We faced each other on the bima of Park Avenue Synagogue before a beit din of three rabbis. Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, announced her to those gathered as a new rabbi of the people of Israel: HaRav Penina Bracha. I took her hands in mine to offer my personal blessing to her, “May your Torah reflect your soul: joyful, honest and pure.” In that liminal moment, I was keenly aware of a holy transformation as Paula Rose became Rabbi Paula Bari Rose, my new colleague.
Rabbi Rose states that she began her journey toward the rabbinate because of her deep love of continuously experiencing God’s revelation through learning Torah. In the Ordination program, she wrote: “I feel humbled by the study yet to be done, and nonetheless hope to share the learning that has been so beloved to me by teaching Torah that is personally relevant and eternally meaningful.” All of us at the Orangetown Jewish Center who came to know Paula Rose as our rabbinic intern one year ago know that she will be an excellent rabbi. It starts with her certainty about why she became a rabbi in the first place.
As I prepare for Shavuot in just a few days, I find myself thinking about Rabbi Rose’s attachment to the ongoing revelation of Torah and about the ideals which led her to become a rabbi. I have been reassessing my own motivation, my sense of purpose as a rabbi. For the first time in quite a while, I have been asking myself why I became a rabbi. It is an exercise of my soul that is valuable and humbling.
It is a question that rabbis seem to answer all the time for the first several years in the rabbinate. When everything is new, every class begun with trepidation, each hospital visit monumental and each prayer service filled with wonder, the question of motivation arises every day. And then the question recedes to the background. We tend to become busy with the busy-ness of building Jewish community.
On the eve of Shavuot, it is time to bring the question to the foreground. I begin my consideration in the verses of Torah. In these first weeks of entering the Book of Bamidbar, we read about the Levi’im, the tribe that is encamped closest to the Tent of Meeting and surrounding the Mishkan, the holy ark that is carried through the desert. The Levites’ task is to guard the boundaries of Godliness, ministering to the people. They are the interpreters and protectors of holiness, the mediators between the Israelites and the Divine Presence.
Here in the opening parshiot of the Book of Bamidbar, I find ideals that inform my purpose as a rabbi. Like the ancient Levites, I want to be a conduit between God and the Jewish people. But there is more: I want to connect Jewish people to each other in real, meaningful relationships. And I want to connect our Jewish community to the greater community for the purpose of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. We no longer have a singular holy ark or a priestly cast with a hierarchical responsibility. Judaism as we know and practice it, is democratized with equal access for all. And yet rabbis are given a referential authority by Jewish people in our communities who seek to draw close to God.
When I was ordained as a rabbi, my Dean, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, told my class something that I will never forget. He acknowledged that we had worked hard to earn the title Rabbi. But now that we had become rabbis, we needed to work every single day to continually earn the right to that title. Once conferred, the title was no guarantee.
Why did I become a rabbi? It’s a question I must never stop asking if I want to merit the title. I pray that I will find answers every day for the rest of my life.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
When it comes to comforting the mourners or caring for the sick, the Jewish tradition provides ample wise guidance. The one in need of comfort and the one offering, the one in need of healing and the one giving care, the community with which both connect–all benefit from the ritual that the tradition provides in order to manage expectations, overcome insecurities and fears, and offer structure and control where uncertainty and chaos often reign.
In the event of death, broken bones or illnesses that present in noticeable ways, the tradition serves us well. In the case of hidden illnesses, however, the traditional responses are far less effective. After all, if the person suffering illness chooses to remain silent about the affliction, so must the caregiver; and if neither is willing to share publicly that they are in need, the community is rendered ineffective. The resulting failure in connectedness is to the detriment of all three parties in multiple ways.
For a long time, cancer was greeted with this kind of ineffective response, probably because it was viewed as a death sentence. The diagnosis was whispered, family privately grieved, friends had no words. Today, cancer is shouted out and proactively battled with the support of practitioners, caregivers, support networks and public advocacy.
Sadly, mental illness remains a source of shame for those afflicted, isolation and sadness for their caregivers, and helplessness for communities. In general, people still fail to grasp the true nature of mental illness. Those suffering keep their stories and needs to themselves to avoid stigmatization. Victims are often expected to fix themselves, to get over it. All too often, we greet news of suicide with responses–“Why did they do it? They had so much to live for?”–that reflect our own refusal to acknowledge the perniciousness of the disease and that perpetuate the stigma attached to mental illness. Families protect their loved ones’ privacy, so they suffer quietly. Communities passively watch as affiliates recede to the margins.
On the Shabbat of Tazria-Metzora, a reading that offers a ritual through which the priest ministers to those afflicted of a skin disease and thereby keeps them connected to the community despite their temporary quarantine, I chose to address the topic of connecting with those who experience, or care for those who experience, mental illness. I offered that our pursuit of mental wellness must begin by removing the stigma attached to mental illness and to those who seek therapy for their own mental care. After sharing that I have sought therapy for my own mental well-being at various times over the years, and that I recommend therapy as an important part of self care to all the rabbinical students I teach, I invited anyone who has received or is currently receiving therapy to rise in their places. When half of those in the room–scores of people–rose to their feet, there was an audible release, and then tears. People found comfort, validation and relief in discovering that they were not alone. For a moment, any shame or isolation was gone.
I hope that this moment marks a new beginning: when those in crisis know that they need not hide in shame; when their families have permission to speak openly with their clergy and community about the challenges they face; when the community can reach out in care to offer support and to pull into the center those who may otherwise feel marginalized.
Share your story. Offer to be part of the network of support. Join us on June 4 at 5:30pm, whether you are a professional wanting to facilitate or someone seeking to offer or receive support, as we commence this initiative to show that OJC supports you. With your help and participation, we hope to have various support groups and referral services in place by the fall.
Email us at email@example.com with your intention to attend our opening meeting. If you are interested in having a particular support group, please note that as well.
It’s time to bring this topic out of the shadows. And it starts with you and me stepping into the light, together.
Rabbi Craig Scheff