When “Really Good” Becomes “Really Dangerous”

By Rabbi Paul Jacobson

Seated in the basement of the northern New Jersey funeral home, the kindly funeral director’s personal question catches me off guard. “Where will you be working when you return to Sydney?”

“I won’t be. At least not for a little while.” I turn my attention back to the forms I am signing.

“Did it get to you?” he asks softly.

I gently place my pen on the table. Looking him squarely in the eye I admit, “Yes. Yes it did.” I offer him scant details of the past eighteen months, describing pieces of a journey through personal trauma that has left my wife and me completely exhausted, and brought me to the realization that I can no longer function effectively as a congregational rabbi.

“You’re really good, you know? I meet your congregants regularly and they have lovely things to say about you.”

“I know. Their regard for me means a lot. But you see it played out in this room all the time. Tragic losses. People who went to bed angry and never reconciled. No one writes as their epitaph, ‘I wish I had worked more.'”

The director nods.

“I can’t do this work any longer, or someone else will be signing forms for me.”

Approaching my first Rosh Hashanah as a congregant after thirteen years of being a “really good” rabbi, I have had to learn that being “really good” can have severe implications for our well-being. Thankfully, a few months removed from the congregational rabbinate, I find myself fortunate to be beginning 5780 from a place of stronger mental health. I endured a series of emotional breakdowns that required me to heal memories related to critical childhood events.

In congregational life, while lay leadership is empowered with overseeing legal and financial responsibilities, the rabbi is the go-to person attending to the pastoral and spiritual needs of the community. Members pay dues and offer contributions so that the rabbi will care for them, not the other way around. Organizational structures don’t often assume that rabbis require assistance too, and healing personal issues, whether physical, mental or emotional, is often a private and somewhat isolating affair. In some workplaces, it can prove damaging to our career if we disclose our struggles to our lay leaders or colleagues. Fallibility and vulnerability are potential pathways to expendability.

Not in my case.

In recounting my struggles, my wife and I received kindness, support, compassion, and deep empathy from friends, colleagues, and members of our community. I was told that I was courageous and brave for battling my wounds so openly. Already having engaged in twelve years of therapy, I was encouraged to seek additional assistance, and to ask for help from congregants and lay leaders when I needed coverage or didn’t feel capable of fulfilling my professional responsibilities. Rather than condemn or dismiss me, my leadership took time at the end of their own busy workdays, to meet with me regularly to address and reduce my stresses wherever possible. My wife and I received a tremendous outpouring of love. Our community bore witness to the depth of our humanity and they were there for us when we needed them most.

Far too often in the Jewish community, we become focused on the newest scandal, divisiveness over Israel, political affairs and mishaps, congregational mergers, balancing budgets, retaining members, and directing our attention toward the latest newfangled program that appears destined to attract that elusive category of people known as “the young and the unaffiliated.” We expect that our rabbis will deliver the most inspiring sermons, completely accurate Torah readings, insightful adult education programs, and that we will feel spiritually engaged all the time. When something or someone doesn’t live up to our standards, we are vociferous in presenting our perspectives. We become so conditioned to discussing what isn’t working that we rarely hear about what does work, let alone a story of a congregation that rallied to help save their rabbi’s life.

At what price do we expect our rabbis to be “really good?” Have we created the spaces and structures where Jewish professionals can reach out if they need to? Would we know how to help those whom we employ get appropriate care if an intervention became a necessity? Would we receive those whom we hire with the same depth of humanity and love that they receive us in our times of need?

The pressures of the congregational rabbinate are, by personal choice, a thing of the past for me. Twelve to fourteen hour days, sixty to eighty hour weeks, sometimes navigating five straight weeks without a day off and being out of the house at least four nights a week are no longer possible. By six or seven in the evening, my body tells me that I am done. For the first time in my life, I listen to my body for I came dangerously close to not having one.

For those of us who regard the rabbinate as a “sacred calling,” or fall prey in our own professions to the workaholic culture that plagues most of our society, we should remember that even the most wonderful job in the world is only a job. There is no weakness in walking away. We must come to know ourselves well enough to step away before it’s too late. We may not get a second chance. I’m lucky I did.

Rabbi Paul Jacobson served Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney, Australia from 2006-2013 and Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, New Jersey from 2013-2019. He lives with his family in Sydney.