Rabbi in Crisis: How a Community Conspires to Care

Imagine having to make this decision: to fly home to hold your wife’s hand as she buries her mom on the West Coast or to remain on the East Coast to oversee the diagnosis and care of your mother who just had a major stroke. What would you do?

Nothing could have prepared me for the emotional tumult of having to decide whether to skip my mother-in-law’s funeral to remain at my mother’s bedside. Nothing.

Not five years co-teaching rabbinic pastoral counseling at HUC-JIR. Not 28 years as a rabbi, holding countless congregants hands and broken hearts as they navigated through their own pain. I am the rabbi, a human being regularly called to care for others; but I am also a husband, son, and son-in-law, struggling to figure out how to keep my head above the rising waters.

An Impossible Choice

This impossible choice, at the unfortunate intersection of two painful events, pushed me to my emotional edge. For the first time I was the one needing a community to help me through. Our communal values – henaynu (being there for one another) – were again being put to the test. Was the community really up to the task of caring for the caretaker?

Thank God that our synagogue, Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas), had for years been practicing the art of Henaynu. Thank God for the healthy relationships between our lay leadership and clergy that allowed us to see each other as partners and humans. Thank God for the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ (CCAR) deep commitment to caring for rabbis and teaching us how to care for each other.

When I, a community leader, was adrift, they all stepped in.

I skipped the funeral. My wife made the decision easy by making it for me. With the enthusiastic though saddened agreement of her father, whose wife died on the same day that my mom had the stroke, my wife and our family decided that I needed to remain in Florida to care for my ailing mother and help direct her treatment. It was the right decision for us.

Yet in my mind’s eye, I kept seeing my wife’s hand, the one I’ve held for almost thirty years, whose every freckle and fine line I have memorized to the touch. There was that hand, at the funeral, hanging there unheld. I imagined her sitting at the funeral, needing the hug that I couldn’t give her. This thought almost destroyed me. 

What got me through?

Even Rabbis Need A Rabbi (Part 1)

To survive, I had to reach out and let go, falling into the arms of my Rabbinic community.

Four rabbis separately conspired to take care of me. This one walked through the hospital doors, wrapped his arms around me, and held me as I cried like a baby. That one held onto my hand as tears ran down my face and gave me the space to talk through the tortuous journey of the last few days. A third one took over our pulpit, no questions asked, thus allowing me to get lost in the incomprehensible. The fourth sent a text, then took my call, and walked me through the painful process of accepting the choice I had no choice but to make.

The first two are former Rabbinic interns of mine, now full grown rabbis themselves. They sensed my need and just showed up. The third pair are my rabbinic and cantorial  partners at the synagogue, who immediately became caregivers and rabbi to my family who haven’t had one beside me for years. The fourth, an older colleague, is a rabbi’s rabbi who instantly became my rabbi, helping me figure it through.

In unspoken partnership, these four rabbis – each a gift from the Divine – along with so many other colleagues who phoned and texted – carried me through this particularly difficult period.

Fortunately I had known enough to reach out by myself. But if I didn’t or couldn’t, the CCAR, my rabbinic organization, was prepared to find me some rabbis to care for me. Rabbi Betsy Torop, the CCAR’s Director of Rabbinic Engagement and Growth, called and offered.

As Rabbi Torop and other CCAR leaders explain, according to a professionally administered self-study of our Conference, we rabbis experience a unique and deep sense of isolation and stress that is compounded during times of crisis. The CCAR is addressing these challenges of being a rabbi during crisis.

Thanks to my colleagues and the CCAR leadership’s continued intentionality and caring, I made it through the first week of crisis. With their help, I shall endure. (Among the greatest investments in rabbinic excellence would be to endow the CCAR’s Department of Rabbinic Engagement and Growth, so that all rabbis will always have a rabbi to help them through.)

Can the Synagogue Care for its Caregiver? (Part 2)

To be a clergyperson is to make oneself available 24/7 to meet the unending pastoral needs of the community. Rabbis show up when people are in need, no matter how it hard affects our own families. We are born to be caretakers. But what happens when we rabbis are the ones in crisis?

From its earliest days, Congregation Or Ami embraced the Jewish value of henaynu(radically being there for each other) and placed it at the center of our community. We believe this fulfills the vision of what God and Torah expects of us: to be a community that cares. Integral to that vision is a commitment to extend that same communal caring to the clergy who cared for us.

We have all heard horror stories of congregations and clergy, locked in battle over finances and failure, roles and responsibility. At Or Ami we focus instead on intentionally building up trust and practicing partnership. Hard as it sometimes is, the rabbis and cantor practice vulnerability, sharing our stresses big and small with our leadership in order to teach them how to help and support us. The community has learned to accept the humanness of their clergy and to intentionally allow us have moments of fragility.

Just as the clergy care for others compassionately, the congregation has long practiced caring for clergy through a variety of challenges: when a family member is struggling, a spouse has the flu, caring for older parents, and multiple periods of parental leave. Along with deep conversations about congregants who are struggling, we talk openly during our board and staff meetings about the rabbis’ struggles, most recently with trauma and burnout following the devastating SoCal fires and a mass shooting not far from the synagogue. We teach that compassion is a muscle that must be exercised.

So when, on the same day, my mother-in-law died in California and my mother had the stroke in Florida, I leaned on our time-tested partnership and made just four calls:

  1. To my clergy partners – a rabbi and cantor, telling them I was wasn’t coming home and I was stepping aside
  2. To our synagogue president sharing the tsuris (problems) so he could inform our leadership and partner with our clergy to envision the way ahead
  3. To our Shabbat dinner coordinator asking her to take over arranging the communal seudat aveilut (shiva meal) and meals for my family
  4. To two communal leader friends, asking them to “be me,” watching over my wife and family since I could not.

They all took over and played their parts. They supervised staff and made decisions. They checked in with me only on the most important issues. They arranged for the funeral to be live-streamed and for graveside to be FaceTimed so I could witness it from afar.

They took care of my family and me, insisting, in the most compassionate way, that I release control. And I did. Mostly.

Then they endured my moments of wanting to micromanage, listening patiently to my concerns, responding with openness, and then holding me metaphorically as they moved me once again to release control.

My partner rabbi and cantor sometimes channeled me – asking WWPD (what would Paul do) – and other times doing whatever they deemed appropriate. I trusted them as they sent explanatory emails to the congregation, sharing with them first about the death of my wife’s family’s matriarch, and later about my mom’s stroke and the reasons why I would be absenting myself from the funeral.

Our synagogue president and Shabbat dinner coordinator ensured that meals were delivered, that the large communal shiva meal was taken care of by the community, and that the staff and clergy understood that volunteers were prepared to do everything and anything to help.

One community leader texted me throughout the funeral service, narrating whatever the video would not pick up, ensuring that I felt the unseeable sense of the room. My rabbinic friend walked my wife into the chapel, holding her up, and he read my eulogy of sadness and loss.

Surviving Crisis and Trauma

We know that most clergy will experience intense crisis, trauma, or burnout a few times in their careers.

Pastor Wayne Cordeiro, in his book Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion, describes how he overcame his struggle with crisis, burnout, and depression by facing it honestly and by engaging his leadership and church. By allowing them to step up, he allowed himself to step away and face his struggles. When they do it compassionately, without stigma or retribution, the healing comes quickly and recovery is possible. Pastor Cordeiro encourages all religious communities and clergy to prepare for these eventualities.

I am proud and appreciative that Congregation Or Ami accepted the challenge and embraced it fully. I am so thankful that my rabbinic colleagues reached out and continue to do so

They all held on. And we survived. My family. My synagogue. And me.

[Note: Once his mother was stabilized, the author returned home for the last few nights of shiva (memorial services). As his wife embraced the true sadness that surrounds her mother’s death, he skipped the CCAR national convention, and headed east again to settle into a few weeks of caretaking. But that’s another story.]

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on

High Holy Days Holiday

It Will Have to Wait until After The High Holy Days

“It will have to wait until after the High Holy Days.”

My children are used to that refrain.  From late August until early October, many of their requests are answered with the familiar phrase:  after the holy days.  The shopping trip to replace the sneakers, the movie they want to see, the party they need help planning – these are the seeming extras that my family is asked to put on hold while I write sermons, work with the soloist, supervise the distribution of honors and listen to Torah readers.   No matter how much we resolve to start preparing earlier, those of us who lead services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are often subsumed by the overwhelming number of tasks that confront us.

This is a time of year when those who are closest to us are asked to make sacrifices because of the sacred responsibility that many of us have to lead our communities in worship during these powerful days.  Our partner or spouse bears a heavier load of household responsibilities.  Our aging parent reluctantly agrees to skip the weekly lunch.  The new man or woman that we have begun to date is asked to wait a few weeks to go out again.   And it goes on and on.

We know from the work we are doing through surveys and focus groups, that many of us feel this tension, particularly in this season. The feelings of guilt that build up when High Holy Day preparation takes us away from our loved ones only adds to the stress that we feel, stress that impacts those we love and live with.  It is, in the truest sense of the word, a vicious cycle that seems impossible to break.

And then there is guilt. Knowing that my children expect the refrain, “it will have to wait until after the Holy Days” does not make saying it each year any easier.  Now that they are older, they are often the ones to say, “I know that this will need to wait”.  And still, I feel guilty.  The feelings of guilt that we carry about this ever-present tension are especially ironic at this time of year.  We often counsel people about the guilt they carry, about the difference between forgetting and letting go.  So many people are weighed down by their wrongdoings, by relationships that are wounded.  We strive to help them let go of self-recrimination, the ever-present guilt that prevents them from moving forward.  In other words, we encourage them to forgive themselves that they may more freely open their hearts to new possibilities and change.

Yet as with so many things, what we strive to help others achieve is much harder to achieve for ourselves.   There is no simple solution to the feeling of being pulled in all directions, of feeling guilty by the sense that we are failing someone as we work to please everyone. But we have learned from you that reaching out helps.  Know that you are not alone in your feelings, and it might help to remind yourself of that by calling a friend.  It is not admitting failure to do so and in fact, your openness may help the person you call by bringing a common feeling in to the open.  And finally:  forgive yourself.   In so doing, may your heart soften and open to allow true change, healing and growth.


Rabbi Betsy Torop is the Director of Member Engagement, Support, and Professional Growth for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. 

Death Rabbis

Do it Yourself Goodbyes

“Daddy can fix anything,” my children brag, whenever I fail to manipulate a stubborn valve on my twelve-year-old’s clarinet or silence a menacing hiss from the pump in our fish tank. Of course they are correct. My husband and his family are proud do-it-yourself types: shoveling their own snow; filing complicated tax returns without assistance; and even lubricating the beast-like sewage ejector pumps that dwell in our basement. In a textbook case of opposites attracting, I had been raised in a family that excused ignorance in the basics of lawn mower or doorbell repair by claiming genetic links to centuries of preoccupied Talmud scholars.

At eighty-five years old, my mother-in-law refused to accept any help caring for her home or her ninety-four year old husband. Married almost fifty-two years, they tended to each like binary stars caught in each other’s gravitational pull. Each evening after dinner, they would clean their dishes, take out the garbage, and set the table once more in preparation for breakfast. In the first week of March, my father-in-law collapsed before he could sit down at the tidily set table for his morning coffee. The doctors told my mother-in-law to prepare to say goodbye. After being given this devastating news, my mother-in-law called me.

“In the event that he dies, he wanted you to give the eulogy,” my mother-in-law informed me in a strong, clear voice.

“What about the service? Have you called your rabbi?” I inquired, as my nose started to run, and my throat closed a bit.

“Our rabbi has that South American accent. Henry could never understand a word he said. You can read a few prayers, can’t you? Please.” She was asking me to lead the funeral.

Although for more than two decades my professional work has focused on Jewish education, I am an ordained reform rabbi. It’s not such a leap to think that I could officiate at my own father-in-law’s funeral. But I’ve always been rather shy, more comfortable leading a discussion in the classroom than standing in front of a congregation chanting prayers or giving a sermon.  I’ve officiated at funerals before, but most of the life-cycle events in which I participate are joyful ones. Weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and baby-naming ceremonies can be scheduled months in advance to coordinate with little league baseball playoffs or All County band. Graveside prayers often interfere with school pick-up and Hebrew school carpool. And they make me cry, even when I have not met the deceased.

“Are we really going to have a do-it-yourself funeral for Henry?” I asked my mother-in-law.

“He was a quiet man. He wouldn’t want a long service. No more than ten minutes,” she instructed me.

When one of the fish dies in that tank of ours, it takes me at least five minutes to provide a proper send off. “This purple and yellow fairy fish lived here for two years darting around the rocks and corals with the blue damsel. May she return to the large sea, and may her memory help us treasure the beauty of this world.”  Then, one of the kids flushes the toilet, and we make sure no one else is missing an eyeball due to white spot disease or “ick.”

I didn’t want to give my father-in-law any less of a tribute than I would do for a fish. Almost a generation older than my own dad, Henry was more like a grandpa. With his shock of white hair and his thick accent that made you believe that somehow you had magically learned to understand German, even though he was speaking in English, he would pat me on my head in the same way he did to our children, and say, “you’re a good girl.” Good sounded like “goot.” He had fled from Nazi Germany as a teenager and built a life here in America. A natural athlete and artist, he loved to eat, especially my mother-in-law’s plum cake, which he called Pflaumenkuchen.

I called my dad for advice. “I don’t want to cry and ruin everything,” I told him on the phone. “I know it’s not a tragic loss, but we’re so very sad.”

“It’s okay if you cry,” my dad calmed me.

“Wouldn’t you rather have someone who loved you say goodbye than a stranger?” My dad continued.

I came up with all sorts of excuses. In the end, I couldn’t disappoint my mother-in-law. I knew that she would hate for that Portuguese-speaking rabbi to drive all the way out to the frigid cemetery in New Jersey to make a few blessings for a man he barely knew.

The hardest part of the funeral happened the night before when I needed to herd my husband, his brother, and their mother to my kitchen table so I could organize the service. In any other circumstance, I would be the respected clergy person, and everyone would sit down docilely. But on this day, no one wanted to plan the details. That would mean my father-in-law was really gone, and not just slowly winding down to the end of a long life like an old Bavarian clock.

Late into the night, I typed out the eulogy. The next morning, we held the brief service, which lasted for more than ten minutes. The grandchildren read excerpts from Ecclesiastes and helped shovel clods of wet dirt onto their grandfather’s coffin. Our feet were covered in mud.

I was glad not to have subcontracted out this task. Honored to recite the prayers for my almost grandpa, my father-in-law, I said farewell to him and retold his story.  I did not carry his casket like a strong pall bearer, but I did utter the words to “El Malei Rachamim,” invoking a God we hope to be merciful who will watch over Henry’s soul, as it returns to its source and becomes one with the earth again and everything that ever lived on land or water and in our hearts.

Rabbi Sharon Forman was ordained as a rabbi in 1994 from the New York Campus of HUC-JIR and has tutored Bar and Bat Mitzvah students at Westchester Reform Temple for the past decade. She contributed a chapter on the connection between breastfeeding and Jewish tradition in The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality. She lives in Westchester County, New York with her husband, three children, and their new puppy, Sammi.  This blog was originally published on Mothers Always Write.


Teach Your Children Diligently

People keep telling me “You are doing such a Mitzvah.” I do not share this to brag, but to deflect this praise which is not due me. It is nice to hear people think I am a mensch. While I strive to fit that bill, I would not write a blog post about it. The reason I have received these accolades is that my wife Jennifer and I have become foster parents. For the past two months, we have doubled our family size from three, including our 8-year-old son to six with children ages 6, 3, and 2. It was not a simple decision, and as anyone who has undergone a home study for the purpose of adoption or fostering can tell you, there is nothing easy about this way of adding to a family. It required sacrifice, trading in two paid-for cars for cars which can accommodate our new family size, surrendering our guest room, and making a once only child share a bedroom with his new brother. And yes, our commitment to doing this does fill an important need since there is a reason why these kids are in the foster system. Still, when people say, “What a mitzvah!” instead of getting a big head, I remember, “raising children is a mitzvah.”

Veshinantam l’vanecha [i]  (teach your children diligently) is one of the most important mitzvot. Anyone who becomes a parent and takes seriously their responsibility fulfills this obligation. By the way, peru u’revu[ii]  (be fruitful and multiply) the very act of procreation, is also a mitzvah. Unfortunately for us, there was no “peru”  in our “revu.” In other words, as a married couple, we have been unable to conceive and bring a pregnancy to term. After a considerable amount of anguish and anger we reached a realization there is no one to blame, not each other, not the doctors, not our parents, not even God. It just is. WE had to accept that two people who loved children as much as we do, and who have so much collective experience working with children were unable to have them on our own. Not wanting to miss out on the mitzvah of being parents, we decided we had to “revu,” that is to say “multiply,” differently.

I know that adoption or fostering is not for everyone. Some people cannot fathom raising a child not biologically theirs. Some cannot get approved because of some past legal transgression. Some move too frequently to finish a home study. Some lack the financial resources. Can you imagine having to fill out a financial statement before getting pregnant? Others burn out on the process, either being turned off by the massive amounts of paperwork and the hours classes of classes required. Still, others spend years on “waiting lists,” a misnomer if there ever was one since there is no being “next in line.” Many couples burn out while hoping for a birth mom to pick them. We however made the choice to endure the process, and we got lucky.

Eight years ago, the most incredible blessing entered our lives when we adopted our son, Eden. This kid could not be any more ours if they had taken all the best parts of Jennifer’s and my DNA and spliced them together. It was a joyful culmination of a long struggle. And everything was perfect– until we thought about having another. To make a long story short, we are still unable to have a biological child. After three years of active waiting, we were no closer to a second adoption. We felt like we had more love and learning to share, and Eden wanted siblings. In fact, his imaginary friends have all been named “Brother” or “Sister” (I assume this rabbi’s kid is not imagining monks or nuns.) So we began the process all over again– A new home study, more classes, more background checks, more fingerprints, more criminal record searches in every place we have lived for the past 20 years, more essays to write, more papers to fill out, more credit checks, more doctor’s visits…. And then we were approved. Then we began waiting for the referral of a child who would be the right fit for our family, pets and all.

Then we had a chance to meet the kids we have currently. Three were more than we bargained for, but, waiting for the perfect situation, you might wait forever. A week later, they were placed in our home. It is not all roses. They do exhibit behaviors that make us want to pull out our hair. In other words, they are children. They need loving parents, a comfortable home, people to teach them just like they would teach and raise any children. It is far too early to discuss a permanency plan.  Although we do love these kids, we root for their mom. People ask, “Aren’t you worried about getting attached and losing them?” Truth is we worry all the time. But if our worst case scenario is the best case scenario for the children and their mom who has a chance to turn her life around, then so be it. We are performing the mitzvah of veshinantam levanecha for multiple children, an opportunity we would have otherwise been denied.

The only things we wish to be called are the titles we always wanted, “Mom and Dad.”

Rabbi Craig Lewis serves Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, more popularly known as the South Street Temple, in Lincoln, Nebraska. 


[i] Deu 6:7

[ii] Gen 1:22


Naming our Puppy: A Biblical Task

In Breishit, God parades all of the animals in front of the first human, Adam, who names them effortlessly according to the way they look and behave. The rabbis imagined a fascinating prequel to this scene. In Breishit Rabbah 17:4, God first approaches the ethereal angels with this very important task of assigning names to all of the hairy, feathered, and slithery creatures. The Midrash teaches that those perfect heavenly hosts, however, were unable to complete the mission of naming the animals. Only Adam, with his first-hand knowledge of life on earth, was up to this challenge.

This week, our family will be adopting a puppy. Along with purchasing food and squeaky toys, we have had to figure out a name for this furry creature. Of all of my many concerns over bringing an animal into our home, I never thought that giving it a name would be so difficult. The dog’s chewing on shoes, homework, and furniture; soiling carpets and floors, whimpering at night; contracting single-celled intestinal parasites from ingesting bird droppings- these were my worries. Finding a name for a cute dog didn’t seem so arduous. I’ve bestowed Hebrew names on dozens of babies, whose parents were grateful for my suggestions. Over the past decade and a half, my husband and I sailed through the challenge of assigning what we consider lovely first and middle names to our children. Evoking images of Biblical queens, military leaders, strength, and virtue, these names sounded modern, yet nodded respectfully to a treasured past. The initials of our daughter’s name even managed to pay tribute to no fewer than four of her deceased great-grandparents and one beloved great-aunt. How hard could it be to name a dog?

By making the naming of the puppy a democratic process, we opened ourselves up to a multitude of dissenting opinions. My husband, who is still in shock over the imminent approach of a pet, abstained from all pertinent naming discussions, making me the single adult voice in the conversation. I prefer names with some literary or cultural resonance that acknowledges the past, a great work of literature, or a charming reference to a work of popular importance. Scout, Guinevere, Groucho, or even Adrian topped my list of potential monikers. Can you imagine calling to the dog outside, “Yo, Adrian!” It would never get old. I even held back my list of exotic Biblical names: Muppim, Chuppim, and most notably Shlomo-Zion Ha-malka.

My children, however, had different notions of the perfect pet name. Staunchly rejecting all cute labels that referred to foods or desserts, they preferred names with a vocal punch. My daughter was wedded to names with strong consonants in the middle, like Parker, Charlie, Jessie, and Maggie. My sons loved the names, Danielle and Teddy.  “Who are these people?” I asked them. “What qualities are we bestowing on the puppy when we name her? Don’t you want to give her a beautiful name with some history? Don’t you want to name her something that evokes an image of a ballerina or a warrior or a musician? Don’t you want to name her something clever?”

I’m no angel, and I am not cut out for the task of naming animals. After an ulcer-inducing breakfast at which no one could agree on any suggestions, it seemed that we would be calling our new housemate, “Dog.” My fifteen year-old daughter hatched a compromise. She handed out four index cards to each person in the family except for my husband who was at a meeting and pledged to abide by the results. “Write down four names that you would happily give to the dog,” she instructed. Then she arranged the index cards onto the floor like an old-fashioned concentration card game. “Everyone takes a turn and flips over a card with a name he or she can’t stand for the puppy. Whichever card is the last one standing will be the dog’s name.” It seemed simple enough. “Giselle” immediately was overturned. I nixed “Parker.” The Marx Brothers’ names bit the dust, as well. Finally, the only name that remained was “Danielle.” When my husband came home from work, he asked how the naming process went. “Danielle?” he said quizzically. “What kind of name is that for a dog?” We were back at square one and needed help of Biblical proportions. Out of nowhere, my ten year-old suggested, “Sammi.” My husband and I had actually considered naming both of our sons Samuel, but neither of those bald seven pounders quite looked like a Sam at birth. Miraculously, everyone agreed to Sammi for this newest family member.

On Friday morning, we plan to pick up our newest family member, Sammi. When I made an appointment for her at the veterinarian, the receptionist asked if her name was Samantha or just Sammi. “I don’t really know,” I confessed. We’ll have to meet her first to figure it out. Sometimes in life, after all, we have to name ourselves.

Rabbi Sharon Forman was ordained as a rabbi in 1994 from the New York Campus of HUC-JIR and has tutored Bar and Bat Mitzvah students at Westchester Reform Temple for the past decade. She contributed a chapter on the connection between breastfeeding and Jewish tradition in The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality. She lives in Westchester County, New York with her husband, three children, and their new puppy, Sammi.


Yom HaAtzmaut, One Family’s Home-Based Practice

Congratulations! You made it through all of the big feelings of Yom HaZikaron, and emerged into one of the best days of any small child’s life – a birthday! It’s Israel’s birthday! Let’s throw Israel a party! And the best part of any birthday is cake. Obviously.

However, thanks to two of your four of small children developing nightmares, REM sleep is now only a thing that other people do. Survival mode it is!


  • A box of cake mix, Funfetti recommended for extra awesomeness
  • Duncan Hines white icing
  • Sprinkles, ideally in blue and yellow
  • Festive cupcake papers, because asking the children to share cake decorating duties is for people who love unnecessary arguments


  • Spend 20 minutes and what you are sure is half of the Earth’s clean water supply washing hands before you cook.
  • Follow directions on the box, making sure to keep the babies from eating too much raw egg.
  • Feed the children what you hope will be a lovely, balanced lunch that inevitably devolves into their exclusive diet of yogurt and cheddar bunnies while the cupcakes bake.
  • Wait for cupcakes to cool because last year you ignored this advice and burned everyone’s fingers. Just to enhance your already blossoming Jewish parental guilt, the children still talk about the time we all touched the “too hot cake.”
  • Have the children first apply white icing, then decorate with sprinkles. Extra points for encouraging the kids to practice lines and shapes by making a Star of David from two triangles.
  • Enjoy the cupcakes with your sweet and beloved children. Allow the sugar high to wash over you, hopefully carrying you through the next thirty minutes, when you will permit yourself to have a fourth cup of coffee for the day.

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., resides in Palo Alto, California with her energetic husband and their four very small perpetual motion machines children. 



Counting of the Omer

These days, with four small children in our house, I count a lot. I inventory lunches and shoes and loads of laundry. I track little back packs and waters bottles and ouchies. I measure fevers and hours of screen time and outside play. I tally toys and turns and the children themselves every few minutes. Every day fills itself with small, sometimes forgotten numbers.

When each of my children were born, we counted their lives according to hours, or feedings, or dirty diapers. As they aged, the measuring stick dilated into weeks or months, but never much longer than that. Ella, my first child, was only sixteen months when Aidan was born; and the twins, Daniel and David, followed just twenty four months and one week later. Now, for more than half a decade – since my pregnancy with Ella – I counted our lives in days, sometimes in weeks, and occasionally, in months. But the twins marked the last pregnancy my body can healthily carry. As they age, the measuring stick lengthens and stretches with their no-longer-so-little bodies. And steadily, my subconscious practice of counting the time since their birth in days, then weeks, then months faded into the the bittersweet ease of measuring their lives in years.

The practice of the counting of the Omer reminds us of each day’s preciousness. Some days are more exciting than others (I’m looking at you, Lag B’Omer) but every day merits a blessing. Marking and measuring the small things, the circadian passage of time, is what makes up the majority of our lives. Bigger milestones come and go, and I am grateful for them. But the counting of the Omer reminds me again of the joys of measuring our time in smaller increments.

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., lived in Tel Aviv, Israel until recently, and now resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

High Holy Days Rabbis

Inspired by Hannah: A Conversation for the New Year

I was ordained eight years ago in a beautiful and sacred ceremony.  Standing on the bimah before our beloved Rosh Yeshivah, bordered on the transcendental.  When he blessed me, I cried.  It was a moment I will carry with me always.

But my ordination marked more than the beginning of my rabbinate.  It also marked the beginning of my motherhood too.  Just three weeks prior to ordination, I had my first child, a baby boy.  My first taste of motherhood was unlike anything I could ever have predicted or imagined. My emotions were fierce and turbulent, and my attachment immediate and unwavering.

My ordination was the first time I had ever left my son, and I was a wreck.  Those early post-postpartum days wreak havoc on the mind and body, and I was feeling the strain of excess hormones, total exhaustion, and round-the-clock milk production.

I remember bringing my hand pump with me to ordination, in fact. I stashed it beneath my seat, and dashed to the bathroom when I couldn’t stand the pressure a single second more. I remember standing in the bathroom, robe open, shirt unceremoniously un-tucked and unbuttoned, trying desperately to collect as much milk as I could with this irritatingly inefficient apparatus.

I was sweating, worried on one hand that I was missing my ordination, but on the other that I was neither collecting enough milk nor relieving the pressure that was building steadily in my chest.  I hated the fact that my ordination ceremony was happening while I was stuck in the bathroom, but I hated even more that I had left my three week old at home. I was overwhelmed by this emotional face-off, and unnerved by my inability to mitigate this internal strife.

I was a new mother and a new rabbi at the very same time.  Two paths, some would say divergent, others, perhaps not, and two very separate worlds of responsibility and meaning.  These two worlds appeared simultaneously, with little signage and no GPS in sight.  How would my rabbinate pave the way for motherhood?  Or rather, how would motherhood pave the way for my rabbinate?  I set out in search of balance, a way to honor these two parts of my life.

Eight years and three more children later, I am still searching.  I have worked part-time and part-part time.  I have prioritized here and prioritized there, working nights so I could have days, and days so I could have nights.  I have wiggled and jiggled and maneuvered in more ways than I can count.  And while every way had its merit, no way was perfect.  I wonder if I stumbled upon the best way to achieve said balance or if some path has eluded me as of yet.  It remains to be seen.

These days, I am home, with no work to put a claim on my time besides the work I create for myself.  And yet, the personal versus professional dichotomy still remains. In between the diaper duty and the laundry and the dishes, I spend a lot of time thinking about the rabbinate, and how it fits in to the crumby corners of domestic life, and how it spills over from the lofty, dignified walls of the synagogue into the messy, sticky, soggy world of a family. What does it mean to be a rabbi when you are stuck cleaning a toilet?  Or changing a diaper?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when you’re carrying a baby, along with two backpacks and a lunch bag to boot?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when all signifiers of esteem and import and formality have been stripped away?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when the title you use most is “mommy”?  Where does “rabbi” fit in to this picture?

The truth is, I don’t know.  These days, I am not sure where “mommy” begins and “rabbi” ends.  I’m not certain I’ll ever know.  The view from where I stand is foggy at best.

I know I am not the first or the last to ask these kinds of questions. And I know my struggle to define my identity is not unique to me, or to mothers in the rabbinate, or even to mothers in general. But each of us speaks from a place that is unique, and each of us adds our own voice to the conversation.  In the New Year, I want to add to this conversation.  I want to be a part of this conversation.  I want to start a conversation.

Rabbi Sara Sapadin resides in New York City.  She most recently served Temple Israel of the City of New York.

General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Blurred Lines: The Role of a Rabbi

Thanksgiving can be a great time to be with extended family. . . Especially when it isn’t your own.

Even so it’s hard not to long for the familiarity of home, childhood memories, food that mom used to make.  Of course going home can also involve family drama and return us to familiar roles no matter how old we are or how much we have achieved.  This can be even more complicated when it’s you, the rabbi, spending time with family.

When I am with my extended family for holidays, especially Jewish holidays, I find myself in a strange space negotiating my role as relative and rabbi.

Often times I am with my in-laws, in their home for Passover.  When I have a seat at their Seder table, what role should I play?  I have the most Jewish knowledge at the table.  I have ideas that could enliven the Seder.  Yet, I have a different role too; I am a participant and son-in-law.  I’m not the family rabbi, I am not in charge and I admit it’s nice to have the “night off” and enjoy watching my father-in-law lead the Seder.

Rabbi Charles Briskin

Roles at the Seder are easy to negotiate. How do we respond when we are called to help family members or friends in their time of need?  What is our primary role? Rabbi or family member/friend?

A little over a month ago, my uncle died.  He was 86, and had been in declining health for some time. I called to check in with my aunt and cousins.  ‘Hi Terri” I said, when my cousin picked up the phone.  “Rabbi Chuckie,” she said with relief upon hearing my voice. (Only family who have known me since I was 10 or younger can call me that!)  “Rabbi Chuckie” I thought to myself?  I’m not their rabbi, I’m family.  I gently reminded my cousin that I am the family member who happens to be a rabbi.  Even so, I was pulled into that rabbinic role of helping my family in their (really in our) time of grief and loss.

I was then asked by their family rabbi to help officiate at his service and offer a eulogy.   Was this because I was so close to my uncle and could offer special insight?  No.  I was being honored for my title.  It wasn’t easy being the rabbi for so many people who have known me since I was called “Chuckie.” I would’ve preferred to have been sitting next to my mother (my uncle’s sister) rather than on the bimah.  However, those lines were blurred.  That day I was the rabbi more than the nephew.

These two experiences are powerful reminders of how complicated and blurry our roles in private life can be as spouses, parents, children, in-laws and friends who happen to be rabbis.  Where do we draw our boundaries?  How flexible must they be?  Are there times when we can truly step outside of our rabbinic role simply to be the truest essence of who we are, stripped of the vestments that we place on ourselves and that others place on us as well?  I am sure Edwin Friedman and Jack Bloom have written about this already, and I should return to their works to see what they suggest.  My sense is that we simply need to be attuned to the way we project our more public role (as rabbi) even when we are trying to be family or friend first.   Our relationships with those who knew us before we became rabbis are vital and can be quite liberating as well.  Nevertheless, among the many things we are to them, “rabbi” is one of those roles we play.

We should accept the way others view us. We can never turn it off completely.  If our friends or family members need us to provide rabbinic guidance, do it.  That’s what a good friend would do.  And the opportunity to name a friend’s baby or stand under the huppah with a cousin is a unique blessing.  Know, too, that we can offer something even more substantial.  The power of a deeper connection that goes well beyond the rabbi-congregant relationship.  Our primary role is friend or family member.  However, be the best rabbi you can in that time, especially a time of need.  It is the blessing of this role and offers unparalleled opportunities for profound moments of sacred meaning.

 Rabbi Charles Briskin serves Temple Beth El in San Pedro, CA