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Stretched to the Limit

Yisroel Besser

Phone calls in the middle of the night, overexposure to the seedier realities of life, and the pressure of spiritual responsibilities are just some of the factors that heighten the stress level of our servants at the pulpit. Are there tools today’s rabbis can use when they feel like they’re in a pressure cooker?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

It was 3:14 a.m., according to the neon numerals shining on the bedside clock, when the rabbi woke up and reached for the ringing phone. It was a member of his shul, apologizing for the late hour and explaining that this was an emergency. His wife’s grandmother had taken ill, and he had a complicated sh’eilah involving end-of-life issues and his wife’s responsibilities.

“How does your wife feel about it?” asked the rabbi at one point.

“Oh, my wife?” There was a moment’s hesitation. “Umm . ..I didn’t speak to her about it yet. I figured why wake her up if it can wait till morning?”


No Ivory Tower

Few professions are as vaguely defined as the rabbinate. The job description doesn’t really do justice to the workload and responsibilities, the expectations of the various clients — in this case, synagogue members — rarely match each other: this one likes a longer drashah and that one can’t handle it; one thinks the rabbi should pasken sh’eilos and stay out of their personal lives and another is insulted if the rabbi forgets to ask about his hernia operation; this one feels that the rabbi ought to be more tolerant and another would appreciate if he could be more outspoken.

So how do they manage, our resilient rabbanim, to come to shul day after day, smiles on their faces and energy in their step? How do they practice and preach and pasken and psychoanalyze and provide encouragement and a listening ear to all those in need — each with his own set of expectations?

These are the questions that lead me into a conference room with tables surrounded by rabbanim, listening, interjecting, and discussing the points raised by the presenter: renowned psychologist Dr. David Pelcovitz. The session is entitled “Rabbinic Stress,” and the good doctor, who is himself a rabbi’s son (his father, Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, is rabbi emeritus of Kneseth Israel, the “White Shul” in Far Rockaway), is busy inspiring passionate dialogue.

The session is part of a two-day conference sponsored by the Midwest Conference of Agudah Rabbanim. American Midwesterners are stereotyped as unambiguous and straight talking: the rabbis there are no less so. Their words, from around the tables and behind the podium, flow unencumbered by oft-employed clichés, their ideas seeming to land on the table immediately. There is nothing bureaucratic here. This is no ivory tower.

Later, I follow up with Dr. Pelcovitz and several of the participating rabbanim, and what becomes clear is that the title “Rabbinic Stress” is much more than a marketing gimmick.

“There is research on this,” says Dr. Pelcovitz, “and it turns out that in terms of stress levels, the rabbis rank just below those people living in the communities around Three Mile Island [the Pennsylvania site of a nuclear reactor that experienced a serious meltdown], where they’re in a constant state of pressure.”

Okay, so rabbinic stress is real.

But don’t many jobs come along with elevated stress levels?

“There’s an important distinction between the rabbinate and every other job,” Dr. Pelcovitz continues. “And that is that every other job, busy as it may be, is only 24/6. Rabbis don’t have Shabbos off, like everyone else.”

Dr. Pelcovitz, who is also professor of education and psychology at Yeshiva University, suggests another difference that can make or break a rabbi’s emotional equilibrium: “Unlike those in other professions, like plumbers, lawyers, and salesmen, rabbis enter their fields with a very high level of idealism, determined to really make a difference — so it’s much more personal that just bringing home a paycheck. If they feel like they aren’t reaching people, they take it to heart.”

Additionally, Dr. Pelcovitz quotes something he read in the personal diaries of Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, regarding a series of visits between his father, the Rebbe Sholom Ber of Lubavitch (the Rashab), and Dr. Sigmund Freud of Vienna, in 1903. The Rebbe found himself in a negative frame of mind, and went to speak with “harofe Freud b’Vienna,” interested to hear the doctor’s perspective.

Parenthetically, Dr. Pelcovitz says, it’s obvious that Freud borrowed several ideas from the Rebbe regarding the interconnection between the brain and the heart, the cerebral and the emotional, which he later incorporated into his own works, uncredited. From the Rebbe’s writings, it emerges that Freud suggested that the Rebbe’s involvement in spiritual healing was likely to cause depression, since there was no developed feedback mechanism for success.

Dr. Pelcovitz explains further. “When a doctor performs a successful surgery, or a journalist writes a good article, he knows, he has fairly instant gratification. A rabbi invests time and energy into working with someone, and it’s a slow, steady process with very intangible results. It’s not easy to keep going when you don’t see success.”

I ask the doctor how much of his research is based on his own memories as a rabbi’s son. He laughs. “I was fortunate that my father was popular, so it was pretty much just being a target for people’s frustration when the speech went on too long, that was it. Occasionally, people were upset when they were trying to reach my father and the line was busy. In those days there was one phone line and no voice mail — so they would blame us kids for being on the phone so much.”

But on a more serious note, “In school, the teachers would expect a different standard of behavior from us. ‘Is that proper behavior for a rabbi’s son?’ So I guess there is a pressure on rabbinic kids as well.”


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