We need to invest in our Yodas

At this pivotal moment in the life of the Jewish people, when we are focused on critical urgent needs of safety and security, there is one essential group I think we’re not supporting enough as a community. They are the people we ask to be our Yodas — our mindful, holy, skillful leaders, who we expect to lead our communities, educate our youth, listen to us, represent us, advocate for us and teach us the ways of the Force (i.e., the Torah). I’m talking about our rabbis, cantors and spiritual leaders, and I’m writing because we urgently need to invest in them and their inner lives, for the sake of the Jewish people of today and tomorrow.

Like clergy across North America, rabbis and cantors today are burning out at alarming rates. After years of a toxic political environment, plus a global pandemic, and now the most challenging moment in the history of Israel and the Jewish people in most of our lifetimes, I fear our clergy are on the brink. So many of the hundreds of rabbis and cantors I’m privileged to work with tell me of their utter exhaustion. They are trying to keep their communities safe, hold them together and support their members and families through the trauma and anxiety of this moment, while also dealing with that same trauma and anxiety within themselves. They are running on fumes. If our spiritual leaders continue to burn out more quickly than they can be replaced, American Jewry will lose one of the foundational elements of our local community infrastructure.

And yet we continue to ask more of them: Defend Israel. Protect Jewish students on campus. Stand up to antisemitism. And do those things while you lead with nuance and create space for meaningful conversation and reflection. Oh, and also: Find the perfect words of Torah and tradition — words of truth — that will simultaneously inspire and comfort and not alienate the old or the young, the right or the left. 

This is the most skillful kind of leadership. It’s Yoda-level stuff.

I think we often overlook a key reality about the challenges we are confronting: They are not only about safety and security, or about politics or theories; they are also spiritual challenges. The heart-rending pain so many of us feel — that gaping hole in our chests we’ve been walking around with for the last six months — is a symptom of a spiritual struggle, and no amount of political advocacy or social media campaigning or criticizing a leader for making or failing to make the right statement is really going to help. 

That is why so many people have been coming back to synagogues and spiritual communities, real and virtual, since 10/7. They’ve realized they need not only community, but spiritual community — places where we can practice the habits of the heart on which our lives in society depend, such as hesed (loving connection to self, neighbors and all of creation), gevura (wise boundary-setting, like knowing when and how to say no), anava (mindful humility) and yishuv hada’at (mindful awareness). The hunger for places and spaces in which we can nurture these qualities is driving the steady increase in attendance at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s online events since Oct. 7.

There is both enormous need and opportunity in this moment. Our clergy can do so much to help people find their way into (or back into) a rich Jewish spiritual life that helps them respond to the enormous challenges they face right now. In order to do that, however, clergy need their own support. 

Like our friends at other clergy-supporting organizations, we have witnessed this in spades at IJS. At our winter retreats this year, we offered nearly 100 rabbis and cantors five days of being off their phones, immersed in nature, able to meditate silently and pray and study together in a supportive community. The time and space were a spiritual container in which they could finally slow down and check in with themselves and their relationship with the Divine. Tears flowed. Feelings that had been locked up, emotions and words that these leaders had been holding in while serving their communities, came gushing out. In evaluations, one participant described the gathering as “essential to my mental health,” and another said they were returning to their community “more patient, grounded and inspired.” 

This is essential work, and the sad truth is that there are very few funders out there who are investing in it. Clergy support has been a centerpiece of our efforts at IJS for 25 years, but it’s an area in which I’ve heard funders tell me again and again: “We’re not interested in synagogues. We want innovation.” At IJS, we do plenty of innovation, but as Barry Finestone wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy just after the start of the war in Israel, our collective approach needs to be “yes, and”: Yes to innovation, and also yes to supporting the work that is not necessarily radically new but, like Yoda, is radically old, wise and true.

That support needs to come not only in the form of briefings and talking points and social media workshops, or even security grants and self-defense training, all of which are important. Before, after and within all of these, we need to provide our clergy (and other leaders, too!) with spiritual support. They need retreats, communities of practice, time and space in which they don’t have to do the holding but can, instead, be held in loving support to reconnect with their purpose and calling, with a sacred community and with the Divine Presence. If we want to avoid a crisis of clergy burnout, if we want our clergy to be Yodas, these kinds of investments are utterly critical.

I recently had a conversation with a funder who has invested in rabbis for a long time. As I thanked them for their support of clergy , I shared my view that, while it is important for these Yodas to acquire the skills and tactics they need to do their jobs, it is also vital to remember that the Jedi Master spent a lot of his day in spiritual practice. Yoda (or rather George Lucas) understood that being a spiritual leader is a really hard job and that to do it well, he needed to cultivate his inner life. 

Our community asks that our clergy be our Yodas. So let’s support them, materially and spiritually.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson is president and CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.