Author Archives: Rebecca Sirbu

Rebecca Sirbu

About Rebecca Sirbu

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu, is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Rabbi Sirbu directs two rabbinic fellowship programs, teaches seminars to rabbis, rabbinical students, and lay leaders across the country, and coaches individual rabbis in attaining their career goals. She was the founding director of the cutting edge MetroWest Jewish Healing and Healing Center at JCC MetroWest and the Center for Jewish Life at JCC MetroWest in West Orange, NJ. In addition, she is a trained hospital chaplain and speaks and writes on issues of health, healing, spirituality, and Jewish women. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College, she holds a masters degree and ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Waiting for God

We have entered the Hebrew month of Elul.

This is the last Hebrew month before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Traditionally, it is a time when we begin to reflect on the year that has passed, the work we have done, and the mistakes we have made. As part of a daily prayer practice many people recite Psalm 27.

Psalm 27 is one of my favorite psalms. I feel the author’s desire to be close to God. The yearning that God will protect us, keep us safe. Every day I reach out to God and wait…wait for an answer, wait for God’s comforting presence. Some days I feel it and others I do not. But for some inexplicable reason just reciting this psalm renews my faith. I give it to you here in the hope that you can make your own connections to it.

Psalm 27
New International Version (NIV)
1 The LORD is my light and my salvation —whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me to devour[a] me,
it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted  above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the LORD.
7 Hear my voice when I call, LORD; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, LORD; lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.

Posted on August 27, 2012

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The Media, Guns, and Turbans

It has been a week since the terrible shooting in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Life has continued and new news is dominating the headlines. This tragedy has been quickly forgotten by many.

As I sat in a Gurdwara, a Sikh Temple, this Sunday at a service to remember those who were killed and pray for those who were injured, I took a moment to be very present in the room. The room itself was a big hall with windows on either side, fans circulated air on the high ceiling and an alter on the floor in the front of the room was covered in a pink and gold material. A rug with different colors marking the walkways covered the floor. Everyone, men, women children sat on the floor together since a belief in the equality of every person is part of the Sikh philosophy. Men wore turbans, and woman had on colorful Indian clothes, pants and tunics with matching head scarves. Taking in the peaceful scene of people sitting together on the floor and children running in and out, I could only imagine the terror which pervaded the temple when the shooting started… unexpected, shocking, and life altering terror.

If the same thing had happened in a church, maybe even in a synagogue we will still be talking about it. The news would be giving us updates on the injured. A sacred space was violated and life has quickly gone on. The Temple I visited in Glen Rock, New Jersey had opened its doors to the community on Sunday to educate people about Sikhism as well as to remember the dead. In addition to being invited to the service, visitors were encouraged to attend a presentation about the tenants of Sikh religion and understand why Sikhs do not cut their hair and wear turbans. (Sikhs believe that people are created with long hair for a reason and they accept hair as a beautiful part of their bodies. When the religion was founded over 500 years ago, only wealthy men wore turbans as a sign of status and many kings wore turbans. Since Sikhs have believed in the equality of all people since the creation of their religion, all Sikhs wear the turban as a sign of equality. Source: http://www.sikhnextdoor.org/teachers/faq.html#h1 ) It is the turban that has attracted the attention of mainstream Americans, so several minutes of the presentation was devoted to talking about the turban, and a slide was shown distinguished between different types of turbans. Those worn by Sikhs and those worn by other groups like the Al Qaeda. The image of Osama bin Laden wearing a turban has caused many individuals to assume Sikhs are Muslim. The Sikh community is now working hard to change this perception.

I was very moved by the people I met at this Sikh community. Everyone was eager to help the visitors, directing them around the Gurdwara, explaining the customs, and encouraging us to eat. A meal is served in the social hall of the Temple while the service is going on and anyone can come and eat for free at any time. Other Jews I encounters there laughingly said that maybe if we served a free meal DURING the service more people would come. It is a lovely tradition and again speaks to the Sikh belief of equality and the need to honor and take care of fellow human beings. I felt incredibly well taken care of there.

One young woman who welcomed me to the Temple asked me why I came. I responded. “As a Jew, I am also a minority in this country. I understand what it feels like, and I wanted to show your community my support during this difficult time.” She smiled and thanked me. But I don’t think she fully understood the emotional weight my words held.

I grew up as a Jew with a kosher home in Texas. I always felt different, other. I have deep admiration for those Sikhs who do wear turbans. It is extremely difficult to be a minority in America. We may be a melting pot, but it can hurt to stand out and be different.

I wish more visitors had come to the Gurdwara on Sunday. I wish there was a way to do more education about religious and cultural differences in this country. It would, quite literally be lifesaving. Instead of moving on to the next story, the news media would do well to spend a moment educating Americans about Sikh beliefs and practices. In our world of streaming information, a few more minutes, even hours, spend talking about and honoring our differences would have a strong impact. We owe that to the six who died.

Sikh Beliefs
1) One Source
One God is the Creator of the Universe
2) Equality
All human beings are equal
People of all religions and races are welcome in Sikh Gurdwaras
Women have equal status with men in religious services and ceremonies
3) Human Life Precious Above Other Life
The human life is supreme and it is through this life that we can achieve oneness with God’s will.
Finding God in this life and living by his commands helps us to attain God’s mercy.
4) Defending Against Injustice
Sikhs are a peace loving people and stand for Truth and Justice
Guru Gobind Singh Ji said, “It is right to use force as a last resort when all other peaceful means fail.”

Posted on August 13, 2012

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This is real and you are completely unprepared!

This is real and you are completely unprepared!

What? Just the thought strikes panic in my heart. I like to be prepared for everything. What do you mean I am unprepared? What is real? Ahhhh!

This is probably the best title of a book ever. Written by Rabbi Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared takes the reader through a journey of personal transformation which begins with the holiday of Tisha B’Av commemorating the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem and concludes with the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah where we celebrate finishing the year Torah reading cycle. He argues that Tisha B’Av which we just observed yesterday, Sunday, July 29th, marks the start of the Jewish high holiday season. The high point of which is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Lew asserts that in order for someone to be properly prepared to do teshuva, repentance, and start over with a new slate in the New Year, we need to start a period of self reflection now. Today!

You have seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks to reflect on the past year. Think about those things you did well, and those not so well. Identify those people you need to ask forgiveness of and begin the process of asking. This is real. The time starts now. Do not wait until Rosh Hashanah to start this spiritual process.

May your time of reflection uncover new realizations. May you be strengthened by your process. And may you be written in the Book of Life.

Posted on July 30, 2012

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Sex, Violence, and, Shades of Grey

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is everywhere. I saw a woman reading it the subway last week and another at the pool. This book, which started as an e-book and gained a following because women could read it in secret, has come out of the closet. Women are reading it out in the open everywhere. Magazine articles and blog posts are calling it the “Summer of Grey.”

I like that the book is helping some women get in touch with their sexuality. Judaism has always seen sex with in a committed relationship as a positive act. The Talmud dictates how often a man is to please his wife by having relations with her: for men of independent means, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for donkey-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in 30 days; and for sailors, once in six months. Having sex on Friday night during the Sabbath is even referred to as a “double mitzvah.” If this book is helping some couples come together then that is a good thing.

However, I find the threat of violence which hangs over the entire story to be chilling and dangerous. The book hooks readers by keeping them wondering if Ana the female character will submit to Christian’s “Red Room of Pain” and allow him to dominate her. This commingling of sex and violence is abhorrent to me as a woman and a Jew.

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, 232,960 women in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That’s more than 600 women every day. Young women, low-income women, and some minorities are disproportionately victims of domestic violence and rape. Women ages 20-24 are at greatest risk of nonfatal domestic violence, and women age 24 and under suffer from the highest rates of rape. The Justice Department estimates that one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years, and that less than five percent of these rapes will be reported.( Statistics can be found here.  )

I fear that this book sends the message that violent acts as part of sexual play is okay. I know that in the story Ana has to consent to everything. However from the start, she and Christian are not on an even playing field. He holds the power. He has more money, knowledge, and experience than her. She is in the under-24-years-old demographic. I fear that many women will be hurt physically and emotionally by putting themselves in the hands of men who don’t know when to stop, who will push the pain element too far, who will not hear the safeword.

There is no grey area here. Sex and violence do not go together. One is an act of love; the other is an act of hate. Millions of women suffer each year at the hands of abusive men. This is not sexy or alluring.

I wish I could quote a text from Jewish tradition which clearly says “Thou shalt not hit your lover.” But nothing is that clear. Jewish law however has built in many statues to safeguard vulnerable women from others’ abuses. Widows must be taken care of, and male family members are admonished not to have sex with female relatives. In addition, the stories of the rape of Dina and Tamar make it clear that raping a woman is a punishable act. Unlike the Christian tradition, Judaism does not see sex itself as shameful. But many structures are put in place so that sex is a pleasurable act between consenting adults, not a violent one.

If you enjoyed reading Shades of Grey, please take a moment to think about what you enjoyed about the book. And reflect on some of the messages it sends, particularly to young women who may not have the wherewithal to stand up to a dominating man. As women, we need to talk about the interplay between sex and violence so that we can protect ourselves. If this book helps to open up that conversation then I am glad that it has come out of the closet.

Posted on July 16, 2012

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Having it All

Reading Anne- Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has caused me to wonder, what would “having it all” looks like. As I was letting my imagination go and dreaming big, a teaching from the Jewish wisdom book, The Ethics of Our Fathers came in to my head. “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.” 

I began to think about the wisdom of that statement. On one hand, it makes perfect sense. We each have our lot in life, and if we can make peace with it then we could indeed lead happy and fulfilled lives. We would not want for anything. On the other hand, if we all accept whatever we have, then there would be very little drive to make the world a better place. Human ingenuity is sparked by an individual desiring something to be better than it is. Without this drive to make things better we might all still be living in caves and hunting and gathering for our food.

The article sparked an internal debate about this delicate balance between being happy with what I have and striving for more. If I may be chutzpadick enough to compare myself to Mrs. Slaughter, I see many similarities in our personal stories. Like her, I have entered a field previously dominated by men, and I am very thankful for the women before me who led the way. Like her, I have a spouse who shares parenting and domestic duties equally. And like her I have a wonderful job which affords me flexibility when I need to attend an event at my daughter’s school or take her to the doctor. When I look at the big picture I feel rich. I am happy with my life and my work.

And yet…I have a desire for more. Like most women, I too make compromises to balance life and work. To rise in my field to a position of national prominence I would have to travel much more than I am willing to do. I choose to be home with my husband and daughter. By making this choice I am limiting my career trajectory. In addition, I work in a field still dominated by men and a male definition of what a leader looks like and sounds like. I don’t have a long beard or a deep voice. My leadership style is not always recognized as “leadership” because I have a quieter style which focuses on relationship building rather than being the center of attention.

There is so much I want to change both in my field in particular and American society as a whole. I want a world where men and women have the ability to reach the height of their career success and have time to be with those they love.

But my guess is that even when that happens, life will still be a balancing act. It might be easier to balance work and home life, but it will still need to be done. And we will always need to balance being happy with what we have and striving for more. This is part and parcel of what it means to be human.

Posted on July 2, 2012

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Rock and Roll

This is a guest post by Rabbi Darby Leigh.

It was 1984 when Dee Snider first asked me what I wanted to do with my life. The answer was then, and still is, “I want to ROCK!” Given a rather conventional and full life as a congregational rabbi with two amazing children and a partner who is an OB/GYN resident, the truth is I don’t really get to rock on a daily basis- even though I need it man, oh how I need it!

Sure, I infuse my daily routine with rock when I can. Lately I listen to Anthrax’s Worship Music on my commute to work and I write sermons while listening to Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction. Rock lyrics find their way into my teaching and preaching, but nonetheless, my relationship to rock is not what it once was. It’s not the same as being in the mosh pit. It’s not the same as being pressed up against the barricade in front of the stage. It’s not the same as watching the house lights grow dim, waiting for the band to emerge and feeling the collective roar as the stage lights go up and the first notes wail. In the crowd you become part of an enormous community, when your voice merges with thousands of others, your individualism and ego are dimmed. For a brief moment, you can lose yourself to a collective consciousness and experience being part of something much greater.

Over the years I have been paying close attention to the experiences people have and cultivate that they consider to be “spiritual.” Spirituality today is so often characterized as meditation, yoga, chanting, or sitting in a circle contemplating unity, oneness, and the truth of our interconnectedness. In other words, for many of us, cultivating spiritual experiences is about trying to turn down the volume and pace of our daily lives. In the Jewish tradition, the spirituality of Shabbat often receives the same monochromatic treatment.

It is not a new or radical statement to suggest that the concept of Shabbat, and the experience of Shabbat is one of the greatest gifts the Jewish tradition offers its followers. The observance of Shabbat is said by many to be the “first labor law” in the history of humanity. We are commanded to “take a break” every week, to not permit our lives to be solely about work and the mundane. Shabbat, we are taught, should be an oneg, a joy and a delight. Indeed we engage in the unique joy and pleasure of being in the company of family and friends sharing meals and thoughts about deeper matters, and about Truth. This core Jewish tradition and observance is a profound teaching in and of itself.

There are different spiritual personalities in our world and for some spiritual types, increasing volume and speed is an equally powerful and authentic way to access an authentic Shabbat experience. In fact, while turning the volume down and becoming more still can support our experience of the spirituality of Shabbat, so too, turning the volume up on the Marshall Amp stacks can do the same thing. Rock & Roll can generate for me, joy, delight, rest, and a break from work and the mundane. Since I can’t rock out every day, when would I rock, if not on Shabbat?

Not only is my spiritual personality occasionally better served on Shabbat with a dose of Rock & Roll, but it is an authentic Jewish experience to do so. Every Shabbat we symbolically reenact the moment of revelation at Mount Sinai. The Biblical account of revelation at Sinai seems to me to be more like a Rock concert than a silent meditation. “There was thunder and lightning, a dense fog covered the mountain, there was a loud horn and everyone shook. Mount Sinai was smoking, and trembling violently, the horn grew louder…all the people saw the sounds of the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and of the mountain smoking.” (Ex. 20) One might argue that attending a rock concert, with a laser light show, fog and smoke machines, booms of horns and thunder, pyrotechnics perhaps, and a crowd of thousands all listening for Truth, would be the most authentic way to symbolically recreate revelation.

There is also an implicit sensuality that runs through Rock and Roll, ever since Elvis’ hips first gyrated. While some might argue that rock and roll with its sensuality, passion, and intensity is counter to the religious spirit of Shabbat, I would argue that on the contrary, Shabbat is an extremely physical, as well as a spiritual time, when we are meant to take delight in sensual experiences of touch, taste, and smells. There is a long standing Rabbinic tradition, both in mystical Judaism and in the Talmud, that erev Shabbat, the evening of Shabbat, is a particularly auspicious time for sexual relations. Sexual relations on erev Shabbat are viewed in these texts as acts of joy with spiritual and potentially profound mystical ramifications. Sexual activity is viewed in this context as a sacred spiritual act with purpose that goes far beyond a simplistic notion of sex as an act of procreation.

So in honoring the part of myself, and of many members the community that crave the spiritual experience of “rocking out,” I have been working with members of our community to create Bnai Keshet’s first ever, “Rock On Shabbat!” At this service, we will move our way through the matbeah, the traditional structure of a Friday night service by setting some liturgical pieces to rock and roll or more upbeat tunes. We will also insert rock songs into certain ‘thematic’ prayers at key moments in the service. The service will be followed by a concert and party.

We can’t wait to Rock on Shabbat & celebrate!

A life-long “truth seeker,” Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh is a native New Yorker who loves mountains. Rabbi Leigh is a fire-juggling Generation Xer who toured as a leading actor with the Tony award-winning National Theater of the Deaf. He received a B.A. in religion, summa cum laude, from the University of Rochester and an M.A. in religion from Columbia University. He also spent a year at Gallaudet University, where he received the President’s Scholar Award. Rabbi Leigh provided consulting services for the Oscar-nominated documentary Sound and Fury and for Hands ON, an organization that provides sign-language interpreting for Broadway and off Broadway productions He has also taught on issues related to deafness for organizations including the NYC Fire Department, and the NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Rabbi Darby J. Leigh is the Assoicate Rabbi at Bnei Kesht in  Montclair, NJ.

Posted on June 19, 2012

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We Can Do It!

Hope is a Jewish value. The Psalmist says “Hope in Adonai and be strong.” The national anthem of Israel is Hatikva – the Hope. Yet, in the Jewish community today I hear more complaining and lamenting than I hear expressions of hope.

This past week I spent a day with a group of women Jewish non-profit professionals. We gathered under the auspices of Advancing Jewish Women and the Jewish Community. Over the course of the day we identified obstacles to women’s advancement in the Jewish non-profit sector, and brainstormed ideas to overcome these obstacles. The women at the gathering were smart, articulate and creative in their ideas. But the highlight of the day for me was when we all had a chance to share our personal journeys. We were asked to create a collage the represented two points of challenge in our lives and how we chose to overcome those challenges. Each woman took a turn relating the events that formed their adult identities. Stories of deep challenge were shared: deaths of family members, job loss, painful transitions, and sexual harassment. Each story brought tears to the eyes of those gathered in the room, and we sat with each other in our pain.

But we did not wallow in the pain. In each instance, I was amazed at the courage and perseverance the women showed. Not a one of us was knocked out by our painful experience. Instead we rallied and rebounded. Family relationships were reformed, new jobs were found, and difficult transitions turned in to wonderful new opportunities. The collective and individual strength of the women in that room awed me and filled me with great hope.

These women are the next generation of Jewish leaders. Each is poised to take the helm of a Jewish non-profit in the near future. I can assure you that the future is in good hands.
These women have the wisdom to steer the Jewish community through this current period of malaise caused by the economic crisis and shifting religious affiliations. They will not moan about the state of the Jewish world as so many of our leaders do today. They will take the reins and with courage, creativity and perseverance lead us in to a new era.

“We can do it!” was the slogan pasted on posters of Rosie the Riveter during the Second World War encouraging women to help in the war effort. This poster has always been one of my favorites. Roise is strong, powerful, and above all hopeful. The job can be done and we can do it! Women should raise a new version of this poster across the community today.

I am profoundly hopeful that the very real obstacles women face in the culture of leadership in the Jewish community will be overcome. We have slowly been moving towards more inclusion of women in leadership roles in the Jewish community over the past 30 years. More must be done. But I see it happening. The income inequality gap will close. Parental leave and flex time policies will be instituted, and women will rise as leaders in established Jewish Institutions and as founders of new projects yet to be launched.

The women I sat with this week are my hope. They go to work each day fighting for a better world for all. The psalmist asked “I turn my eyes to the mountain from where will my hope come?” My hope comes from the stories and leadership of these women. We have a lot to look forward to!

Posted on June 18, 2012

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Are We in a Technologicaly Borderless World?

I remember a friend proudly showing off her father’s Apple II computer when I was in grade school. We were warned not to touch it. In high school, we were required to take a computer class which taught us BASIC code. I think I learned how to program the computer to make a dot matrix smiley face. The whole time I sat at the computer I was afraid I would break it. I was a nervous wreck and did not enjoy the class while some of my classmates thought it was the coolest thing ever.

I got my very own personal computer, a Mac, when I started college. Again, I was scared of it. I was sure that I would lose all of my work at the touch of a wrong button. My boyfriend made fun of me and secretly programmed my computer to make all sorts of silly and confusing sounds when I typed. Every time I hit the period key the computer made a sound like something was crashing to the floor. Oy!

So it comes as some surprise to me that now I love new technology and gadgets. I want the latest smart phone and ipad. I thrill to check out the newest social media sites. I love being able to navigate a strange city with my GPS. Doing research for a possible kitchen renovation I came across the website www.houzz.com. I was entranced by picture after picture of new kitchens. I created my own personal page where I could save my favorite pictures and ideas. And I read a blog post which described how through the use of Bluetooth technology, we can now use our smart phones and ipads to control every device in our houses. Need to change the channel? Who needs a remote any more, use your iphone. Wondering if you left the coffeemaker on this morning? Look it up on your phone, and remotely turn it off. Want to turn on a light before you get home? Just program it from your phone. The world of the Jetsons cartoon is now a reality. (Minus the flying cars..but they are probably going to be here soon.)

The Jetsons

As a Rabbi Without Borders, I have to wonder if there are any borders to our use of technology. When carrying around a phone becomes too burdensome, and we can put all of the information we need in a chip in our bodies, would that be OK? Why use a phone, when I can touch the palm of my hand to program something? Some deaf people use cochlear implants. They are already “chiped.” Many amputees use bionic limbs that move in incredible ways. These sound like great innovations now, but is there a point at which there is too much technology? At what point do we cease to be human and become robots, or cyborgs? What happens when the computers we make become smarter than us? What will the value of human life be then?

These questions are no longer science fiction. They are real, and for me deeply theological. I am someone who has been swept along on the tide of new technologies. Will I keep going with the tide or climb out of the water?

Already there are times I get out of the water. Each Shabbat I try to unplug. “Try” being the operative word. Each year it gets harder and harder. I still keep a firm line that I do not check or respond to emails on Shabbat. I don’t get on Facebook or Twitter. But what about using my kindle or ipad to read? Sitting down with a good book is one of my favorite activities and a great way to spend a summer afternoon on Saturday. I am now reading most things on my ipad. At first I would not do this on Shabbat. Now I do. But my finger itches to click on the Facebook app. I see I have 10 notifications…..for now I don’t click. I have a need to make Shabbat a different day, and getting out of the flow of information is one way that I do this.

I really wonder how God wants us to use these technologies. Does God really care if I read Facebook updates on Shabbat? No, I can’t say that God does. But not reading them helps me to keep a quieter mind and feel more connect to the holy on that day. Does God want us to develop in to cyborgs? I really do not know.

Jewish tradition generally welcomes medical innovations. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides was both a rabbi and a doctor. Israel leads the world in fertility treatments and other cutting edge medical science. Everyone wants a Jewish doctor right? But is there a line we should not cross? IVF was scary to many people when it was first introduced and now it seems normal. We can keep people alive on machines for years on end. But should we? Rabbis and Jewish scholars can argue both sides of this question using traditional Jewish sources. There is no one right answer.

With each year and with each new technological innovation it becomes easier and easier to cross lines we never imagined crossing in the past. Who knows what the future really holds for us? Bionic limbs, eyes, chips to store our memories in? Medical innovations and new technologies go hand in hand.

For now I am happily swimming with the current. But I like my Shabbat rest stops. And I wonder if and when it will make sense to get out of the current. Are there borders here? Without posing the questions, we cannot get to the answers.

Posted on June 4, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Tomorrow’s Rabbi Today

What does the synagogue of the future look like? Today synagogue affiliation rates are dropping, as are affiliation rates across all religious denominations in America. This fact combined with the current economic climate is causing many synagogues to close or merge. Rabbis and lay leaders across the country are trying to reinvigorate their synagogues and attract new members. Much of the conversation focuses on the rabbi. What skills do rabbis need today to lead a successful synagogue? How do rabbis acquire those skills? What new roles can rabbis find outside of the synagogue walls?

Hayim Herring’s new book Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today strives to answer these questions. Rabbi Herring does an admiral job of describing the changing context of American synagogue life and exploring the issues synagogues must look at to strengthen their core functioning. He advocates using social networking and collaborative programs to increase a congregation’s reach. His assessment of how to create a strong organizational system is right on target. He then goes on to address the question of the rabbi.

Here, I think Rabbi Herring gets a lot right, but also makes a few missteps. I agree whole heartedly with his assertion that rabbis today need to be passionate leaders who can speak to the issues of the day and enhance our understanding of our world by using Jewish wisdom. I also agree that today’s rabbis need to be entrepreneurs. The Rabbis Without Borders program, which I direct, focuses on giving rabbis the skills they need to be entrepreneurs. We need rabbis who are thinking out of the box and using Torah in new and creative ways which will help people make meaning in their lives. I was turning each page of the book, saying to myself, “yes, yes, you got it right,” I then hit a page which surprised me.

The heading on this page is “Reducing Some Current Rabbinic Roles.” The first role listed is: pastoral counseling. What? I was so shocked I had to stop reading for a few minutes to absorb the thought. Rabbis should do less pastoral counseling? Rabbi Herring writes, “This is one area where they can scale back. Rabbis can partner with Jewish Family Service (JFS) counseling staff or develop a “train the trainer” approach, and train Jewish metal health professionals to provide a Jewish spiritual dimension to their counseling.”

I must respectfully disagree with Rabbi Herring on this point. Not all rabbis have a talent for pastoral counseling, and those who do not, are well advised to refer people elsewhere. However, pastoral counseling is an incredibly strong tool for a rabbi to use in making a significant impact in both an individual and a communities life. I experienced this first hand when I was the Director of the MetroWest Jewish Health and Healing Center in West Orange NJ. The program was a join program between the JCC, JFS, and local chaplaincy group. In my role, I was available for pastoral counseling for the community at large. After introducing myself to the area rabbis, and leading a few workshops with the social workers at JFS so that they could understand my role and how it differed from theirs, I expected referrals to start coming in, which they did. Social workers are not trained to handle spiritual matters. In fact they are advised to steer clear of them. Even after conducting in service trainings with them, most of the JFS social workers were uncomfortable adding a spiritual assessment to their intake or addressing spiritual issues in their session. Several started referring clients to me for counseling. Together we were able to serve many individuals and help them work though mental and spiritual issues. In addition, rabbis, who did not feel comfortable counseling also, referred their congregants to me. My partnership with the area rabbis also worked well. I could serve their congregants needs, but not steal them away since I did not lead my own congregation.

But the greatest surprise came from the number of unaffiliated people who called me for counseling. A good 80%-90% of the people I saw for counseling were unaffiliated Jews. These were people who needed to a rabbi about an issue which brings up spiritual questions like bereavement or illness and had nowhere else to turn. Because I was based in a JCC, and not a synagogue I was easily accessible. Once I met with someone a whole host of questions and needs would be presented. I was able to skillfully introduce people to Jewish prayers, texts, stories, and meditations which could help them. Clients were amazed that Judaism had so much to offer. And in many cases, after meeting with me they expressed a desire to learn more and be connected to the community. I was then able to match them up with synagogue communities, or other leaning opportunities.

Pastoral counseling is a means to growing the larger Jewish community. There are some questions about the meaning of life and death which cannot be found through a Google search. Pastoral counseling is a unique skill and training which some rabbis and other clergy possess which is markedly different from what a mental health professional can offer. Rather than dismissing pastoral counseling as a skill rabbis can do without, I would instead argue that rabbis should receive better training in pastoral counseling and chaplaincy. When a rabbi is able to connect with an individual at a time of need, then that individual will have an emotional connection to that rabbi and by extension the Jewish community which will last a lifetime. We need to find entrepreneurial ways for rabbis to offer more pastoral counseling not less.

Posted on May 21, 2012

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Rabbis Without Borders: A Vision

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Have you been wondering what a Rabbi Without Borders really is? We have produced a video which describes who we are and the impact we are having on the Jewish world. If you are curious please take a look.

Posted on May 7, 2012

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