Where rabbis go to get stress relief

Rabbi Ted Alexander sat facing an armchair. He knew he had to talk to it. Soon.

"I was hesitant at first," said the rabbi from Conservative Congregation B'nai Emunah in San Francisco. "But, I looked at the dumb chair and I started to talk to it. Suddenly I was opening up — I felt relieved."

Alexander and 60 other rabbis were instructed to confide their problems to chairs during their yearly rabbinical retreat. Peter Pitzele, a professor of psychology at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, explained to the group that every synagogue member has a rabbi to turn to — except the rabbi.

"Where do we go with our problems?" asked Alexander, reflecting on Pitzele's words. "Rabbis are human, too. They have their problems and frustrations just like everyone else."

After Alexander finished telling the chair "the things I felt I had done wrong," he and the others were instructed to sit in the empty chair and counsel themselves. The chair was, in essence, a rabbi for the rabbis.

Pitzele's exercise, intended to focus on the need for rabbis to seek support, made quite an impression on Alexander.

"It really works to take a look at yourself," said Alexander. "If Dr. Pitzele taught me one thing that day, it's that you must face yourself and your problems and not run away from them." Whether they're talking to a chair or sitting on a psychiatrist's couch, rabbis often need to reach out for help, counselors say.

"A lot of rabbis out there are hurting," said Rabbi Stephen Pearce, senior spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco and a therapist with a doctorate in counseling psychology.

"Numerous colleagues of mine have left the rabbinate and taken early retirement because of all of the stresses."

Citing several causes of stress, Pearce emphasized rabbis' unpredictable schedules, with professional duties spilling over into family and personal time. "A rabbi's work is never done."

On top of those responsibilities, he added, rabbis spend most of their time "in the spotlight." No matter what occurs behind closed doors, they "always have to be on."

In addition, rabbis are expected to be morally and emotionally irreproachable.

"You wouldn't go to a dentist who doesn't wash his hands or an accountant who is a cheat," said Pearce. "Just the same, you wouldn't go to a rabbi who you don't consider worthy of respect.

"We are human beings with all sorts of frailties. But, when we fail or feel depressed, it looks worse."

All those stresses can take a toll on a rabbi's mental health, said Nikki Sachs, a licensed clinical social worker who leads a rabbi consultation program, an ongoing monthly support group at Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay. Unless a rabbi can find a healthy balance between the needs of a congregation and personal needs, both will suffer, she added.

"The numbers of hours of work mushroom and it becomes hard to put restraints on how much they give to the job. Eventually they'll have nothing left to give."

Rabbi Janet Marder of Reform Congregation Beth Am in the Los Altos Hills agreed. In her previous position with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, she saw countless rabbis burn out and even "keel over from heart attacks."

"Some people think it's a soul-destroying profession," said Marder, commenting on declining numbers entering the rabbinate. "I think that is indeed the case for many rabbis, unless they recognize the need to take care of themselves."

In addition, she said, "The severest problem for rabbis is isolation."

So how do rabbis deal with the pressures?

There's a whole series of opportunities for rabbis to reach out, said Pearce, citing various Central Conference of American Rabbis programs including a hotline and a rapid response team.

The real problem, he said, is "Are they willing to?"

Locally, the JFCS rabbi consultation program enables rabbis to seek face-to-face support. Established seven years ago with a grant from the Koret Foundation, the program brings interested rabbis of all movements together for a group discussion on problems relating to their work.

"They can discuss all sorts of various issues…as it relates to their roles," said Sachs, who occasionally makes herself available for one-on-one consultations. "We look at what's necessary for them for their job and what's necessary for them for their life."

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, meanwhile, confides in his wife, colleagues and teachers.

Sometimes, however, Lewis said the issue at hand goes beyond the scope of friends and family, requiring the help of a professional. For this reason, Lewis said he has found it necessary to consult a therapist — "from time to time."

"My guess is that most of us probably have," he said. Although he does not see a counselor on a regular basis, he said the sessions he's had in the past, aimed at dealing with specific personal issues, were "very helpful."

"Rabbis are no different than anybody else," said Lewis. "Sometimes a therapist is a really great idea — even for a rabbi."

Marder, however, has seen a genuine reluctance on the part of rabbis to pursue therapy as an option.

"They think it's a sign of weakness," she said, stressing that it's actually the opposite.

In a recent Reform rabbi's newsletter, Reform Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, president of the CCAR openly discussed the benefits of his many years of therapy.

In a sermon given in March at the CCAR meeting in Greensboro, N.C., he said, "Rabbinic wellness is one of the ways we keep our lives in balance. Every rabbi of every age can benefit from support and peer groups."

He also devoted the CCAR's yearly agenda to promoting rabbinic wellness.

"I thought this would give good encouragement," said Marder of Kroloff's article. "He's a wonderful rabbi and he sees a therapist."

But despite such encouragement, the reluctance continues. Even if rabbis do attend therapy, Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California pointed out that most — regardless of their religious movement –will not admit it.

"I know there are rabbis [in the Bay Area] that go," said Teitelbaum, "but I'm not sure they'd be willing to share their experience. They're private and personal about it — all people generally are."

In fact, one North Bay rabbi who reportedly sees a therapist declined to be interviewed. Another South Bay rabbi went on the record about his 1-1/2 years of therapy, but only under the condition of anonymity.

"It's a fine line," he said. "To some synagogue members it would be a great model, that a rabbi is caring for his or her spirit. Others would see it as a negative thing and treat it as a source of gossip."

Nonetheless, he recommended therapy to rabbis in need of support.

"Being in therapy has reminded me of the need to consciously structure my life for family and for my own spirit," he said. "It's helped me to draw up my priorities, set limits, say no, structure time for my family.

"The challenges of the rabbinate are…barraged with emotionally intense, draining moments, " he added. "It really requires some reflection and some help."

Other rabbis, however, say they can get the help they need on a more spiritual and meditative level.

Natan Segal, rabbi of the independent Shabbos Shul of Marin County, for instance, confides in "G-O-D."

"God will never deny us peace when we want it," said Segal. "When I'm troubled, I find a nice spot in nature and talk to my Creator."

Prayer has always been the pathway to health, comfort and awareness for Segal. His views were confirmed when tragedy struck in 1988 and his brother Joseph, a rabbi and the co-founder of Shabbos Shul, was paralyzed in an automobile collision. Joseph now uses a wheelchair.

"I did a lot of praying and walking during those early days after the accident," said Segal.

"I went from a place of sadness and despair to knowing that there is a larger purpose to all things," said Segal. "Prayer, psalms, nature and creation sustained me."

Zari Weiss, community rabbi for the East Bay espouses a similar philosophy. She follows a practice called "spiritual direction," a process that explores one's spiritual life and helps to strengthen the relationship with God and prayer.

Along with teaching spiritual direction classes, she works with her own spiritual director on a regular basis.

"A rabbi's spiritual life and personal life are kind of intertwined," said Weiss. "When I feel that my spiritual life is healthy, it spills over into my personal life. I can deal with my problems in a much better way."

Individual rabbis may take different pathways to wellness, but the consensus remains the same. Said Marder: "If you don't look after your well-being…you'll eventually find yourself so depleted that you'll have nothing to give back to others.

"The last thing any of us wants to be is a rabbi who just goes through the motions."

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