BOSTON – It turns out rabbis are immersed not only in shepherding congregants’ spiritual well-being, but in the collective soap operas of their lives as well.
“Rabbis have crazy, crazy lives,” said Rabbi Levi Mostofsky, Director of the Continuing Rabbinic Education and Support at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and its Center for the Jewish Future.
“If a normal person’s life has a certain percentage of craziness, the rabbi is dealing with the aggregated craziness of everyone’s lives, shouldering everyone’s crises,” he said.
“People look to the rabbi to be an expert in everything. In the boardroom they should be the CEO, they should be good at fundraising, increasing membership, and in addition to being a scholar and religious leader they are also supposed to be a social worker it’s very tricky,” he said.
Also wanted: a marriage counselor.
But if that's not in the average rabbi's toolkit, on-line courses, like one currently offered by Yeshiva Universityfor its graduates and other modern orthodox rabbis, are coming to the rescue. The current marriage counseling course, the first of its kind online, covers relationship issues from dating, infidelity and homosexuality to blended families, divorce and death.
It was crafted to respond to the real-life situations rabbis encounter, helping them understand what their role can and should be, from recognizing red flags of abuse that require professional help to tips for assisting the spouse of an ailing partner.
Currently forty rabbis in North America log in for the weekly classes and discuss issues with each other between class on a private message board with instructors who are leading mental health professionals and authorities in Jewish marital law.
It follows a course taught last year on fertility technology and halakha (Jewish law), conducted with the Jerusalem-based Puah Institute.
“In discussing relationships and conflict, you are talking about human interaction, the bread and butter of most people’s lives and certainly the rabbi’s. They are learning how to deal with conflict and diffuse stress, they are impressed by how much it really does apply in reality, not just theory,” Mostofsky, said.
One of the sessions, “Helping Sensitize Engaged Couples to Issues of Intimacy and Sexuality,” helped Rabbi Sam Klibanoff from Atlantic Beach, New York address issues in his work at the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach, where some of his congregants have grown up at least partially segregated socially from the opposite sex.
“We tell them 'don’t talk to girls, don’t talk to girls' and then say, ‘Here’s a girl. Marry her.' Some don’t know what to do, they really don’t know the physical basics and you have to talk about anatomy,” he said.
“In the course we learn the tools and language to reply. How to say things in a way that is not, G-d forbid, raunchy, but as something that is holy that you can talk about in clear terms,” he said.
Since the course began Klibanoffhas also started meeting with couples about a month after their marriage to check in and see if there are any issues to address.
Rabbi Daniel Rockoff, who heads Congregation BIAV in Kansas City, said he finds the course, and the resources, expertise, and connections it fosters, to be invaluable. They're especially important for rabbis like him, in relatively early stages of their careers and somewhat isolated geographically from large Jewish communities.
“The mostdaunting thing for anyone is feeling like you are alone and no one has dealt with your problem before ,” he said, “But then here you find out of another case.”
“For a rabbi in Kansas City, when we go out and feel like we are out on the frontier and feel disconnected, this is a great way to feel like we have a support system of colleagues and that the home base of the school that trained us is now looking out for us,” said Rockoff.
Over the course of the year the class meets twice in person in New York; in between, they stay in touch through a private online message board.
One of the sessions that prompted the most heated discussion was a session on spousal abuse, according to Rabbi Naphtali Lavenda, CJF Director of Online Rabbinic Programming who has helped coordinate the course from Israel, where he lives. Another was, “Helping Couples Confront Challenges within Their Relationship: Pornography, Facebook Friends, Infidelity & Homosexuality."
Klibanoff, whose synagogue is in an area of Long Island hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, has had to work with couples whose homes were destroyed or damaged and who face incredible economic and emotional stress as a result.
“People don’t want to admit they don’t have money to pay the bills now,” he said.
He credits the course with teaching him how to be even more empathetic so congregants feel comfortable opening up to him and he can, in turn, point them to the proper assistance.
Such courses are essential to help rabbis do their jobs well, said Klibanoff , and the on-line component makes it more convenient than in the professional development courses of the past.
“We have to keep learning,” he said.