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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.]

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