental health

Coronavirus and the Clergy-Penitent Privilege: Guidance for Rabbis

Jean-Marc Favreau and Michael Gan of Peer, Gan & Gisler, LLP share guidance around confidentiality between rabbis and community members. While this guidance is intended to raise awareness about issues related to maintaining confidentiality between rabbis and those they minister to, it is not intended as legal advice, nor should it substitute for your own due diligence in researching these issues and options or obtaining legal advice that could address your specific circumstances. If you have further questions, feel free to contact the CCAR or Jean-Marc Favreau or Michael Gan at Peer, Gan, & Gisler LLP.




Given the current COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on how we all are communicating and doing our jobs, many rabbis are utilizing different forms of technology to communicate with their congregants as well as to conduct and broadcast services, sermons, and other events. These unique circumstances offer a good opportunity to review and offer some guidance on some of the fundamental principles surrounding the Clergy-Penitent Privilege and how it is impacted when communications do not take place in person.

Privileged Communications Generally

  • Generally, communications between a member of the clergy and an individual who comes to them for counseling, spiritual guidance, or other reasons that would reasonably be considered private are privileged under state laws and court evidentiary rules. In the simplest terms, with very limited exceptions, a rabbi cannot be forced to disclose such communications.
  • It is essential to understand the particular confidentiality laws of your state, as there could be some differences in defining who holds the privilege, who is entitled to its protections, what types of communications are confidential, and what types of communications must be reported to authorities.
  • Beyond legal rights and obligations regarding confidentiality, rabbis also have an ethical responsibility to keep the types of communications described above private and secure.
  • Implicit in these legal privileges and ethical obligations is the requirement that the rabbi take reasonable steps to prevent the disclosure of such communications. Leaving a notebook containing personal information about a congregant out in a public space where it could be read by others is as much an ethical violation as letting private information about a congregant slip out during a conversation with another individual.

The Effect of Technology on the Privilege

  • Significantly, the privilege (and your ethical obligations) attach equally to in-person meetings as they do to communications that take place over the phone, videoconferencing (e.g. Skype, Zoom, Facetime), or via other communication platforms.
  • The important distinction between in-person and phone/video communications lies in how and whether the communications are kept secure. Whenever technology is introduced, the rabbi should exercise some due diligence to ensure that the software/tools used have security features (e.g. passwords, encryption technology like VPN, etc.). The same goes for the servers and internet connections used.
  • Should a rabbi fail to use due diligence to afford some security to their communications with individuals who come to them for counseling, spiritual guidance, or the like, they could be subject to some civil legal liability should that information be exposed.

Suggested Guidelines

  • When using technology to meet with congregants/others you may want to ask yourself:
  • Are we going to be discussing issues that are likely to be privileged?

A discussion about a congregant’s marital problems is a lot different and may require more security measures than a discussion about what props are needed for the Purim shpiel. 

  • What technologies are out there that would allow me to communicate best with individuals? (See below)
  • Does the individual feel comfortable with the technology?

Individuals may feel more or less comfortable with a video option versus just talking over the phone.

  • What are the security features and privacy provisions of the technology you are using?

You should familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of the technology you are using to find out, among other things:

                        What type of security is utilized, if any?

                        Is the information recorded on a server somewhere?

                        Who owns the information that is broadcast and/or stored?

Have I used a strong password to protect my account and network? Did my congregant take the same steps?

  • Alert the individual that conversing over these technologies may not offer the concrete privacy protections that an in-person meeting would have, but that you will do your best to keep the information privileged and safe.
  • Remind the individual to be in a private setting so that their side of the conversation will not be overheard (which would run the risk of undermining the privilege).
  • Install a Virtual Privacy Network (“VPN”) on any devices you use to communicate with congregants over the internet. Many VPN services exist at little or no cost, and this article will help you find a good one.
  • Ensure your videoconferencing or other communication service has basic security protections, including “end to end encryption”. Even most free services have this, but their paid plans may afford extra security (any additional costs should be covered by your congregation). For example:
  • Services such as Zoom offer plans beyond the free version that provide extra protections. This includes a HIPPA-compliant plan that health care providers use with patients. This might be overkill, but it would provide the greatest protections.
    • Services such as GoToMeeting and Cisco WebEx have built in “end-to-end encryption” and customizable security tools
  • Many other services also tout secure communications including popular options such as Skype, Google Hangout and FaceTime.
  • Whatever software you use, be sure you read the documentation on the website and check whether the encryption or other features are the default or have to be enabled.
  • Make sure you keep your software/technology up to date, as these companies often issue security patches.

Most of us agree that nothing can replace face-to-face communication when ministering to individuals, but in light of the current social-distancing recommendations, alternate technologies can serve as a good – temporary – substitute. As long as you fully inform yourself about the security features of the software and networks you are using and about how to enable those features, you are doing your due diligence to protect yourself and those you serve.

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Healing mental health

The Water Will Hold Me Up

So many of my friends love the water. They swim laps, do water aerobics all year long, conceding to the indoor pool during Denver’s chilly winter, but, especially for a couple of them, it is summer’s heat that calls to them. Once the sun’s warmth raises the temperature even into the mid 60s, into the outdoor pool they dive, swimming lap after lap after lap in the sun’s friendly rays.

I grew up in Minneapolis and firmly believe in the traditions of walking around the lake, going up north to the lake, fishing, reading by lake, boating, and even entering the water to water ski.  But I do not like to swim.  I don’t want to dive in, jump in, or even get my face wet.  My parents fulfilled the Talmudic dictum of teaching me how to swim, and I did the same for my daughter, using happy and encouraging young people at the JCC to instruct her in the delights of the pool noodle and the glories of the front crawl and backstroke.  As it turns out, she doesn’t like to get her face wet either. As a child, learning the basic safety measures in the pool, I remember thinking, “Dead man’s float? Who named that, anyway?” It was not encouraging to this fearful child.

I am not really one for diving into things either. I like to study them first, learn all about them, make sure I am prepared. As I reach middle age (okay, I’ve been there for a while!), I am witnessing my colleagues and friends doing, and advertising themselves as being capable of doing, things that I only dream of. That old boyfriend from rabbinical school whom I helped with his papers and planning his dissertation ideas? He’s writing books and touring the U.S. as a scholar-in-residence and expert on topics right and left. Someone younger than I am is heading my rabbinical association. A friend with less education than I have, and less expertise, is teaching classes in my field. Colleagues are running from pillar to post, running this organization and that one. And I? I do not want to be jealous of these folks. I just want to know how they do it.

Over the past few years, I have begun to speak and teach about mental illness, my own and its existence in the Jewish community. After almost a lifetime in therapy, and a rabbinic career that has always emphasized pastoral care, I feel comfortable in mental health outreach. I like listening to people’s stories; I am, in fact, good at being that non-anxious presence that someone in crisis or pain, mentally ill or just hurting, might need. On a larger scale, my years of learning Talmud and other Jewish texts have come together with personal and rabbinic experience to give me some expertise in Jewish mental health outreach. My ideas are guided by Jewish middot/values and embodied though mitzvot/commandments. 

And yet. It is frightening to claim an expertise. As I go public, I am afraid. Not of being shamed for having a mental illness—that, oddly enough, feels like something I am willing to share, if it can help others. Indeed, it is my hope that I might take my life’s experience with illness, mental and otherwise (I had a stroke almost eighteen years ago and its effects on my life continue in profound ways), and use it to help others. Rather, I am afraid to be told that I have no right to be teaching about mental health outreach. That I have no wisdom to offer. That what I say is obvious, basic, almost useless. It is the fear of a child, who both wishes to be seen, and is afraid that, upon being seen, will be rejected. My colleagues have much to offer. What if I do not?

Going public with my goals, my dreams, means opening myself to criticism, both helpful and not. I tend to believe everything negative someone says about me or my work; probably not a useful or accurate position. There are those who say that feedback is always about the other person. This idea isn’t really true either; it would shut me off from ideas that could help me grow. Last year, when reading evaluations from an adult education class I taught at local university, I came across perhaps my favorite piece of criticism ever: When asked, “was the teacher engaging,” the student replied that the teacher, me, was endlessly interesting and fun, which was good, because the subject was terribly dull! Positive and negative wrapped up together in a single sentence! If only all comments could be so devastating and charming all at once.

The only way to find out, is to try. I want to make meaning out of life, to have a sense that I have something to contribute. That belief, that there is meaning in my pain, is what gets me through, will give me a sense that God is present, is here with me. 

My friends are in the water, splashing about, trying new things, having fun. It is uncomfortable here on the edge of the pool, boring, lonely. I’ll never find out what I can do without jumping in.  It takes faith to find out what will happen. But I’m an adult now. The shallow end is not what I need. Indeed, while the deep end of the pool—the riskier end—is more frightening, it is also, oddly enough, safer. Even though I can’t stand, there will be more water to hold me up.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She may be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com.