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

Death Healing Israel

Letter from Jerusalem: Love must win 

Thursday, July 30 was planned as a day of celebration of tolerance and acceptance, a day to embrace difference, a day to lift up diversity and cooperation in Israel’s capital as the municipality hosted Jerusalem’s gay pride parade. I arrived in Jerusalem and was delighted to see rainbow flags lining some of the main streets. Near the American Embassy a huge banner declared, in English letters, “LOVE WINS!” The message was repeated in languages from the region and from across the world.

When evening fell and the heat of the day dissipated, we learned of the twin acts of terror that crushed the hopes with which the day began. Eighteen month old Ali Dawabsheh was burned to death in his Duma home by ultra religious Jewish terrorists. One hour away, Shira Banki, walking with friends and classmates in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, was stabbed by a man who had been released weeks earlier after serving ten years in prison for a similar attack on the 2005 Jerusalem parade. Shira died three days later. Ali’s father, Sa’ad died ten days later. Ali’s mother and 4 year old brother are being treated for major burns, and five other marchers are recovering from stab wounds.

The handwritten sign on the Banki’s door announced shiva from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. On Thursday, August 6th, we were the first to enter the shiva house. At first, we did not realize that we had been welcomed by Mika, Shira’s mother, because she seemed so young herself. “We are private people,” she said. “We asked that there be no press at the funeral, and none at the shiva, and they have been very respectful.” We leaned in to hear her as others joined us in the garden, a gracious outdoor space shared by the residents of the apartment building. “We recently celebrated our son’s Bar Mitzvah here. As we sat here, we realized it is a lovely space for a wedding. Perhaps, one day, Shira’s wedding. Here we are, with guests and tables filled with food, but this is not a wedding…”

We came with a gift, a book of 1720 signatures and notes of condolence from across the world, collected by the Israel Religious Action Center. Anat Hoffman, the Center’s director, had written Shira’s name on a stone that Shira’s mom held in her hand as she spoke. “The shiva is allowing me an additional week of not comprehending what has happened. Shira is the eldest of our four children. Our house is always open, always filled with our children and their friends. We raised our children to be open, to find their own voice, to walk their own path.”

We sat with Mika, we, four women who have also raised children, three of us now grandmothers. We came as representatives of thousands of others like ourselves who are stunned by the violence that, in one day, shattered the life of many families.

I have visited many shiva houses In the last fifty plus years. I have sat with many who have lost beloveds, both those who have suffered a sudden loss, and those who have sat for days and months at the bedsides of dear ones and watched helplessly as their lives slipped away.

As we sat in the Banki’s garden, we felt Shira’s absence and her presence. The photos of Shira introduced us to a smiling, engaged young woman, who would have celebrated her sixteenth birthday in three months.

This will be the third Shabbat since these twin attacks. When Shabbat ends, Jews across the world will welcome the month of Elul. Our tradition teaches the power of this last month of the year in which we prepare for Rosh HaShanah. Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed, the four letters of the Hebrew name of the month, echo the words of the Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs: Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li: I am My Beloved and my Beloved is mine.

How can we love in the shadow of hate? Each new year we are challenged to Choose Life. Our tradition invites us to acknowledge our own fears of death when we sit with the bereaved. This is how we choose life.

Our Judaism urges us, even in the presence of senseless hatred, to affirm love. Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li.We inscribe these words of love on wedding rings and sing them as we celebrate love and commitment. These words direct this month of reviewing our days, reconsidering our choices, reaffirming our commitments.

We choose life when we weave these words into the oft-quoted words attributed to the ancient sage, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

When love wins, we see that If I am not for myself, I cannot be present for another. When love wins, we understand that when we are only for ourselves, we cannot see even the beloved who is before me. When love wins, we grasp that the time is now. Now is the time to choose life, and love.

Our humanity is absolutely bound up with the humanity of others. There is no room for hate in our fragile, interdependent world. We can transform fear of the other into curiosity, and build respect in the place of ignorance.  There is only one people, one fate, one earth, one destiny. The perpetuation of a fiction of essential otherness is a recipe for annhilation.

Just as Eve and Adam left Eden, we took our leave of the Banki family in their garden. When shiva ended, they, too, left their garden. We must honor the memory of Shira Banki and the memories of Ali and Sa’ad Dawabsheh by choosing life, and love. Love must win.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is scholar in residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation. She is also the editor of The Open Door, the CCAR Haggadah (2002).

This blog was originally posted in Washington Jewish Week.

Death Healing Mishkan haNefesh

You Turn my Mourning Into Dancing

Yizkor on Yom Kippur is … not about human frailty or the futility of human endeavors. Yizkor on Yom Kippur is about the power of others to affect us, about our power to affect others, about the power of the dead and the living to continue to affect each other. Yizkor on Yom Kippur is … not simply about remembering the dead, by about attempting to effect change in our relationships with the dead and thus to effect change in ourselves and in our relationships with those who are still among the living.

(Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, in the CCAR Draft machzor, forthcoming 2015, Mishkan haNefesh, Yizkor service)

I’ve missed a number of days of Elul to blog because my father-in-law died last Wednesday. After his funeral in Florida on Friday morning, my wife and her sister returned to sit shiva at our home in Massachusetts. What happened over those days was a reflection of how love, healing, and change are truly what the rituals of remembrance are about and enable us to do. For those who joined us for multiple nights of shiva, the change that occurred over those days as memories and reflections were shared was quite evident and powerful for many.

Without sharing the specifics here, the journey we took was one that first confronted the past, and acknowledged the challenge of engaging with memory in the face of difficult relationships. Yet, with the honesty of needing to acknowledge the challenges, the blessings that emerged from those life experiences were also evident.  On the following night, more family members gathered and a broader range of perspectives and memories were shared. There were many moments of laughter. There was a release – the laughter not only lifted the weight of some of the challenging memories but also opened up the banks of memories that were positive and powerful. And so, by the third night, new stories had been laid bare and had risen to the surface. There were words of forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  By the fourth night, in a beautiful, spontaneous sharing and connecting of memories and reflections connected to the words of specific prayers as we davenned (prayed) the ma’ariv (evening) service, there was a sense of completeness. We were speaking of a life lived, and memories that we carry with us, but embedded into the heart of the tefilot that were so much a part of Mordecai’s being that, when advanced dementia had taken almost all else from him, davenning was the only activity that he could still do, in short bouts.

In the forthcoming CCAR machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, we find a version of precisely how we did our remembrances on the last night of shiva.  We are offered 7 paths, where readings, psalms and reflective texts are woven around the 7 thematic blessings of the Tefilah, or Amidah prayer, the central prayer of our Shabbat and Festival liturgy.  There is an abundance of material – many, many years worth of exploration and contemplation. There is a clear recognition that everyone remembers differently. There are ways to remember children who died too young. There is a prayer in memory of a parent who was hurtful. There are words to remember one who died violently. There are words to remember dearly beloved ones. And so many more.

As we return to Yizkor, year after year, we do not necessarily have to engage in the memories in the same way. With the passage of time and the ways we remember, may we, as invited by Rabbi Wenig in the reflection above, find the possibility to change our relationships with the dead and thus effect change in ourselves and in our relationships with those who are still among the living.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA. She dedicates this blog post to the memory of Mordecai Lavow, her father-in-law.