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When the Responsibilities of Being a Rabbi Begin to Overwhelm

On Monday, I felt the weight of it all begin to seep under my skin. It happens sometimes when the responsibilities of being a rabbi begin to overwhelm. Perhaps that’s just what happens after exhausting weekends like this. Maybe it was the great number of simchas (joyous occasions) to celebrate… Of course it might just have been the sadness of preparing to bury a loving, compassionate 54-year-old woman who left her husband (of 27 years) and two teenagers.

As the weekend began, it promised to be a joyous opportunity to schepp nachas (share the joy) as Congregation Or Ami enjoyed one simcha (joyous moment) after the other. Friday morning I welcomed our two new interns from HUC-JIR who would lead our award-winning Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning program in the coming year. Vivacious, creative and energetic, these grad students overflowed with ideas of how to make the learning engaging and multigenerational. That night, the congregation welcomed Shabbat as we gathered Or Ami’s new officers and board under the chuppah (marriage canopy), symbolically bonding them through marriage to God and God’s gift of Torah. Dreaming about new initiatives for the coming year and excited about the weekend’s other simchas, I fell into a deep sleep.

When the phone rang at 6:15am, I knew it could not be good news. He said, “Its Barry. Felicia’s gone.” Uncharacteristically, I responded, “You’re kidding me! What? Say it again.” “Yes, she had a massive seizure. She died this morning. Tell me what should I do?”

Thus began forty eight hours of mental ping-pong: bouncing between multiple celebrations and walking our dear congregant, step by step, through the process of preparing for the funeral and shiva (the 7-day mourning period) afterward.

The Bar Mitzvah boy Zachary Oschin was impressive; he delivered his d’var Torah from notecards while walking around the room. At some point I had to bifurcate my attention as I stepped out to confirm funeral arrangements with the mortuary. Barry and I spoke regularly on the phone that afternoon between the Bar Mitzvah service and my parenting responsibilities. Emails back and forth with Paul and Shirley, our Henaynu Caring Community chairpeople, confirmed that the Or Ami community was prepared and volunteers lined up to step in for any eventuality – to order shiva food, to prepare the house for the 100s of guests, or to lay out the food trays. After driving my kids to their temple youth group event, I confirmed the shiva arrangements.

I made one last call that night to Barry between my two evening obligations – a Havdala service and dinner to celebrate the upcoming ordination of our second Rabbi Julia Weisz, and a party at which I offered a blessing for Julia Fingleson who is off to Kenya to volunteer at a school for disabled African kids.

Sunday morning, Barry confirmed that the shiva meals were coming together and that he would have a list of funeral eulogizers later that day. Answering his questions, I headed into Wilshire Blvd. Temple to celebrate as six former Or Ami interns and faculty were ordained rabbi. There was special joy as I presented for ordination Rebekah Stern and as my dear friend presented his congregant Julia Weisz. Then driving to new Community Jewish High School’s gala at the Ford Theater provided the empty space to call back David, who reported his father had died but had questions about how a Jew mourns Jewishly in an interfaith remarriage situation.

One more call to Barry, before entering the pre-graduation dessert reception honoring our soon to graduate education interns, allowed me to confirm the time to meet and discuss the funeral. It felt bittersweet speaking glowingly about Joel Abramovitz and Greg Weisman, who after devoting so much energy to Mishpacha this past year, are graduating and moving onto new endeavors. Particularly enjoyable were the moments I spent with their parents, kvelling (joyously boasting) about how talented their children are.

By 9pm, I was on the road to Barry’s home (first checking in by phone with David) to listen, to plan, and to begin the process of counseling toward the future. I learned so much about Felicia that night, about her warm heart and devotion to her husband, about the arduous process that ended as they adopted their two wonderful children and how she lived to love them. Barry talked; I listened. He questioned; I counseled. I made a mental note to retask our Henaynu Caring Community from Shiva meal set up to the next week’s carpool coverage and meal delivery. Notes taken, plans confirmed, I headed home, collapsing into my bed well after midnight.

Sometimes I am not fully aware of how the rabbinic ping-pong plays with my mind and emotions. Usually I can keep it compartmentalized. But every so often, it just seeps in. I usually know that is happening because I receive a multitude of text messages from my wife checking in on me (somehow she knows I am struggling, even before I do).

So how does a rabbi keep the overwhelming emotions at bay? How did I deal with the reality that this weekend’s ping-pong was too intense and this weekend’s death cut too close to home? Stay tuned for the next post…



4 comments

  1. I'm so appreciative of your thoughtful words and perspective on this very complex emotional and professional life that we lead. It helps me, a lot, to know that I'm not alone in having these times, moments and feelings.
    Looking forward to the next post….

  2. Paul Kipnes says:

    Thanks Jillbz for the blessings. Though I am not sure who you are, I appreciate the kindness.

    Elizabeth, we all go through this at different times. Next post will reveal the ways I identify what I am feeling and work with and through it.

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