New national network targets rabbis stress, burnout

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Rabbi Jack Riemer compares today's spiritual leaders to chameleons.

Place a chameleon on something red and it turns red, he says. Put one on blue and it becomes blue. Set one on Scotch plaid and the creature goes meshuggener.

Rabbis today must act as therapists, fund-raisers, teachers, politicians "and so many more things at the same time," the 65-year-old Florida rabbi said.

"When I travel around I see so much burnout, cynicism, isolation, despair and pain…that rabbis fall victim to."

Riemer visited San Francisco on Wednesday of last week to help nearly 30 other rabbis exchange ideas and prepare emotionally for the stress of the upcoming High Holy Days. Sponsored by the Northern California Board of Rabbis, the program took place at Orthodox congregation Adath Israel.

Riemer is not only aiding High Holy Days brainstorming sessions but is also trying to help his counterparts on a long-term basis.

About two months ago, Riemer founded the National Rabbinic Network. He hopes this cross-denominational support system can connect rabbis facing similar problems, build mentorships among them and sponsor conferences addressing their emotional and spiritual dilemmas.

"Every rabbi needs a rabbi," said Riemer, who heads a Conservative congregation in West Boca Raton, Fla.

He has been doing a form of this work on his own for years.

He recalls a divorced rabbi whose ex-wife married a wealthy congregant. When the divorced couple's son was approaching his bar mitzvah, the rabbi couldn't figure out how to handle the situation.

By chance, Riemer knew of another rabbi who had gone through the same situation. Riemer introduced the two men, and the stressed-out father received some much-needed advice and empathy.

Riemer recalls another rabbi whose congregation dismissed him after 20 years and offered only a token severance sum. The ousted rabbi was unwilling to protest or hire an attorney.

"It's not Jewish. How can I fight?" the rabbi asked Riemer.

"Rabbis have this hangup that they're supposed to be spiritual people and aren't supposed to do things. They're afraid. They have an inner need to be liked. They don't want to fight," Riemer said.

Riemer himself hasn't been immune to such problems.

During his first week at his first job, a congregant told Riemer her husband had been beating her and their children. She asked Riemer to persuade her husband to get help.

Two days later, Riemer sat down with the alleged abuser to negotiate his rabbinic contract.

"Am I his friend? Am I his judge? Am I his counselor? Am I his teacher?" Riemer asked himself.

Each of the major movements and seminaries already offers guidance to rabbis and rabbinic students.

"But the truth is, we need more," he said.

Rabbi Alan Lew, president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, supports Riemer's undertaking.

"One of the biggest problems in Judaic life is rabbinic burnout," Lew said. "The burnout is tremendous and fierce…I admire Jack for addressing it."

Every year, Lew said, two or three of the best rabbis in the Bay Area leave the pulpit due to unmitigated pressures.

"It's worse for the ones who stay. There's tremendous stress," he said.

Lew is particularly frustrated at the lack of recognition of the problem. He recalls attempts to ask a local Jewish organization for help.

"When I try to make a case for the rabbis needing more support, I'm told: `All Jewish professionals have it tough. Why are you any different?'" Lew said.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Saratoga's Congregation Beth David already has signed up to become a network mentor — or, as he calls it, a "fly on the wall."

Pressman hopes Riemer's campaign can provide rabbis with one-on-one feedback on sermons, time management, leadership skills or the family-work balance.

Some might wonder whether the situation for rabbis today is so different from 40 years ago, when Riemer graduated from seminary. He said it is.

"The expectations are different," he said, adding that this "is not a time when Judaism is…a booming growth industry."

Rabbis' stress builds up with particular force during Elul, the Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During Elul, Riemer said, rabbis spend so much time preparing for the deluge of sermons that they forget to engage in self-evaluation. Even if they're reading deeply spiritual material, they focus on discerning ways to fit the text into their sermons instead of how it relates to their own lives.

"That's one of the traps of the rabbinate," Riemer said. "You're so busy teaching, you forget you're a person too."