Morris Zimbalist
Morris Zimbalist

Leading with Tears of Resilience

The news came on video. It was followed up by a phone call, and then a request to join a Zoom meeting. The message was expected and titled with the words “Broken Hearts, Clear Minds.” The summer camp that our son loves – that our entire family loves – is cancelled for the summer.

Participants on the Zoom call referenced leadership, and I applaud the director and his staff. Without question, all involved in making this difficult decision exhibited extraordinary leadership and kept to their mission of keeping our children safe and secure, even if that meant keeping them out of camp. Many leadership decisions pose the risk of breaking hearts, but nonetheless, those decisions must be made —made with clear minds and articulated with candor. Leaders know this. Community members expect this. To be an effective, successful, and steadfast leader and to gain the trust of and experience the best from the communities they serve, leaders must hold themselves accountable for the decisions they make and how those decisions are shared. This camp director nailed it, and those listening appreciated it.

The leader of my son’s summer camp is a rabbi, and I’m a rabbi, too. Not a camp rabbi, though; rather, I serve a congregation of approximately 465 families – roughly 1,200 people. Comforting the brokenhearted, raising the spirits of the heavy-hearted, and offering unrequited empathy to those who bare their hearts is part of a rabbi’s daily routine. So is speaking with thoughtful candor. Perhaps this causes some within congregations across the country and around the world look to their rabbis and other faith leaders as super-men and super-women. Exemplary service to communities could give the greater membership the perception that in fact rabbis are super-human, balancing the demands of the community with the needs of their families, friends, and time for self-care. And while some may argue that “perception is reality,” ask any rabbi and I suspect you’ll uncover a sobering truth – rabbis, like the members of the communities they serve, sometimes struggle with maladies of the heart, whether they are broken, heavy, or both. One of my rabbinic mentors addressed the complex emotional role and toll of rabbinic leadership by suggesting that even when times seem unbearable and uncertain, a rabbi should reserve his or her true heart-felt emotion and never cry. Leaders are meant to be pillars of strength for the individuals they serve. No one wants to see them cry.

Perhaps that imagine of a rabbi rings true for some, but for me it is terribly flawed. Tempering emotion and displaying raw emotion are important for all leaders, including rabbis. All the more so, in these strange times of COVID-19, rabbis are navigating unchartered waters that put their physical, emotional, and spiritual safety at a new level of risk. Pastoral needs are constant as loved ones are dying alone in care facilities closed to the public, funerals are attended via electronic media, and condolences are offered through any means but physical contact. B’nei mitzvah are being rescheduled, weddings are on hold, and the High Holidays are promising little if any physical or familial comforts from the past. Rabbis are home-schooling their children in both secular studies and religious values, doing their best to be dance and gymnastics instructors, working to keep their spouses or partners sane while ensuring that the dishes and laundry are done and the dogs are walked and the litter boxes are clean. And as we face summer, they must learn how to be camp directors, counselors, and specialty staff.

Leadership is not mechanical. Rather, it’s complex and sometimes messy. An “ordinary day at the office” or “ordinary day with family” is anything but ordinary, “time at home” cannot be equated to “time available,” and “not being okay” in many respects reflects the new understanding of “normal.” Personal time is at a premium, and it is easy to lose sight of the need for self-care.  Leaders must recognize this, and the communities they serve need to accept and support it, while at the same time crafting the clear message that we are in this together and we will be okay.

The genuine emotion of a leader impacts the mood of the greater community and models for others what too often we are afraid to say or express. Leadership demands emotion and, just like every person in the communities they serve, leaders should feel comfortable to freely express emotion. What kind of leaders would they be if they didn’t? Sometimes leadership requires more from a leader than anyone would have ever expected, even the leader himself or herself. No one is super-human. Even the best leaders cry, and in today’s world, that should be considered a hallmark of exemplary leadership. And when coupled with resilience, those tears and authentic emotion will reveal new pathways and opportunities for the future.

About the Author
Rabbi Morris Zimbalist is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove, IL.
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