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Rabbis on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Those of us who knew, or thought we knew, Rabbi Barry Freundel — recently arrested for spying on women in the mikveh, with a mountain of evidence suggesting his guilt — are still in shock. As much as I disagreed with many of his halachic positions, I always thought he was one of the good rabbis, the ethical ones.

The same is true for those who knew Rabbi Barry Starr of Sharon, Massachusetts, who allegedly used his “rabbi’s discretionary fund” to pay off an extortionist who threatened to expose an affair he had with a 16-year-old boy. That brings new irony to the word “discretion.”

READ: Jane Eisner Explains Why Rabbi Freundel Belongs in the Forward 50

And while some have rushed to condemn these errant rabbis as sick individuals, the high (but not fully known) rate of rabbinic scandals — not to mention less dramatic events, like burnout and breakdowns — suggests a systemic problem. Too many good rabbis are making bad decisions, and too many bad ones are causing tragedies.

This assessment comports with my own anecdotal experience. I travel to a dozen or so congregations a year. As a friend and colleague, I am in touch with rabbis across the country and in all denominations. I am often a confidant, safely outside rabbis’ social circles yet close enough temperamentally to “get it.”

And I can tell you: I don’t know a single rabbi, including the ones with thriving, successful congregations, who doesn’t feel overworked, overstressed and under-supported. Some are struggling with substance abuse or with challenging relationships. Many more are just plain tired.

To be sure, few rabbis act as unethically as Freundel is alleged to have done. But almost all face the stress that causes men and women to break. So while I was shocked by the Freundel revelations, I was not surprised. In my unscientific opinion, the American rabbinate is a powder keg.

What can be done? I want to talk about four ways that we, as a community, could do better. I want to challenge denominations and synagogues to take the psychological health of their clergy more seriously.

First, it’s no secret that American congregational rabbis face enormous pressures. They are pastoral counselors, ritual leaders, ethical instructors, tutors, administrators, committee members, fundraisers, cheerleaders for Judaism and more. There are always competing points of view — you can’t please all the people all the time — and plenty of politics.

Some of this just comes with the territory; competing interests are inevitable in organizations with budgets, boards and members. But it doesn’t have to be this bad.

For one thing, the congregations I’ve seen depend on their rabbis for too much. We’re wedded to the charismatic model of a strong, rabbinic leader who has to preside over every ritual, meeting and lifecycle event. But is this really necessary? What would it look like for communities to take more ownership of their Jewish lives? And is it reasonable to expect rabbis to put in 80-hour weeks without even a Sabbath for rest? The transactional attitude of many congregations demands value for money; rabbis should be worked hard in order to maximize return on investment. And if that means they burn out, well, just replace them, like junior associates.

Second, this workload is at least doubled by endless personality management. Everyone has to be liked — board members, staff, members, potential members, family members — and everyone is quick to take offense when they aren’t. Rabbis are afraid to talk about controversial issues because there might be “explosions” or ”trouble with the board.” They are constantly tap dancing around issues, people and principles for fear of offending a rich, powerful or noisy constituent. Rather than challenge, they kowtow.

But since when is it a mitzvah to be offended? Why are our standards for derech eretz, basic human respect, so low that congregations allow screamers, whiners, short fuses and outright jerks to act like emotional infants? I’ve seen speech and behavior in synagogues that wouldn’t be allowed in kindergarten.

The rabbinic role is a contradiction. On the one hand, the rabbi is the big spiritual daddy (male or female) who everyone depends upon. On the other hand, the rabbi is an employee who everyone gets to judge. Congregants are alternately sheep and wolves.

Alternatives are possible. I have been part of congregations that set, and maintain, ethical expectations of their lay leaders. Committee members are asked to treat their sacred service as, well, sacred. Spiritual and emotional maturity are expected. Meetings are spaces for spiritual practice no less than services. We can do better.

At the same time, neither Jewish education nor Jewish religious practice provides rabbis with the skills necessary to manage these stressors. The sad fact is that when it comes to spiritual self-care, mainstream Jewish teachings often don’t work. It’s a dangerously wrong assumption that rabbis, by virtue of being rabbis, have ethically refined themselves and are capable of dealing with their issues. But they haven’t, and they aren’t. And no amount of singing “Lecha Dodi” is going to change that.

No — we need outside help, which is my third modest proposal. Rabbinic education should include half an MBA, with best practices on time management, staff management, and donor development. And it should include a spiritual MBA as well, with proven practices for stress reduction, self-evaluation and happiness. Both should be ongoing, with Continuing Rabbinic Education mandatory like it is for doctors and lawyers.

As things stand now, the most common method of coping is by far the worst of all: repression. Rabbis tamp down their own problems. They hide, and then inevitably act out in ways that seem inexplicable. Of course most rabbis don’t crack like a Barry Freundel or Starr. But smaller fissures are everywhere.

Which leads me to my final proposal: We need better data. The crisis in rabbinic leadership is, and should be seen as, a crisis of Jewish continuity. Laypeople need to take responsibility for their share, and rabbis for theirs. And to do that effectively, we need to know what we’re dealing with. As we learned from Yeshiva University, denying ugly facts serves to make those facts uglier.

Ultimately, individual rabbis bear final responsibility for their own actions. But it’s foolish to throw people into unbearable situations and then blame the ones who can’t bear them. They are not aberrations; they are the extreme ends of a crisis we ourselves have created.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.





    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

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