Caring for clergy while they care for us

A year ago, I wrote an article for eJP about clergy pain. I spoke about the experiences of empty sanctuaries, Zoom fatigue, funerals with no mourners, Viddui over the phone and the quiet desperation of needing to uplift communities when you yourself are simply spent. None of us expected to be here again this year.

In my work with rabbis over the past 18 months across North America, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that they are resourceful and giving. I’ve learned that they may be incredibly sad, often despairing. I’ve learned how creative they may be. I’ve learned how often they feel unappreciated. I’ve learned that they are willing to share with their colleagues. And I’ve learned that many of them feel like they are alone and unsupported.

The relationship between rabbi and congregation is a sacred partnership – a mutual experience of support and challenge. We expect our clergy to push us to grow and to help us grieve. But what can they expect from us?

Our Jewish professionals are spent. I know what you’re thinking. We’re all spent. And that’s true. Everything I’m saying here applies to all of us. I think we could focus on doctors, nurses, teachers, federation staff, therapists and grocery workers. But I want you to know the hours I’ve listened to clergy in tears. I’ve heard stories of clergy undermined by congregational leadership – through neglect, public criticism and disrespect. Others tell of micromanagement or intrusions into their personal lives. We may be reaching a point where too many clergy are giving up, want out. 

This time of year, despite the pressures of the chagim, is often their favorite time. They get to see us. They get to connect with most of us. They know who sleeps during the sermon and who sings off key and who is alert – and we bring them comfort and purpose. 

Many years ago, I had a long conversation with Eugene Borowitz z’’l, a towering figure in the Reform movement and a dear friend. I asked him why God needs us to worship. Our discussion was wide ranging and wonderful. One idea we batted around was that God needs to be known, much as we need to be known. We agreed that it was impossible to know God – but that doesn’t obviate God’s need to be sought. Our part of the relationship matters. We don’t simply receive. We also give. Even to God. God needs us, whether or not we perceive that we need God. And God is present when we treat each other kindly, compassionately. 

Jews are meant to emulate God in our relationships. In our relationships with our loved ones, the stranger, those we encounter in every way. Our clergy need to be seen. As I speak with professionals all over the country, I know how hard they’re working. I know their families are getting less of them. I know they’re getting ill, not sleeping. Some are anxious and sad and worried. Just like the rest of us. I also know it takes so very little to reach out. Their efforts have been huge. What about yours? 

Are your professional staff feeling valued? If you ask them, they may not tell you the real truth. So many of us are uncomfortable talking about how tough this has been. Telling the truth about personal pain requires a trusting relationship, one that supports even when the truth may be hard to hear.

If you think you’re already doing this, do it more. Be self-critical. You may think your rabbi or cantor or educator doesn’t need your support – they’re doing just fine. You’re wrong. Everyone needs support, especially now. Even when they tell you they’re fine, even if they outwardly appear to be fine, do more. Be kind, be thoughtful, be there. Treat them as you wish to be treated. Compassion, the willingness to meet someone where they are with respect, always helps. 

Schedule fewer meetings. Send food. Suggest other people to teach classes. 

There is no question that some congregations – leadership and members – are really stepping up. There has been negotiated time off, shared decision making about what does not need to be done, kindness and outreach. Kol haKavod to those who know they need to care for the carers. 

But if you think you may not be offering support, what’s stopping you? You personally, and you as congregational leader? In this sacred partnership, what is your responsibility?

Did you send your rabbi or cantor or educator a thank you for all they do? If the answer is yes, do it again. If the answer is no, what are you waiting for? Call them, email them, send a gift card or a meal. Make a donation in their honor. Hand write a thank you note. Your expenditure is small, but the impact could be huge. 

And why Jewish professionals? Are they so special? In fact, our medical professionals and grocery workers and therapists also need this level on consideration. Are you kind enough? Knowing how needy we all are, how might each of us do better, be more compassionate and supportive?

We need each other more than ever. Each of us. That includes you and me, and it includes those who lead us. Now more than ever, let’s treat each other as we wish to be treated. Let’s see each other. You were made in the image of God. Be the best you can be. 

Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist who currently teaches as an adjunct lecturer at HUC-JIR. Her classes include Human Development for Educators, The Spiritual Life-Cycle, Adolescent Development and Teens In and Out of Crisis. She is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

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