“I’ve never seen clergy so uniformly depressed, hopeless and feeling so unsupported. Multiple friends are making plans to leave parishes, despite not knowing where they will go.” This is one passage from a hard-hitting, viral tweet written by Reverend Dr. Emily C. Heath. It’s worth reading in full as these experiences are not unique to any one faith. In short, between the stress and the lack of positive communication, it’s a hard time to be in the clergy business. While there are certainly perks, such as making a difference in people’s lives on a daily basis in a respectable job with flexible hours, there are also crushing challenges.
Recently, a number of thought-provoking articles were published, including in these pages, discussing the future of the Orthodox synagogue (here, here, and here). They suggested a number of wonderful ideas that can strengthen our communities in a post-Covid world. Unfortunately, it could be months, if not longer, until it will be safe in many communities to fully reopen our shuls. In the meantime, there are pressing issues in our shul communities, specifically related to the rabbi-congregant relationship, that we can start working on now. The issues are not new, but the pandemic seems to have exacerbated them significantly. Without addressing the rabbi-congregant relationship, I fear our synagogue communities will not possess the emotional wherewithal to create the reimagined shuls of the future.
I would like to preface that I am writing this from a place of privilege (no, not what you’re thinking)―privilege in the sense that my board grants me a significant amount of freedom to say what’s on my mind, gives me respectful feedback, and has checked in with me throughout my tenure, especially during these trying times. In speaking with many colleagues, I have learned that my experience is unique; so, I’d like to share some lessons from my shul board that can hopefully be helpful to yours.
The challenges Heath speaks of are in part due to the unique relationship between the board and their rabbi. The dynamics are dissimilar to any other employer-employee relationship as there is often an unspoken tension about who is really in charge. (Is it the rabbi? The president? The board? Or the entire congregation?) The employers are volunteers with other professional responsibilities, and it is uncomfortable informing your spiritual leader that he is not doing a good job. Due to this strange dynamic, few shuls have proper systems for giving meaningful feedback to their rabbi. Instead, the rabbi receives feedback from only the most disgruntled members and, if they’re lucky, the most gracious. Rarely does the rabbi receive a balanced review. Further, and something especially pertinent in this hyper-partisan era, as opposed to other Jewish denominations, U.S. Modern Orthodox shuls are made up of congregants with a wide array of political views. This puts the rabbi in an impossible bind. He is forced, or feels forced, to be muted on matters most important to the congregants and himself. Please be aware that if you direct your rabbi to steer completely away from politics when there are riots in the street or the Capitol is being broken into, the rabbi and the Torat Hayyim he represents appear irrelevant (even if he cutely acknowledges world events in the introduction to his sermon). Finally, your rabbi, like you, may be wondering if people will really come back to shul when this is over. For you that may be a depressing thought, but for your rabbi that may mean he is left without a job.
Here are three simple methods to support your rabbi:
- Communicate your expectations at set times during the year (and periodically during a pandemic): Chances are your rabbi’s contract is as vague as mine: “Lead services, give classes, and be there when congregants call on you.” What does that actually mean? What if people don’t call on the rabbi? What expectations are there for services, programs, and classes when the shul is locked down, or most people cannot attend? How much time should the rabbi spend doing communal work beyond your congregation? The rabbi cannot read your mind. Clearly define your expectations for him and try to make sure they are reasonable.
- Give feedback: I remember hearing Rabbi Yissocher Frand publicly acknowledge how he appreciates people telling him he gave a good speech. “Rabbi Frand?!” I thought to myself. “One of the most sought-after speakers in the Jewish world?!” Yes, even Rabbi Frand wants to know if his words actually resonated.
There are no metrics that I am aware of in the rabbinate to measure success. Membership numbers or attendance at a shiur can be a superficial indicator if the goal is to make an impact in people’s lives. How is that impact measured? How does a rabbi know when he is doing a good job? You have to let him know. Your feedback may not be data-driven, but it’s the best the rabbi will receive. Once again, this is especially relevant now when it is likely that the rabbi is trying new things in order to keep your shul afloat. Let him know what’s resonating and what isn’t so that he is not left guessing.
- Check in with your rabbi to see how he’s doing: No, it is not your job to take care of your rabbi, and in any case he will likely lie and tell you that he is doing great. But it is a really lonely profession with a lot of stressors. The overwhelming majority of us are suffering, and many rabbis are suffering terribly in silence. Let him know you see him and you care.
You may see your rabbi smiling and exuding positivity and inspiration and conclude that he’s doing just fine. I hope that is the case. But it is certainly not the case for all. Many rabbis are sagging under the weight of their roles. If they don’t have the strength to care for themselves, they cannot possibly care for others.
As we try to hold on despite these stressors, we rabbis need to acknowledge that many of our congregants have found small minyanim that they find more comfortable than a formal shul setting, and online shiurim or programs that are possibly far better than ours. In this new reality which will likely stay with us even after Covid subsides, what can we do to help our congregants justify paying shul membership when the return value is not that clear?
In reflecting on the many wonderful rabbis who have influenced me, it was not the brightest or most creative, but the ones who were generous with their time and showed me they cared who impacted me most. One of the most powerful moments in my life, likely the one that inspired me to go into the rabbinate, was when a rabbi in my high school walked into our classroom the first day of our senior year, put his cell phone number on the board, and told us that we could call him whenever we needed. I imagine if you are in the field, you may have had a similar experience in which a rabbi demonstrated how much he cared and made himself available to support you.
How can we increase human connection and personal care in our socially distanced communities?
- Make Connection a Priority: For the first few months of the pandemic, I split my time between reaching out to the elderly and ill and creating programming to keep people connected. After a few months, I called a middle-aged member whom I hadn’t spoken to in some time. He picked up the phone and said, “Rabbi? I thought you forgot I existed.” Lesson learned. I have since spent less time creating unique online content and more time picking up the phone and checking in on every single congregant―not only the ones in the at-risk category.
- Small Gestures of Care: Rabbis seem to always be in a rush. We give a shiur and we run out the door, or in this era, sign off immediately after we are done. An extra two minutes probably won’t kill us. What if we lingered online before and after a Zoom shiur for some small chit-chat and human connection? I’ve come to realize those two minutes are often more impactful than the shiur itself.
- Model: Perhaps if us rabbis could be a little more open and vulnerable about ourselves and our faith, we would be inviting our congregants to do the same. This openness will help create authentic and long-lasting relationships.
Needless to say, a relationship with a rabbi is only one of many possible reasons people choose to join a particular synagogue. Many of those services and features can be replicated elsewhere. The relationship between you and your congregant is something only you can provide.
One positive change that can emerge from these dark times is clearer and more empathic communication between rabbis and their congregants. This will provide both our rabbis and congregants with much-needed support and, by extension, strong and long-lasting synagogue communities. By investing in the present, we will be better equipped to reimagine what our shuls can look like in the future.