Rabbis will need the support of their communities to heal post-pandemic
The past year has been extraordinarily difficult and painful both, professionally and personally, for rabbis everywhere. In all the ways and places that rabbis serve, they continue to give their energy, time, and compassion to their communities, sometimes stretched too thin to meet the demands of this unique moment, needing to be innovative and adaptive, while being generally exhausted and worn out. Rabbis have been playing the challenging role of spiritual first responders dealing with the grief and loss from the pandemic, and they’ve been on the front lines, providing end-of-life care and comfort to mourners who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. For many rabbis, this emotional burden comes on top of the numerous other challenges that millions of Americans are experiencing during this time, including financial issues, job insecurity, and dealing with childcare demands and remote learning for their kids.
As the leaders of the professional organization for Reform rabbis, we’ve seen firsthand how rabbis have overcome these major challenges and found creative, resourceful, hopeful and inspiring ways to connect and support one another and their communities during the pandemic, despite being physically distant. They have made the most of Zoom and other technologies, finding meaningful ways to connect, organizing all manner of virtual learning, experiences, socializing, meditation opportunities and even safe travel. Many have also created distanced, outdoors in-person experiences like drive-through sukkot, rooftop shofar blowing, and city-wide hakafot.
To ensure the physical and spiritual health of our communities, it is absolutely essential that rabbis feel nurtured, supported and cared for so that they can continue to play their crucial role as leaders of Jewish life. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) annual Convention provided much-needed opportunities for Reform rabbis to begin the healing process, including space to mourn those we’ve lost in the last year and programs focused on grief management and spiritual self-care. But as this public health crisis hopefully recedes and we start moving toward a “new normal”, it will be more important than ever for rabbis and their communities to fully support one another so that we can truly repair and come back stronger.
Over the past year, we have learned that people have a deep need for connection and social interaction, and as we move into a post-pandemic world, communities will be in great need of rabbinic leadership to help them safely and smoothly reconnect. But even once we begin to gather together again in-person, things may look different from the pre-pandemic world we once knew. While many people will be understandably excited to get back to “normal,” we will all need to demonstrate patience and flexibility as rabbis determine the best ways to balance the physical, social and spiritual needs of their communities. For example, in our synagogues, this could mean a hybrid approach to in-person versus Zoom services, a gradual return to traditional in-person study sessions or family programs, or other adjustments that rabbis may deem necessary to ensure both safety and spiritual fulfillment for all their congregants.
It’s also important to recognize that, even as vaccine rates go up and public health restrictions are rolled back, rabbis, like many people, will be grappling with a unique buildup of pain and trauma, which will linger long after the public health danger has receded. At CCAR, we will continue to place a high priority on rabbinic wellness, providing rabbis with counseling and other supportive resources to help them through the stresses and pressures they are currently facing and will be expected to face in their post-pandemic roles. Congregations and other institutions must similarly ensure that rabbis have the space, support and mental health resources they need to repair the personal and professional trauma they may be experiencing.
Finally, we need to recognize that the pandemic has not affected all people – or all rabbis – equally. In particular, women rabbis have shouldered a severe and disproportionate burden, often dealing simultaneously with addressing the spiritual needs of their communities, being primarily responsible for childcare and other personal family obligations, and facing existing inequities and challenges unique to women rabbis that existed long before the pandemic. We must not let this crisis derail our efforts to create true gender equity in the rabbinate and in our broader society. The CCAR is prioritizing this challenge through our Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate, and other Jewish institutions must also demonstrate a commitment to addressing the ways that women rabbis have been uniquely affected over the past year.
As rabbis, we have a sacred obligation to our communities in this time of need, but our Jewish community as a whole has an equally important obligation to the future of Judaism. Rabbis will need support to lead their communities on a new journey out of the pandemic, inspired by confidence, hopefulness, creativity and courage. If rabbis feel seen and appreciated, if their exhaustion and anxiety are fully acknowledged and respected, if they have the space they need to reflect and heal, then we can all feel excited and optimistic about what comes next for our Jewish community.
Rabbi Hara Person is Chief Executive of CCAR, and Rabbi Lewis Kamrass is President of CCAR.