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Be nice to your rabbi…!

By Nigel Savage

Thursday 5th April | 5th Day of the Omer | Hod she’b’Chesed

Dear All,

Disclosure: It is true that some of my best friends are rabbis.

But this email is all my own work, and I didn’t discuss it beforehand with any of them.

I just wanted to write – during this week of chesed, of kindness, the first week of counting the omer – be nice to your rabbi.

Be nice to your rabbi.

Being nice includes many things. Listen to them. Encourage them. Show up. Offer support. Ask them for advice or something you wanted to understand about Jewish tradition. (Rabbis are designed and built for the asking of questions to them, and it makes them sad if you don’t ask them questions.)

Perhaps it was never easy to be a rabbi, but it feels uniquely hard today. Every part of a rabbi’s job has become a specialty – teacher, therapist, counselor, prayer leader, communal leader, organizational head, fundraiser, someone who is good with little kids and teens and young couples and empty nesters and disabilities and aging and end of life and death. Life cycle events. Tragedies. Interfaith. Politics. Israel.

No one person can be outstanding at all of these things – simply to be good at many of them is a great accomplishment. Our expectations of rabbis are, nominally, high. Criticism comes easily and is sometimes said to them and sometimes about them. Just to take the topic of Israel, alone: it has now been widely described that there are rabbis who have essentially said, “I have 3 AIPAC activists and 2 JStreet activists and whatever I say they’ll attack me, so nowadays I try not to talk about Israel…” This country split nearly 50/50 in the last election, as we know, and whatever the politics of an individual shul, the rabbi is trying to lead as a Jewish teacher, and to support those who agree with them, and to respect those who disagree with them.

There are many rabbis, I think, who are beloved by their communities, and feel loved and respected and supported. But even those, I think, have much more chucked at them behind the scenes than most of us realize. Tensions between the job and the family. Being present. Emergencies. Expectations. The possibility of offending someone with a wrongly placed word.

And those are the lucky ones. Because there are other rabbis, less beloved, who are criticized and brought down so continuously that they lose confidence and go into a downward spiral.  And there’s a thin line between “being supportive” and telling a rabbi how to do their job.

One part of Hazon’s job is about supporting rabbis. We have a retreat every year for rabbis (offering R&R and intellectual and physical and emotional sustenance), and resources for rabbis, and we try to support rabbis, directly and indirectly, in multiple ways.

But I wanted to write this email this week because I do believe that this moment – this time, this year, this era – with its fraughtness and its risks, needs rabbinical leadership more than ever. To be the best people we can be, to come together, to learn, to grow, to make a difference in the world – to do all that we need good leadership. And to have good leadership, including good rabbinical leadership, we need to support our rabbis, as strongly as we can. [And, no, that – obviously – doesn’t include giving anyone a pass for unethical, inappropriate, or illegal behavior.]

In the last three months I’ve attended one wedding, officiated at two more, and I’ve been through the death of my father, his burial, shiva, and the ongoing process of saying kaddish every day. Despite a lifetime involved in Jewish life, and as someone who’s been involved in leadership, in different ways, since my early twenties, I have continued to learn, at first hand, these last three months, just how much rabbis do, in different ways. How much is behind the scenes. How much is thrown at them. How much we take them for granted. How emotionally hard the work can be.

So… this is the week of chesed, and we’re in a time of liberation, and this time – counting the omer – is when we think about how we use our freedom. We have freedom to treat rabbis badly, or neutrally, or for good. Let’s use our freedoms for good.

Chag sameach, Shabbat shalom,
Nigel

PS – we’re growing the programming that we’re doing with 20- and 30-somethings in NYC. Check out the events below, and be in touch with elan.margulies@hazon.org orisaiah.rothstein@hazon.org if you’d like to be involved or to help develop something.