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. I thought this 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:
- To my clergy partners – a rabbi and cantor, telling them I was wasn’t coming home and I was stepping aside
- To our synagogue president sharing the tsuris (problems) so he could inform our leadership and partner with our clergy to envision the way ahead
- To our Shabbat dinner coordinator asking her to take over arranging the communal seudat aveilut (shiva meal) and meals for my family
- 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.]