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
Books Healing Poetry Prayer spirituality

Book Excerpt: “Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice,” By Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

CCAR Press is honored to release Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar’s latest book, Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice. This collection includes prayers for personal use, prayers for use at communal gatherings, prayers and readings for moments of grief and moments of joy, a collection of daily Psalms, and focus phrases and questions for meditation. Rabbi Kedar’s new book is available for purchase now.

Below, we are share one of the many inspiring passages found in Amen.

Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice, and other publications by Rabbi Kedar, are available for purchase here.

“The Archaeologist of the Soul”

I suppose that the archaeologist
delights in brokenness.
Shards are proof of life.
Though a vessel, whole, but dusty
and rare, is also good.

I suppose that the archaeologist
does not agonize over the charred
lines of destruction signifying
a war, a conquest, a loss, a fire,
or a complete collapse.
The blackened layer
seared upon the balk
is discovery.

So why do I mourn,
and shiver,
and resist?
Why do I weep
as I dig deeper
and deeper still?
Dust, dirt,
buckets of rubble,
brokenness,
a fire or two,
shattered layers
of a life that
rebuilds upon
the discarded,
the destroyed,
and then
the reconstructed,
only to break again,
and deeper still,
shards upon shards,
layers upon layers.

If you look carefully,
the earth reveals its secrets.
So does the soul,
and the cell,
and the sinew,
and the thought,
and the wisp of memory,
and the laugh,
and the cry,
and the heart,
that seeks its deepest truth,
digging down,
down to bedrock.

Rock bottom they call it,
and in Hebrew,
the Mother Rock.

God of grace,
teach me
that the layers
of brokenness
create a whole.


Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation BJBE in the Chicago area. Her previously published books include God Whispers, The Dance of the Dolphin (Our Dance with God), The Bridge to Forgiveness, and Omer: A Counting. She is published in numerous anthologies and is renowned for her creative liturgy. Rabbi Kedar teaches courses and leads retreats that explore the need for meaning and purpose in our busy lives, creating an intentional life, spiritual awakening, forgiveness, as well as inspirational leadership and creating the synagogue for the twenty-first century. Her latest work has culminated in the newly released Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

Categories
Healing

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 paulkipnes.com

Categories
Death Healing

Mourning My (Unknown) Child

It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Holding my wife’s hand in the ultrasound room, we heard that rapid thump thump thump of newly created life. My wife was about 8 weeks pregnant with our next child. We left the room smiling and filled with a glow. I watched as my wife rested her hands gently on her abdomen. I smiled at her, and for the briefest of moments, felt a twinge of envy, knowing that I would never know our child as she would. It turned out, however, that life had other plans.

Within the following two weeks, my wife kept repeating to me that she felt something. She knew that there was something wrong with our child. Back to the ultrasound room we went, and, instead of that familiar and comforting sound of that thump thump thump, we heard silence, deafening silence. The life growing inside of her stopped growing; her cradle of life, my wife’s womb, now held lifelessness. The following week, after nurturing life for almost three months, my wife underwent a procedure, known as a “D&C”, to remove the silence.

There is so little in our literature, in our tradition, to guide the women who go through such tragedy, and less to offer wisdom to their partners on how to support in these moments of terrible loss. Over the ensuing weeks, I watched my wife mourn for the child we would never come to know. I sat silently as she would break out crying for no apparent reason, then run to hug our one and a half year-old son so tightly, and tell him how much she loved him. So often I wanted to say “something,” but I never knew the right words to say to her. What was I, a partner who could not carry life inside himself, who could never know life on that intimate of a level, what could I say besides that I grieved with her, and mourned with her.

But I’m a rabbi, aren’t I supposed to know what to do? I’ve been through chaplaincy rotations, studied the halakhot of mourning, pastored to people, shouldn’t I have been able to find something to comfort her? I soon realized that I was at a loss. There is almost nothing for a mourning of “the could have been.”

The Rav taught that the mourning of the intimate lives we know, this is aveilut hadashah – new mourning. This label has a double meaning for a situation such as this – it is new not simply because it is not the aveilut yeshanah of the Temple and ancient tragedies, but also because until very recently, Judaism has failed to recognize the need of the parents to mourn for what could have been.

My wife and I were experiencing a form of this aveilut hadashah, and even with the small collection of new material and liturgy, it felt so foreign. We didn’t discuss it in seminary, and it’s a small section of the rabbi’s manual. However, we are now living in a world where the marvels of medicine allow us to look at the fetus earlier than ever before, to hear the heartbeat of life sooner than ever before, and, we are having children later than any previous generation. Taken together, this is changing our understanding and attitudes of mourning for the loss of a life that could have been.

Standing nearly a year removed from this terrible moment, I cannot believe how completely unprepared I felt as a husband and a rabbi. It is time, I believe, that we begin to change our understanding of mourning beyond years 0 – 120. Unlike our ancestors, we live in a world where the hidden is not so hidden. Talking about and preparing our spiritual leaders, from rabbis-to-be to those already ordained, this too I believe is a part of our obligation as rabbis when we pastor. Our Mishnah, Niddah 5:3, goes so far as to say that a child one day old can be counted for mourning; perhaps it is time to take this halakhah one step further.

Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt serves Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, PA.

Categories
Healing

So That’s What Rabbis Do: A Rabbinic Student Reflects on a Synagogue’s Fire Response

I dialed the phone number, not knowing exactly what I would say. They answered and I started talking: “Hello, my name is Elana Nemitoff, and I am one of the rabbinic interns at Congregation Or Ami. I am calling to see how you doing.”

I could guess how she was doing, given that she had just lost her house to the fires raging through Southern California. She probably was in something akin to shock, anger, frustration, confusion, denial, or some combination of these stages of grief. Still, I sat on my end of the phone and just listened.

After all, I was on a mission: I had to help convince this congregant to accept tzedakah, a gift of help from her synagogue and the rabbis who care about them. By the end of the conversation, she had opened up to the community’s chesed (kindness) and ahavah (love) and I had made sure an electronic Target gift card was on the way to her email inbox. After five more of these conversations, my own heart hurt and simultaneously felt very full. Having spoken to five individuals in varying stages of grief, I realized I was actively providing rabbinic pastoral care as I interacted with each of them.

Creating a Kids Camp and Adult Hangout

My week began as any other. I was preparing to teach religious school classes, plan retreat programs, and help mentor our teens through mental health and wellness exercises. By week’s end, I had spent many days in a row, morning to night, answering the call from Congregation Or Ami’s rabbis to help craft a compassionate, effective response to the fires raging through our part of Southern California. As the world seemed to be falling apart for so many in our community, and as the synagogue building itself was threatened with destruction, we pushed forward.

It began with a quiet comment. “There is a voluntary evacuation nearby,” I heard one parent tell another. Knowing the fires were less than twenty miles away, Rabbi Paul Kipnes conferred with Rabbi Julia Weisz and me. They decided, to evacuate both of the Torah scrolls from the building, as well as the computer server and other valuables. As their rabbinic intern, I watched, listened, and tried to offer another set of eyes and ears to ensure we had thought of everything. I asked questions, noticing what was occurring and wondering aloud to the rabbis: Had the tutoring students for later that night been called? What was our plan for tomorrow: did we have a place to set up a temporary office and a way to reach out to community members affected by these fires?

Once the synagogue was evacuated, instead of returning to my Los Angeles apartment, I spent the evening (and eventually the night) at the home of Rabbi Julia Weisz. It occurred to me: What about all these young people who won’t have a place to go because of school closures? Maybe we should set up a kids camp for them? Rabbi Kipnes began working his contacts to gain space at de Toledo High School in West Hills, while Rabbi Weisz and I began visioning what would become our community Kids Camp and Adult Hangout. Once we were clear on our mission, I spent the night planning, finding volunteers to staff the camp, making lists of supplies, and partnering with these amazing mentors.

Consulting with Colleagues

Over the next days, as the fires raged through our congregation’s backyard, I found myself growing into the rabbi and Jewish educator I hoped to become. Three years ago, I would have jumped immediately into action. Due to my training in the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I slowed down and assessed the situation. I asked questions based on what I noticed. I became more aware of my surroundings and the needs of those around me. I stepped into my role as a soon-to-be rabbi and Jewish educator, fully embodied.

We consulted with rabbis and educators from synagogues which experienced major disasters – fires in Santa Rosa, CA, floods in Houston, TX, and the mass shooting in Parkland, FL – to gain insights into what we might do and what we might expect. But to be honest, often we were making it up as the hours rushed by, combining gut instinct with necessary triaging of needs. I was amazed at the stamina of Rabbis Weisz and Kipnes, and learned how to value other staff members by their open embrace of my questions, suggestions and assistance.

Connecting with Federation Leaders

One afternoon, Rabbi Kipnes called me over and said: “Please walk these two leaders from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles through our Kids Camp and Adult Hangout. Show them what we are doing.” Easy, I thought: just show them around. But as we walked and began to talk, I started to narrate our tour. I pointed out the snacks we had out and shared the process of finding volunteers to provide them. In the gym I narrated the experience of the kids: where they were from, who was supervising them, and where all the different toys had come from. Returning to de Toledo High School’s lobby, our guests turned to me and promised that they would gather as many resources as possible so that we could continue our camp. They assured me that they would ensure that those people received the best resources for their needs. I took a deep breath; we were changing lives by responding quickly. I was changing lives.

The “to do” list for our makeshift office kept growing exponentially. I asked Rabbi Weisz what I could do to take something off of her plate. “Kesher (Wednesday religious school) and Menschify (Sunday family program) need to be solidified,” she responded. It became clear to me that she was not inviting collaboration or consultation; rather Rabbi Weisz was trusting me to handle it. Since our synagogue was in the fire zone, we had to create pop up programs in donated space at the High School. With another intern, I went right to work, determining what staff were needed and how the programs were going to work. We developed the framework and organized volunteers to collect or purchase supplies. Given the intensely emotional nature of these gatherings in the midst of the fire evacuation, we wrote out both the educational session plan and the words to articulate the framing of what to say to each group of students.

Light Emanating from a Pop Up Chuppah

As Shabbat was departing, Rabbi Kipnes and I departed deToledo High School and drove to the Shutters Restaurant in Santa Monica for a wedding of two excited brides, whose ceremony and celebration had been relocated in less than twenty four hours from its intended Malibu location. As we sat in the lobby of the hotel, I listened in on a conversation with Federation leadership about how to coordinate support for the eight plus synagogues impacted by the fires. Then, we drafted an email to the outside world about how they can help (after being inundated with offers of assistance, we decided to detail just how people could help). We posted the information to our social media channels and shared it with our national Reform Movement offices.

Right before the ceremony, we went outside and at Rabbi Kipnes’ invitation, I joined him to walk down the aisle to the chuppah (wedding canopy). Standing at his side, I watched him officiate. I marveled at the fact that this wedding was a small tikkun, a small fixing of the brokenness in our world at the moment. For Jews, the chuppah, open on the four side, represents our homes and our community. This couple, unsure at that moment whether or not their apartment and all their possessions still stood or were destroyed by the raging fires in Malibu, nonetheless were welcoming all of us to witness their marriage. With their love, they brought positive light into the world and shined it onto all of us as we surrounded them. Their chuppah transformed into a vessel to both hold in their light and shine it out, demonstrating that even when their world is unsteady, the light and love permeating the world still exist and still shine forth.

So That’s What Rabbis Do

I learned many eye-opening lessons in the weeks immediately following the Woolsey and Hall fires. I gained first hand insight into the process of successfully helping others in the midst of a crisis. I discovered anew the power of rabbinic networks, of partnering with staff and community leaders, and of the utilizing our resources, both in the Federation and in the greater rabbinic community, to forge a path forward. I witnessed resilience in the face of fire, demonstrating the fortitude of community, love, and engagement. More than anything, I developed my own sense of groundedness in this new role – rabbi, and look forward to formally embarking on the journey with Ordination in May.

Elana Nemitoff is a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on paulkipnes.com

Categories
Healing

Hero or Imposter? As a Rabbi Struggles with Post-Fire Trauma

Another week passed, and with it, the ups and downs of caring for a community traumatized by the triple devastations: a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the mass shooting in the local Borderline (country western dance) Bar 12 miles away in Thousand Oaks, CA, and a once raging fire – now extinguished – that forced the evacuation of about 80% of our congregation.

Now most people are back in their homes. Now the synagogue is cleaned up (we rededicated the shul on Shabbat Chanukah). Now the news cycle has moved onto the next tragedy. So,

Why do I sometimes still feel drained and despondent?

One Shabbat, in the midst of our Pop Up Teen retreat, I stepped aside with our community social worker, a longtime friend, for a preplanned session to explore the nuances of the continuing trauma. She attended the teen retreat as part of a corps of social workers invited to support the teens. Focusing on Where is the blessing?, the retreat was intentionally designed as both an escape from, and a processing opportunity about, the past weeks of devastation. Unexpectedly yet importantly, most of the social workers found themselves supporting the staff as much as the teens.

We sat under a tree in Simi Valley’s Camp Alonim; she patiently awaited my sharing. I began quietly, controlled, well-aware of my inner stuff. Soon enough, warm tears again were running down my cheeks.

I confessed that I felt like an imposter.

Like we were not doing enough. Although my congregants were for the most part back in their homes, many are not. And I worried about them all.

Our congregants and their neighbors were:

Fighting with insurance companies.
Dealing with the trauma of evacuation.
Dealing with the trauma of the mass shootings.
Worrying about mudslides down the denuded hillsides.
Realizing that although their houses survived, the damage was severe.
Discovering upon return home that the mix of smoke and toxic soot has caused in some homes the walls to dangerously pucker, and elsewhere, piping melted causing internal flooding.
Struggling still to get things back together, even feeling guilty that their homes survived while neighbors’ homes did not.

Even those who made it through ostensibly unscathed were struggling. This child was wearing oversized socks that turn out to be the father’s because everything still needed to be cleaned. That child shed tears as she confessed she felt she looked foolish in these donated clothes. That mom was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of calls to banks, credit card companies, and the like. This dad was frustrated that the road ahead is so long and arduous.

And I worry about all those I don’t even know about.

In truth, even after the multiple calls the previous week to the whole congregation, I could not assemble a true picture of the needs of my flock. After weeks of trying to be there for them, after partnering to organize the Jewish community, after raising money and gift cards to help them, and trying to be out there as a calming and hopeful presence, I felt unable to get a handle on the situation.

Hero or Imposter?

I said that if one more person called me a hero, I just may lose it. Because I felt less like a hero and more like an imposter,  or like a former star quarterback, standing on the sidelines unable to figure out how to move the team forward.

I confessed how I relished a day last week – finally a blessedly normal day – spent helping a young Bat Mitzvah student see her parasha in a new light, counseling an older woman through challenging life changes, and walking a couple toward the end stages as the cancer ravages his body.

My social worker friend smiled at my statement, understanding how ironic it was that sitting with someone with cancer would feel like a “blessedly normal day.”

She asked me, “What are your expectations for yourself?” I looked at her incredulously and said, “Well, of course, to seek out my congregants and others, to ascertain their needs – immediate and longer term – and to help fulfill them. After all, I have gift cards and volunteers who want to help and I have… myself. My expectations are to do the work we started.”

“And what might be a slightly more realistic expectation?” she asked.
I stuttered, struggling to fully comprehend the question, “M-m-maybe to have others call and triage the needs for us, and then for me to respond to those.”

“And slightly more realistic?”

I just look at her with incredulity. “Lower my expectations of what we need to accomplish? How can I do that? People are in need. In crisis. I am a caregiver. How can I stop?”

She told me about her decades’ long work with rabbis and congregations, about how when people talked about how their rabbis were there for them, it was rarely about the rabbi providing a specific thing. It was not a car payment or new clothes or a new way to solve an insurance problem. There were other organizations, leaders, and professionals who do that, and do it a lot better. People who talked about their rabbis being there for them, she said, most often talked about the comfort and solace the rabbi offers, a spiritual support unique to the rabbinic role and persona. They relished the knowledge that their rabbis were there when they needed them. As a listening ear. With a supportive shoulder. As someone to turn to when they feel lost and alone.

She said, “After all the amazing work you and your team did, being there 24/7 during the crises, maybe it’s okay to slow down and breathe for a bit. Maybe you might entertain a more appropriate (or realistic) expectation: to let people know you are here and available, and to respond to the needs that arise.”

I try to sit with that.

Ratcheting down the level of “being there” is challenging.

It violated my self sense of what the Biblical henini (“here I am”) demands. And yet my body (exhausted), my heart (aching and spent), and my mind (well aware of the dangers of continuing at this pace) all were asking me to agree with her.

Yes, I was (at times) spent. I was (at times) lost amidst the overwhelming needs that keep arising. My inbox was (still is) backed up. My programmatic responsibilities were about to resume. And (at the time of this meeting) we were not even back in our building.

She asked how things were with my family. I confess that my wife and I had an argument, which became something much bigger than the issue deserved. We had to figure out this issue, but in no way did it require the intensity I brought to it. We talked about other family concerns that needed my attention. She reminded me that after weeks of outward focus, it was okay to turn inward for a bit.

Tears rolled down my cheeks some more.

I wanted to be the hero for those who need one.

I am constitutionally wired that way, to help others. But I was worn down.

I talked about the list I carry around in my head – of all the people I should call, text, or check in on.
For them.
For their families.
For the good of the congregation.

That list haunted me.
It weighed me down.
Because I just couldn’t get to them all.

I recall that my colleagues who have faced crises before me shared how they too felt this way, that they just try to keep slogging through.

My friend reminded me of our work years ago teaching pastoral counseling together at the Rabbinic school. When we taught about the need for the rabbi to set boundaries. About the importance of taking time to rejuvenate. About the limits of our effectiveness in the face of burnout.

I smiled knowingly. How ironic! I delivered those lessons to our Rabbinic students many, many times. Could I listen to them now for myself?

She pushed forward, like only a trusted confidant can:

Can I find a way to do something for myself?
Can I get away – for a few hours, for a day – for some fun?
Can I stop for a moment with all the social media?
Can I cease for a moment answering my phone and texts?

I laughed, thinking she was asking me to cease being me.

Yet I know she was right.

That night my wife took me out to a movie about an aging rock star who finds love, nurtures another, yet becomes spent and self-destructive.

I loved the music and the love story. I identified with the sense of exhaustion. My wife worried that the ending might upset me. I was not bothered by it, as I was just glad to have turned off my phone, to enjoy a night out holding my wife’s hand.

The next night my wife took me to Come From Away, a play about the heroic efforts of the Newfoundlanders, who care for 7000+ “plane people” who are forced to land when 9/11 closed US airspace. I identified with the Islanders’ sense of responsibility for others. My heart was warmed by their organizing acumen and their overflowing sense of compassionate action. My heart broke a little as some of the joy was tempered by sadness. I too felt the letdown when the crisis ends and things begin to return to normal (whatever that is). My wife and I both saw ourselves in those Newfoundlanders.

As we walked back to our cars, I remarked at how wonderful it was to smile and laugh. It’s been weeks.

How am I taking care of myself?

  1. I participated in a webinar about caring for teens in times of crisis, more to listen to and learn from the wisdom of the JCC professional from Pittsburgh and our colleague Rabbi Melissa Stollman from Parkland, as to share my own learning.
  2. I met for Spiritual Direction by phone with the CCAR’s Rex Perlmeter to continue to mine these weeks for lessons of transcendent holiness.
  3. I met by Zoom with my Rabbinic Coach Diana Ho who guides my partner rabbi and me toward self-care, and realistic expectations.
  4. I talk in person with my therapist, and my social worker friend.
  5. I regularly consult with rabbinic colleagues (Marci Bloch, Stephanie Kramer, Oren Hayon, David Lyon) who have been through crises ahead of me, who kindly drop everything to listen to and teach me. They probably have little idea how much our conversations have carried me through a particularly difficult moment. Nonetheless I am grateful.
  6. I try to eat well, sleep a lot, walk daily, and attend to the forgotten parts of my life.
  7. And I write. Because writing helps me consolidate and clarify the thoughts and prayers and emotions running unchecked through my brain and heart.

And I will be okay because I am doing what I must to again become okay.

And I bless:

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, ha-gomel l’chayavim tovim she-g’malani kol tuv.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Guide of the universe, Who nurtures within the undeserving goodness, and Who – through these blessedly caring souls – has reminded me of my goodness within.

Amen.

[Author’s note: I wrote this a few weeks ago to help reflect upon this journey for my own edification and to illuminate the journey for other caretakers who might find themselves on a similar journey. I am consciously pulling back the curtain. I am able to do so because what I share has ceased to be [as] raw, though it is still very real. I am able to write because while reflecting upon this, I am fully engaged in my own healing process and am not using the writing to deflect or skirt the feelings and challenges. I am able to share this now because I know that I am fully functioning, yet sad and at times fragile. This is some of my story. Here’s some from earlier.]

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

Categories
Healing

Rabbi’s Disaster To Do List: 10 Community-Restoring Actions from the SoCal Fires

Southern California’s Woolsey and Hall fires were not the first, and assuredly won’t be the last disasters that synagogues face. But they were ours, coming on the heels of the devastating mass shooting in nearby Thousand Oaks’ Borderline country western dance bar. As the devastation grew, and more than 70% of our congregants evacuated, we quickly became aware of our responsibility as a communal organization to respond to the immediate needs of our community, our congregants, and our evacuated synagogue.

Here’s our Disaster To Do List, based on what we did, and the advice of colleagues who faced them before us. Of course, partnership with other synagogue and community professionals ensure the greatest success in meeting overwhelming needs. Our success in responding correlated directly with our ability to mobilize our staff and HUC-JIR interns (Elana Nemitoff, Meir Bargeron, Tammy Cohen, and Julie Bressler), to quickly set up a working office offsite, and to partner with others (especially Rabbi Ben Goldstein of Temple Aliyah).

10 Community-Restoring Actions from the SoCal Fires

When disaster is on the horizon, download a complete roster (with cell phones, email and kids names). Prepare ahead by putting your data and files safely online (we use Shulcloud). Because of this pre-planning (thanks, Or Ami President, Fred Gruber), we were able to set up a complete office in a remote location the very next morning.

1. Call: Call your congregants ASAP. Multiple times. To accomplish this, engage your own congregants, or invite trusted Facebook and Instagram friends to help call. Choose an offsite professional (thanks, Mike Mason) to organize, and share with them your synagogue contacts. Write a calling script, create a google form to collect info, and invite callers. Make sure to text people before calling them so they know the new call is coming on behalf of Rabbi XX. The collected information helps you triage which congregants most need your personal outreach. The warmth of calls from people all over the country inspires both the caller and recipient.

2. Organize Offers of Help: People will offer help. You won’t even know what you need. In a google doc – shareable and accessible from everywhere – compile a list of those offering help to return to as needs arise. And the needs will keep increasing even though it appears to the outside world that the crisis period has concluded. Don’t be shy about asking days or weeks after the initial offer.

3. Coordinate: Bring together the affected synagogues or religious organizations. Try to meet at a safe location or by conference call to pool resources and discover needs. Set up twice daily calls immediately (we met at 6am and 6pm) and then continue daily or less frequently later. Partner with Jewish Federation which can draw on national experience with disasters and bring other partners like Jewish Family Service and Jewish Free Loan Associations to the table. After discussing larger issues, spend time inviting each leader to check in personally – you will become each other’s support. End with a prayer led by a different participant.

5. Hire a Crisis Manager: Make your first order of business to engage an experienced crisis manager, someone trained to know how to help you lead your community through the crisis (thanks, Chris Joffe of Joffe Emergency Services). You will come to value their expertise with communications (they drafted twice daily emails and phone calls), setting up offsite locations to get synagogues and organizations up and running (every synagogue was able to reconstitute and office and hold services that Shabbat), contacting insurance (never to early to call your insurance carrier), and engaging the professionals to evaluate the safety of your building. Most importantly, an experienced crisis manager will guide you to ask the questions you hadn’t considered.

6. Fundraise: Set up a fundraising link on your own website or gofundme (orami.org/donate – Fire Response Fund). People want to help now so give them an option. Decide what you do not need or want. We decided to not be a distribution center and directed all material donations elsewhere, except for gift cards, tzedakah, and Judaica. Identify specific useful gift cards but clarify that cash gives maximum flexibility. Communal organizations will promise money but it may take them time – sometimes days or weeks – before funds are available to give to individuals. Inform National Jewish organizations of your needs and links so they can publicize (thanks, Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis). We succeeded in helping people within the first 24 hours because of this.

7. Network with Crisis Veterans: Call Rabbinic colleagues who have been through crises for advice. Again and again. (Thanks, Rabbi Stephanie Kramer from the Santa Rosa, CA fires, Rabbi Marci Bloch and Rabbi Melissa Stollman of the Parkland, FL shootings, and Rabbi Oren Hayon of the Houston, TX floods.) Their unique wisdom on all aspects of the communal trauma and response, and the way to endure the longer term change in our rabbinates, was invaluable. Ask them to check back in on you.

8. Open a Meeting Place: If you build it, they will come. Our Kids Camp and Adult Hangout (thanks, de Toledo High School in West Hills) became a meeting place for everyone, including leaders from other synagogues, Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, and volunteer social workers. Initially the childcare held only a few children but as people returned from evacuation and schools were closed it became invaluable. Social workers showed up and approached adults to check in. Volunteers came by ostensibly to help but we quickly realized they needed pastoral counseling and support themselves. Publicize “come on by to give or get a hug.”

9. Communicate, Post, Connect: Become a hopeful presence during a scary time. Use all communication channels – email, social media, robbocalls, and live videos (including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) – to spread the message that you are here, you are aware, and you care. Live stream Shabbat services and/or Havdala to offer inspiration and provide an anchor. Email twice daily. Joffe Emergency Services taught us that during a crisis, people need more communication, not less.

10. Face Your Trauma: Don’t underestimate the drain on the leaders’ inner strength. Make yourself an appointment with a therapist or trauma specialist within the first week. We each hit the wall by day 7, if not before. The pressure is overwhelming. The CCAR, our national rabbinic organization provided confidential crisis counseling, as did Jewish Family Service. We also held Zoom conference calls with my Rabbinic Coach (thanks, Diana Ho of Management Arts) to help the Rabbinic staff process and plan a way forward.

Postscript

Finally, Eat well. Exercise. Face Mental Health and Wellness: Take care of yourself. Regarding your self-care, partner with a trusted friend/partner/spouse, or perhaps hand over the responsibility for it, ensuring your ability to go the distance. Meet regularly by phone or in person with a therapist, because the ripple effects of leading others through trauma are intense. And breathe…

We are not the first synagogue or community to experience a disaster, and assuredly we will not be the last. But we found these aforementioned steps, gleaned from the collective wisdom of others, allowed us quickly to be present and responsive to the needs of our community, to partner with other communal organizations, and provide a beacon of hope in the midst of the flames. It helped let the light and warmth of the synagogue and community envelop a community burned by the fires.

May you be blessed with the fortitude, courage, self-awareness and patience to rise up to the challenges ahead. And we are always here to listen and/or help.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz both serve Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on Rabbi Kipnes’s blog

Categories
Chanukah Healing

Blackboards in Pittsburgh

For two weeks before Shabbat Chanukah, four black boards with a question at the top and multi-colored chalk in the chalk trays were placed in the entrance commons of Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh. The question: “Chanukah means Dedication. What do you (re-) dedicate yourself to this year?” All who visited the congregation had the opportunity to write on the boards their answers to the question.

On Thursday before Shabbat, I took those answers and created “Rededication, A Hanukah Prayer from Pittsburgh,” which Rabbi Sharyn Henry and I edited together. At Friday night services, I read the prayer at a joint service of Rodef Shalom and Tree of Life / Or L’Simcha. The goal: add a bit of healing by using the hopes and ideals of the community as the core of a new piece of liturgy.

The week before, the Pittsburgh community marked the shloshim — the thirtieth day of the post-burial mourning process – following the October 27 attack that left 11 dead and seven injured as congregants of Tree of Life were gathering for Shabbat morning services.

This is our second collaboration using black boards. In 2015, we used the same blackboards for an “Elul Memory Project.” The goal: gather memories from the community to use as the basis of customized Yizkor prayer.

Rabbi Henry was inspired to conceive these black board projects by the work of artist Candy Chang’s international public art project “Before I Die.” In that project, artist Chang created large outdoor public blackboards with a series of blank lines inviting passers-by to fill in the end of the sentence: “Before I die I want to _______.”

For both of our projects at Rodef Shalom, I wrote the initial draft of the liturgical combination of the responses, then we edited the pieces together. I also read both pieces from the bima. In both cases, after services, people approached us both to share how they felt hearing their contributions included in the prayer.

Part of the success is a thoughtful approach to the formulation of the question. For the Elul Memory Project, Rabbi Henry and I tested two different formulations of the question with staff, asking how the structure of the question might change the answer.

The blackboards have proven to be a useful means of capturing both community memories and congregational hopes and dreams. It is a project that can be easily adapted to a variety of holidays or community experiences.

Here is the prayer we created for Shabbat Hanukkah:

Rededication, A Hanukah Prayer from Pittsburgh

The oil,
That one cruse of pure oil,
Made holy for the dedication of the Temple,
That should have lasted only one day,
Lasted for eight days
Until new, pure oil for the Eternal Lamp
Was prepared.
We rededicated holy space
To God and the people of Israel.

That light shines now in Pittsburgh.
The ancient light, 2,000 years old,
Shimmering across millennia from the dedication of our ancient home,
Mingles with the glow of the lamps we light tonight,
Our rededication to:

Family and friends,
Patience, Empathy, Sympathy.
Health and sobriety.
Meeting neighbors.
Learning from each other.
Petting more animals.
Hugging.
Listening.
Breathing.

We rededicate ourselves to kindness,
Building a more peaceful world,
Combating hate,
Acts of compassion to one another.
Tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Tzedakah, giving charity.
Taking risks and being vulnerable.
Being the action of love.
Simply… being.

This is not easy
With broken hearts.
Yet this is who we are.
Inspired by the past,
Inspired by our faith,
We rededicate ourselves,
In this new generation,
To holiness and sacred convocation.

We will be vigilant in support of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish education.
We will be vigilant in advancing the dignity and the rights of all people.
Positive thinking and openness to new ideas,
Considering other points of view,
Trusting the mystery of life.
Paying forward these gifts.

To speak gently, with fewer words,
Criticizing less and helping more.
Simply doing the right things,
With dedication to truth.
With dedication to understanding.
With Peace –
Saalam, Shalom –
Udo, Paz, Vrede, Mиp, Paix, Friede –
In every language,
In every land,
Peace.

The flame from that oil,
That one cruse of pure oil,
Still shines upon us,
Within us,
From those days
To this season.

By Alden Solovy and Rabbi Sharyn H. Henry
© 2018 Alden Solovy and Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012),L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016).He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings,now available!

Categories
Healing

When the Rabbi Feels Trauma: Lessons from the SoCal Fires

We jumped into the fire, but many of us feel fortunate like we have come out relatively unscathed. Or at least that’s how it might appear at first.

I worry that we have forgotten, in the course of escaping these ever spreading flames, that just a short while ago our entire community experienced two other intense events: the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill, a country-western bar frequented by college students in Thousand Oaks, CA and the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Our community has faced three major traumatic events coming at us in just a two week period. How do we process these fires, and the flames of hatred, directed at us?

I want to tell you a story, a true story, about trauma. My trauma. I share my personal story with you because I want to help us all, as we all face the fallout from these three traumatic events.

Seeking Advice to Understand How to Respond

Since last Wednesday, after the mass shootings, as the fires began to rage across the Conejo Valley, Rabbi Julia Weisz and I got in touch with our rabbinic colleagues from communities in Santa Rosa, CA which was decimated by fires a year ago, Houston, TX which endured horrible floods, and Parkland, FL which faced a murderous mass shooter in the high school. We called them because we needed to understand what we might expect and what we might do to help heal our community.

Most of us do understand that the process of repair for those who lost houses or were wounded or had loved ones murdered is long and arduous. But Rabbis Stephanie Kramer, Oren Hayon, and Marci Bloch who guided us well also cautioned us that our experience does not end when we return to our homes, find new homes, or when the dead are buried. They taught us that the process of healing would also be long and arduous for all of us. We will need to come to terms with the fact that these fires – and increased mass shootings – are now the new normal. They are going to happen, again and again, and they are going to get worse before they get better. Repair of our broken hearts and broken world takes time.

Recognizing our Trauma

We need to recognize our trauma. My rabbinic colleagues told us that those who survive, those who evacuated, even returned to their houses and saw how close the fires came – sometimes all the way up to backyards – or those who saw their friends’ homes burnt down, also will face trauma. Meaning most of us.

The story that I want to tell you tonight is about my day one week after the fires began. I want to open your eyes to what can happen. I have done advanced pastoral counseling work, studied about the traumatic effects of such experiences, and was warned by all those rabbis who told me what was going to happen to many of you. Well, it happened to me too.

One week after the fires began, I had to take a day off. Because after dealing with these events 24/7 for a week, I hit the wall. I am not sharing this for sympathy or caring: I’m good and with continued support from my team, I will be even stronger.

As the Tears Began to Flow.. And Not Stop

My story began at about six o’clock, when I began crying. I was talking to my kids about what was going on with the fires and our work to be there for our community. Sitting safely in my home, far enough away from the fires to be assuredly safe, I recounted our work organizing the community. And the tears began to flow. Initially I figured I was just exhausted.

But then I woke in the middle of the night and while watching an episode of the TV show Parenthood – about a dad who couldn’t find time for himself, but finally broke away and went surfing – and all of a sudden I found myself bawling again. At four thirty in the morning.

That morning I participated in an early conference call but had to break away numerous times because I kept shedding tears.

Calling my Therapist

My very next call was to my therapist, who I see sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. He opened up an appointment for me at 5:00 pm. I then texted Sally Weber, a social worker and friend from Jewish Family Services, who earlier in the week “kidnapped me” from the relief work to encourage me begin to process. She could talk at two thirty.

Then I contacted the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to get in touch with Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, the CCAR’s crisis counselor, who said he would call me back in twenty minutes.

Rex and I talked for an hour. Sally and I spoke for an hour. My therapist and I spent an hour together. And you know what I discovered in those three hours of therapy? That although I thought I was not directly touched by any of this, I actually was traumatized by all that has happened. It was partly exhaustion, but not just that.

Shaken Up by the Shootings

What I discovered was the intense effect on me, especially of these double shootings. I was experiencing the shootings as deeply personal attacks. First they came after us at a synagogue (I’m Jewish. I work in a synagogue. It could easily have been my synagogue.). And then, over at the Borderline Bar, that country western dance bar, one of our young people, 23 year old dear to me, had been in there dancing and ran for his life. I’m glad that he is physically unharmed. Yet, just five days earlier I had been sitting with him, commiserating over the synagogue shooting and all those shootings at churches, schools, concerts, malls, and elsewhere. I cautioned him that as terrible as it is, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I assured him though that the chances of his getting shot at is about as likely as his stepping off the curb and getting hit by a bus (I buried someone from that only once, very early in my rabbinate). Then just five days later, that young man was in the Borderline Bar shooting.

In those counseling sessions, I realized that I didn’t know how to keep my kids safe, or my congregant kids safe, or my congregation safe, or the school safe. I discovered that was frustrated and so sad. I realized that I couldn’t sit back anymore.

Survivor’s Guilt

And then I realized that I had a form of survivor’s guilt. I was feeling guilty that we were here in this gorgeous part of the country and while many were evacuated, most escaped with only smoke damage to their homes. Yes, in fact, the fires raged all the way up to peoples’ homes, workplaces, and backyards, but I and most of our congregants were safe.

As we dug deeper, the counselors helped me discover the intensity of the repetitious nature of these fires. What now was happening to people I love had happened in nearby Ventura, CA a year ago, and to a lesser degree, we faced fires two years ago in Calabasas. In fact back then, I rescued our two Torah scrolls from the approaching fires, carrying them across the freeway bridge to safety. Since then we post in the synagogue lists of items to take if we are evacuated.

Personal Sense of Loss

Amidst my tears, I also remembered that of the three Jewish camps destroyed, I had personal connections to each. I had been a director of Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp for four years. It was so long ago, I forget about it. And most of our temple teens go to Camp JCA Shalom for NFTY retreats. These camps are their home away from home. They were part of my life.

Then I realized that just one year ago, our Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where our family spent every summer for twenty years, had burned down. My therapy team helped me realize that I had trauma on top of trauma, compounded trauma.

And then I became aware of the self-growth I needed to undertake: that if I really wanted to do something to stop these annual fires from happening, and if I want to do something to stop these constant shootings, we all have to stand up. And I had to become a leader in a different way than I had been before. That’s is intense and a little bit scary too.

If it Could Happen to Me, It Could Happen to You Too

Finally, I learned that if I can become overwhelmed and traumatized by this, then, they tell me, it can happen to you too. Remember, I am trained to handle this and I train interns every year about just these types of situations. If it could happen to me, it can happen to you.

So even when you go back to your house and at first all seems fine, take your pulse. If you can’t sleep as well as you used to (or as well as you used to not sleep), or if you can’t relax, or if your child’s grades start to change, or if you witness significant behavioral changes in the kids or the adults or yourself, or if something else seems off, please call Rabbi Julia, call Cantor Doug, call me, or call the Jewish Federation crisis hotline, or call Jewish Family Services, or call a therapist, or call a friend. Because you too might be dealing with intense trauma or PTSD.

I was lucky; because of my training I quickly could tell that something was wrong. And I quickly reached out for help. But I’m not over it.

To remain in track, I have given control over my eating over to my wife Michelle; I said I would eat whatever she tell me to eat. I would go to sleep whenever she told me to go to bed. I have arranged with trusted friends who know me well to check in regularly.

And I have additional counseling appointments scheduled.

I’m Going to Be Okay… Are You?

So I’m okay, because I did and am doing the therapy work. But many of us may have to do it too. It’s not over when we are back in our homes. The fires are not over. These insidious shootings are not over. We are going to have to deal with the trauma from them and come to terms with the new normal. Because this new normal is insidious and can easily overwhelm.

Each week we light Shabbat candles, and we take the same element, the fire that destroyed, and use it to create light and hope, for today and for the future. We are going to light Shabbat candles to bring in Shabbat light so that we can do what we did this whole horrible week since the shooting happened and the fires started: Kindle more light, not of destruction, but of love, hope, and healing. Amen.

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

Categories
Gun Control Healing Prayer

Prayer in the Aftermath of a Tragedy

Our God and God of all people,
God of the Rich and God of the poor.
God of the teacher and God of the student.
God of the families who wait in horror.
God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks.
God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways.
God of the doctor who treats the wounded.
God of the rabbi, pastor, imam or priest who seeks words of comfort but comes up empty.
God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.
God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body .
God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.
God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.
God of the Right.
God of the Left.
God who hears our prayers.
God who does not answer.
On this tragic day when we confront the aftermath of the 18th School shooting in our nation on the 46th day of this year, I do not feel like praying.
Our prayers have not stopped the bullets.
Our prayers have changed nothing.
Once again, a disturbed man with easy access to guns has squinted through the sights of a weapon, aimed, squeezed a trigger and taken out his depraved anger, pain and frustration on innocents:  pure souls. Students and teachers. Brothers and sisters. Mothers and fathers- cut down in an instant by the power of hatred and technology.
We are guilty, O God.
We are guilty of inaction.
We are guilty of complacency.
We are guilty of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by politics.
The blood of our children cries out from the ground.
The blood of police officers cut down in the line of duty flows through our streets.
I do not appeal to You on this terrible morning to change us. We can only do that ourselves.
Our enemies do not come only from far away places.
The monsters we fear live among us.
May those in this room who have the power to to make change find the courage to seek a pathway to sanity and hope.
May we hold ourselves and our leaders accountable.

Only then will our prayers be worthy of an answer.

AMEN
Rabbi Joe Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado.  This prayer was originally posted on his blog