By Rabbi Elyse Wechterman
and Rabbi Ilana Garber
In these last six months, Jewish clergy all over the world have worked more hours, in more ways, and with more demands than ever before. And they need a break.
In March, when the pandemic became a reality, rabbis and cantors pivoted in every way: They conducted online services, streamed Passover seders and began officiating at remote and socially distanced funerals. They counseled families who either postponed or drastically reimagined the shape of the simchas — the b’nai mitzvah, weddings and other events — that had been in the works for months (if not years).
Without prior experience in production, they adjusted to this new virtual reality by working together to invent best-practices for community building and inclusion in a digital world. They learned terms like “mute all” and “original sound,” and they practiced defending their communities against “Zoom-bombing” — none of which was covered in rabbinical or cantorial school.
At the same time, the pastoral demands, often the most meaningful part of a clergyperson’s work, multiplied dramatically. Isolated individuals (especially elders) experiencing loneliness and loss, mourners unable to attend in-person funerals or be comforted by visitors for shiva, parents of school-age children barely holding it together while they worked, parented, managed their households and watched the world falling apart around them, all demanded our clergy’s attention. And rabbis and cantors, as they are trained and so desperately want to do, responded. They made calls, arranged porch visits and stepped up, sometimes putting themselves in harm’s way by gathering with people who needed them.
Against the backdrop of increasing civil-unrest and their own passion for justice, clergy also participated — be-masked — in BLM protests and rallies, supported immigrants and asylum seekers at detention centers, and protested against the ongoing degradation of civil discourse and human rights in this country in particular.
All of this while managing their own losses, their own displacements and their own family situations — children needing to be home-schooled or monitored online, aging parents far away and fearful of their risk for illness, marriages needing attention, and congregations, day schools and organizations weighing the constantly changing CDC guidelines, unsure on a day-to-day basis how to proceed.
And this was all before we started worrying about the High Holidays.
Sometime in May, questions about High Holidays began circulating, and clergy and their organizations responded with an outpouring of creativity and energy, creating websites, Facebook groups and resources, holding conference calls and practicum sessions, all on top of their regular work. While summer vacations were put on hold, many used the time to write or rewrite scripts, service outlines and sermons.
Synagogue clergy produced and edited video and audio productions, crafted resources for use at home and reinvented liturgy designed for shorter and online services. Those working at schools reimagined everything from curriculum to instruction, while our clergy on college campuses prepared to welcome students back to a very different community. The explosion of creativity and response has been enormous.
And all of this has taken a toll.
Clergy stress levels have been soaring, according to experts on ministry and clergy nationally. Articles on clergy burnout during COVID-19 and civil unrest abound on the internet. Barna Research, a Christian-based think tank on faith and public life, reports in a recent study that 31% of pastors are struggling with their mental and physical well-being and 25% are concerned about their marriage and family lives. A Duke university Clergy Health Initiative study found that 11% of pastors report symptoms of depression normally. Numbers have skyrocketed during the pandemic and shut down.
For Jews, like other marginalized groups around the world, the shocking examples of hate activity and growth of far-right hate groups — in particular those spouting anti-Semitism — add fuel to this already devastating mix of fires burning through Jewish clergy energy at this moment.
For these and so many other reasons, we, a cross-denominational collaboration of movement leaders and clergy support organizations, invite Jewish clergy to join our initiative called #HeshbonHeshvan, an opportunity to rest, renew and rejuvenate during the first week of Heshvan, from Sunday, Oct. 18 through Thursday, Oct. 22 (and through Shabbat, a true day of rest, if possible).
In Elul, Jews perform a heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, as we prepare for the holidays in Tishrei. Once the holidays conclude, we begin the month of Heshvan, a month void of Jewish holidays. Through #HeshbonHeshvan we perform an accounting of our self-care as we find new ways to rejuvenate so that we may continue to care for our communities. As we encourage #JewishClergySelfCare, we will offer free virtual opportunities for clergy to relax, renew and recharge as we Breathe, Create, Dance, Laugh, Learn, Sing and Support. This is open to all Jewish clergy, all over the world, working in all types of settings.
Likewise, we are inviting our congregations, day schools, Hillels, Jewish continuing care facilities, yeshivot, organizations and every other places that employ Jewish clergy to Take the Pledge to avoid additional programming, meetings and demands on your clergy in order to support this initiative for #JewishClergySelfCare. Communities that Take the Pledge will be celebrated publicly.
Even if clergy do not want to participate in any of our online programming, we hope you will give them some space and an opportunity to recharge. We support the concept that #JewishClergySelfCare comes in many forms. Our goal is to encourage this exploration, foster hevruta (partnership), and engage commitment to self-care, so it may truly be a happy and healthy new year for all.
As has been said many times, “You cannot pour from an empty cup.” We believe our Jewish clergy, who have worked so hard and so long for the sake of our communities, deserve a moment to fill up and enjoy a cos rivaya (full goblet) once again. l
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Rabbi Ilana Garber is the director of global rabbinic development for the Rabbinical Assembly. #HeshbonHeshvan #JewishClergySelfCare is a joint project of the RRA, RA, CCAR, CA, USCJ, RJ, Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) and more. This piece originally appeared at ejewishphilanthropy.com.