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Cut your rabbi some slack

The clergy that counsel the suffering and console the bereaved also love, laugh, hurt, and are confused by challenges with no easy solutions
Synagogue service under lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic. (Marc Morris Photography)
Illustrative. Synagogue service under lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic. (Marc Morris Photography)

Who does a doctor visit when she is sick? Who does an attorney call when he needs legal counsel? Who tabulates taxes for an accountant? Who takes a taxi driver to the airport?

These are not merely questions to make us go “hmmm.” I have been up at night wanting to know where clergy can turn when they need support.

The job of the clergy is regular ranked as one of the most emotionally taxing professions. The burnout rate is higher than most other occupations in similar economic brackets. Add a pandemic into that mix and we take a tough job and make it exponentially harder.

Ministers and rabbis may not be a classic first responders, but we are at least second responders. We have supported the bereaved, albeit through computer screens. We offered final prayers, albeit via an iPad. We officiated at funerals that were for immediate family, and we streamed life-cycle events that were missing celebrants.

We have had to create new tracks of our religion, stretch the elasticity of rules and laws, and reinvent ourselves to be relevant and ahead of the curve, while functioning in the dark.

During this time of COVID, communal needs have not diminished. They have increased. Through it all, clergy are wrestling with their own share of challenges from the pandemic. Some have not seen elderly parents; others have been forced to manage homeschooling and childcare while on Zoom calls. Many places of worship did get government support, but the needs of payrolls, electricity and security did not disappear away during this time. Worry about the viability of our not-for-profit institutions is on the forefront of our minds.

This topic has spiked for me because I have noticed an uptick in clergy who are having mental and emotional breakdowns. They vary in nature and occur across religious divides. They can differ in how they eventually manifest themselves to their family and community. But they are common in their significance and consequence.

Who does a priest cry to when his mother is dying of cancer? Who sits with the minister while her daughter receives chemotherapy? Who offers faith to the imam when his daughter is dealing with fertility issues? Who gives counsel to the rabbi when her marriage hits turbulence?

In my congregation, I have witnessed countless people who have fallen into deep depression after the death of a parent. Some because of regret, others because of entering orphanhood. Why would anyone think that clergy are invulnerable to those feelings when their parents die? That is as naïve as thinking doctors cannot be afflicted with cancer and accountants cannot be audited.

The pandemic has burdened everyone. Clergy are not immune to those challenges. But, even before the pandemic arrived and after it is gone, giving care to the caregivers is essential.

Being a clergyperson is a rewarding although lonely profession. I have had incalculable highs as a rabbi and have also grieved through painful lows. When in those ruts, the loneliness, along with not knowing where I could turn and who was safe to talk to, cut the deepest.

To all my brothers and sisters of the cloth: know that you have a network of colleagues who are always available for encouragement, strength and unconditional support. Often, we appear preoccupied with tasks in our own communities. We are never too busy or have too much on our plate to ignore the plight of our fellow clergy member. We are here for one another. Always.

It is time for us to create networks and support systems for caregivers. Until that happens, you (non-clergy) can help.

In the Jewish world, we are about to enter the Superbowl of our calendar year. In a typical year, this time is demanding and stressful. During a pandemic, even more so. When the clergy are helping to bind the wounds of the suffering and providing consolation to the bereaved, remember that they are humans too, who love, laugh, cry, hurt, and are confused by challenges with no easy solutions.

Regardless of your religion, cut them some slack. Chances are, if you can give them the benefit of the doubt with a healthy dose of empathy, you can do the same for those in your social orbit, and even yourself. We all can benefit from that these days.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a National Council member of AIPAC.
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