Rabbi, Can We Talk? - Pastoral Counseling at YCT Rabbinical School

“Rabbi, this is hard to talk about but…

…. our son has a non-Jewish

feeling really shaky. My ex-husband abused me for years and now our daughter is
getting married. I don’t know if I can make it through the wedding.”

that pervert leaves the community or I do. And I’m taking my family, my money
and my friends with me.”

the start of their careers, rabbis are bombarded with profound human dilemmas.
Congregants, friends, and even complete strangers ask them for help navigating
difficult religious and personal situations. The observant Jewish community
should be grateful for this phenomenon—we know that our mesorah, our religious tradition, has
guided generations before, and we hope, in this increasingly complex era, that
Jews turn to traditional sources of wisdom for counsel. The best community
rabbis have always been those who could make the transition from intellectual
scholarship to practical wisdom in real time and with real people. Steeped in halakha, such rabbis influence
Jewish life not only by answering the specifics of questions posed, but by
reaching beyond the manifest she’elot (halakhic questions) and
going to the emotional and psychological core of questions. Pastoral
arts of yesteryear were honed through mentorship and example. As is true in all
areas, some rabbis were more talented than others in the raw skills of
listening and advising.

contemporary rabbinate faces the challenges of an increasingly porous and
diverse society. Rigorous classical education in halakha remains bedrock. At
the same time, rabbinic training of today can benefit from training in
psychology and counseling. In this essay, I explain how Yeshivat Chovevei
Rabbinical School (YCT) prepares its students for pastoral counseling.
Interspersed throughout are several cases culled from real-life situations and
presented in a variety of settings. Please note that all identifying
information has been changed.

from “R. Shlomo,” a YCT musmakh and current
Hillel rabbi at Penn State University, wrote this email on YCT’s private
listserv in order to get feedback from colleagues and teachers.
Hi all
I hope everyone is good and enjoying their summer. I wish that I would have
been able to attend one of the summer retreats but we were working at camp
until yesterday.
Over the summer I fielded a question that I
would like to hear other people's input on. The phone call came from the mother
of a young man, a yeshiva high school graduate. He lives in the Harrisburg area. The son never attended Penn State but has a serious girlfriend who is a graduate student here. The
girlfriend is not Jewish. The mother, who is frantic, wants me to reach out to
the girlfriend to help convince her to convert (though she didn't put it so
explicitly). Neither the son nor the girlfriend is aware that the mother called
At Penn State Hillel we have very little to do with graduate students, unless
they approach us. So regarding a non-Jewish grad student—I have absolutely no
reason to reach out to her.

Questions to consider:
This email query
raises several issues with which all rabbis are familiar. These include:

How does the rabbi respond to the needs of distressed persons (in this
case, parents) who want the rabbi to act as their spokesperson when they feel
helpless, alienated, or otherwise unable to reach their loved one?


How is pastoral counseling different over the phone, via email, or in
person? Given limited contact, how does a rabbi establish realistic goals?


How does the rabbi balance religious/communal concerns with issues of
autonomy, privacy, and/or confidentiality?


Should/how can a rabbi intervene in situations of inter-religious

My Response:
Hi “Shlomo,”

While I sympathize with the mother's
distress, her proposition is almost guaranteed to backfire and to alienate both
her son and the girlfriend. Rabbinic training is not suited for covert
religious operations, and unsolicited third-party interventions are very tricky.
But rabbis, especially campus rabbis, get requests such as this frequently—basically
“save my child (but I don't want him/her to know that I called you).”
I suggest that in this situation you call back the mother and tell her that you
have given the matter thought. You understand that her son’s serious
involvement with a non-Jewish woman is upsetting and you feel that the best
approach is for her to tell her son (and possibly the girlfriend if she has a
cordial relationship with her) that she wants to/has already called you. You
would then be available and open to meeting the young woman (who is the Penn
student) and the son. You could then explore the situation and take it from

Let me know what happens.


The original email involves Rabbi
Shlomo in a pastoral situation with several “congregants,” none of whom he
knows. They are the mother (and possibly the father by extension), her son, and
finally, the non-Jewish girlfriend who is the student at Penn State. Rabbi Shlomo understands that there is
much history behind the mother’s email and that there are many sides to the
current story. He is mindful of situations in his own past with relatives and
friends that involved interfaith relationships. Rabbi Shlomo’s awareness of the
painful feelings experienced in those personal situations help him empathize
with the current counseling situation and at the same time to maintain
professional boundaries. He might wonder if the parents have consulted with
their own rabbi. Rabbi Shlomo realizes that he can only make a limited

encouraged Rabbi Shlomo to convey to the mother that he honors her concern and
that he is committed to Jewish continuity. At the same time, Rabbi Shlomo
should not carry out her strategy of contacting a student (the girlfriend), who
is not a member of Hillel and has not contacted him herself. Instead, he should
encourage the parents involved to directly express their distress to their son
and tell him that they want him and his girlfriend to meet with the Penn State rabbi. By offering his services once the
son or the girlfriend contact him, the rabbi conveys his respect for privacy
and confidentiality. Such an atmosphere of trust is more likely to facilitate
deeper discussion between them and the rabbi. Hopefully, this talk would evolve
over several in-person sessions and would include an exploration of the
couples’ relationship, their commitment to Judaism, and their mutual
expectations of the future. Only after time is spent constructing such a
dialogue can a significant conversation about conversion possibly begin.

makes pastoral counseling a mandatory course of study throughout all four years
of the program. The program rests on a three-part foundation: 1) didactic
instruction in the classroom, 2) practical experience in hospitals and rabbinic
internships, and 3) individual awareness through special group work and
supervision. Our goal is to prepare our graduate rabbis to listen to
congregants and/or students with rigor and compassion, to do competent basic
assessment by knowing what additional information is needed and tactfully
asking appropriate questions, and to bring the issue to resolution or refer the
congregant to a more expert resource.

we emphasize the sensitivity of the pastoral counseling encounter. Divulging
personal matters evokes powerful emotions on both sides. Rabbis need to be
aware of feelings and issues touched off within them and to monitor the
boundary between themselves and their congregants. Such awareness allows them to
chaperone the vulnerability and stigma congregants may experience.

didactic component of the YCT pastoral counseling program begins with a weekly
skill-building course in the first year. Through classroom instruction, reading
assignments, and role-play, students learn interview techniques. The students
explore challenges inherent in the rabbinic encounter—specifically, how to meld
the role of compassionate, non-judgmental listener with that of halakhic authority. The course
goes on to introduce classic signs and symptoms of emotional distress, such as
anxiety and depression, which rabbis are likely to come across in their
communities. Also covered are highly emotional personal and community
situations that rabbis more uniquely encounter. The psychology of ba’alei
teshuva and converts and the impact of trauma and catastrophe are but two

second year didactic curriculum is devoted to two pastoral areas that rabbis
deal with extensively—bikkur holim (visiting the sick) and marital and family counseling.
All of our students rotate through an intensive chaplaincy course run by
the Jewish Health Care Chaplaincy of New York. These hours are divided between
classroom instruction and hospital visits. Group sessions provide a forum for
students to discuss and process the powerful experiences evoked sitting by the
bedsides of ill and dying patients.

third- and fourth-year program blends counseling and practical halakha around a life-cycle
curriculum. We alternate didactics with fieldwork experience. We start with
parenthood as a development. We consider issues such as the impact of having a
disabled child and the spiritual life of young children. Other topics further
along the life cycle include adolescence, dating, courtship, and the creation
of mature intimate relationships. Pre-marital counseling is a priority; we
expect that prior to serving as mesader kiddushin at a wedding, a YCT
rabbi has spent several sessions with the couple helping them prepare for
marriage. The challenges of non-traditional individual and family life as
experienced by older singles, widowed, divorced, and homosexual persons are
discussed. Class time is allocated for infertility, adoption, infidelity, and
domestic violence. Aging, end-of-life issues, and involvement of caregivers
create increasingly complex questions in our society. While not all areas can
be covered, the goal is to give the students a basic comfort in the halakhic parameters and broad
psychological issues of major practical topics.

offers a range of opportunities. Students discuss the pastoral counseling
component of their rabbinic internships in a seminar. In addition they elect
rotations through prisons, specialized hospital units, retreats for Jewish
alcoholics, and support groups.


a series of phone conversations between
“Rabbi Stone” (RS) in Florida
and me (MF)

Conversation #1

RS: There's a woman, Chana, who is about 47
years old and who recently left an abusive marriage. She lived here in Miami
years ago and has maintained a few close friends in the community. Chana is
temporarily living with Nancy and Jack, who are terrific people. She moved to
my community this past summer and she is doing somewhat better, but her friends
are concerned because Chana will sometimes say things like “I don't know if I
will be around in two weeks,” implying that she may commit suicide.

I think
that this may be severe depression. Nancy told
me that Chana wakes up in the middle of the night frightened about a
recipe that she is preparing for the next night, because she is worried about
missing an ingredient, and she'll stand over the kitchen table all night.
Chana’s husband used to severely criticize her cooking. Nancy
suspects that he also hit Chana.

I have only known Chana for
the past two months. She usually comes to shul Shabbos day, but hardly
talks. She rarely smiles or shows other emotion, but she recently started
coming to some of the Torah classes that I offer at the shul. I notice
that she is looking haggard and not too well groomed.

MF: This really sounds like a psychiatric
crisis—hospitalization might be warranted. But getting her to a good
psychiatrist is the critical first step. Find out from Chana if there is a
mental health professional already in the picture. If so, ask permission to
contact him/her. If she has no psychiatric care, you need to help her get some.

Conversation #2, a few days later

RS: Your last impression was on point. Chana
had no therapists or doctors, so I found two psychiatrists by calling the local
UJA/Federation office and also asking the other rabbi in town. When I called
Chana and her friend to give them the doctors’ names and numbers they told
me that Chana is already in the hospital! To make a long story short, last
night, when Nancy and Jack were asleep, Chana left the house and walked to the
hospital in the middle of the pouring rain. She left the door wide open to the
house, but left a message on Nancy and Jack’s phone that she couldn’t get back
in, so she's going to the hospital. She's currently in the hospital being
evaluated in the psychiatric ward.

MF: What a story. Thank God that even in her
impaired state the woman had the right idea—to go to a hospital. Your support
and competence continue to be invaluable to this woman. Great work.

RS: Thank you. At this point, I’m kind of
worried about Nancy and Jack. This is a huge responsibility for them. I doubt
they expected any of this when they offered their home to Chana. How much can
they be expected to do?

MF: You are wise to be thinking of them.
Supporting the caregivers is always a key factor. It can be quite impressive
how people will rise to occasions of human need. It can also be disappointing.
But your staying in close touch with Jack and Nancy
has already and will continue to mean a great deal to them. You are recognizing
and validating their effort as well as giving them practical advice.

Conversation #3, the next day

RS: I spoke to Nancy
today. Chana is doing okay in the hospital. I asked if she would like me to
visit, but Nancy
said that Chana is so embarrassed and ashamed that she doesn't want anyone to
know. I asked Nancy
to tell Chana that there is nothing to be ashamed about and that she did
the right thing by going to the hospital.

MF: Try calling Chana directly. Tell her the
same thing, how wise and protective it was of her to go to the hospital—you
admire her instincts, even in her distressed state she knew to do the right
thing. Ask her if you might drop by for ten minutes, take it from there.
Mitigating shame is the most important thing here. Self-respect and honor are
the most important ingredients in helping this woman stay in the long-term
treatment that she needs.

Conversation #4, a few months later

RS: You remember that woman we spoke about in
the winter? She has been doing much better. She has her own apartment, is
working part-time and volunteering. The problem is now that her daughter is
getting married in London
and Chana is feeling really shaky. She asked me what her religious obligations
are vis-a-vis attending the simha.
The thought of being in the presence of so many people, in an unfamiliar place,
and in such close proximity to her ex-husband terrifies her. How can I help

MF: First, sit down with Chana and go through
all the events involved in the wedding. This will establish some order and then
you can work from there as to what she can reasonably tolerate. Will there be
an aufruf, for example? What about
the wedding itself—who is doing the planning? What do Chana’s daughter and her
fiancé expect? What about sheva berakhot?
The more you can help Chana anticipate the major components of the event, the
more she can make a plan as to her attendance and participation in the wedding
events. This will give her a sense of control. It will also be very helpful to
make sure that Chana has a relative or friend that she can count on for support
during what is sure to be a challenging event. Are Nancy and Jack able to
attend and be with Chana? Finally, check in that Chana has discussed all of
this with her therapist/doctor. You can ask if she is on medication and if
there is some kind of contingency plan if her anxiety or depression flares.


Acute emotional distress is not
subtle. However, in order to recognize states such as depression or severe
panic, a rabbi has to be familiar with key signs and symptoms of these
syndromes. This does not mean that he should attempt to treat the congregant
himself. He can help a vulnerable person who might be too ashamed or
disorganized to get needed professional care. Rabbi Stone’s attention to
Chana’s appearance as well as the alarming comments reported by her friends
mobilized his concern. While her own alarming behavior actually got her to the
hospital, the rabbi’s steadfast involvement with Chana and her friends
established ongoing trust. Support of caregiver(s) is a key component of a
longer-term picture, as is follow-up over time. The rabbi needs to check in,
even with a brief chat or quick phone call, to let congregants know that he
cares and is available for consultation. Similarly, the rabbi needs to have
trusted mentors with whom he can reveal his own uncertainty and get advice.
Hopefully, his own rabbis and
teachers will be such advisors. Classmates from yeshiva as well as local clergy
who also grapple with complex pastoral matters might also be persons with whom
a rabbi can talk through such situations.

Practice and judgment are needed to
figure out what a congregant is asking when he or she poses a religious
question to a rabbi. In Chana’s case, she had not discussed her massive anxiety
regarding her daughter’s wedding with her hospital assigned outpatient
psychiatrist who she saw once a month. Instead, she sought out Rabbi Stone and
asked him a “rabbinic” question. Because of the respect and trust built
earlier, Rabbi Stone could intervene in a situation that threatened to
destabilize Chana’s fragile mental health.

In addition to class and
experiential learning, YCT incorporates a unique forum for personal
development—the process group. One of the most difficult challenges for rabbis
is the inherent loneliness of the profession. In order to be effective, rabbis
need to be simultaneously available, charismatic, and slightly separate from
their congregants.
Negotiating these boundaries requires preparation. We believe that the process
group experiences help our students encounter these issues individually while
also strengthening the bonds of trust and support between their fellow
students. Every week, throughout the entire program, each student class meets
with a process group leader, a mental health professional who makes a
commitment to work with that group for the full four years. Discussions of the
process group are entirely confidential between leaders and students. They may
explore personal, academic, religious, or any other issues that they choose. The
process group is a template for life outside the yeshiva. Undoubtedly, tension
and confrontation between group members occurs. The students need to learn how
to mediate moments of crisis in the process group and how to live with
conflicts that cannot be resolved. These skills will serve them well in their
future work as community rabbis.

on the enthusiasm that the rabbinical students have for their process groups,
we provide a monthly support group for spouses. The yeshiva realizes that the
role of the rabbi’s wife is
complex. Women come from varied personal and professional backgrounds. They
anticipate different degrees of engagement in their husband’s work. The support
group, facilitated by a rebbetzin who is also a mental health
professional, allows study and exploration of these issues.


YCT pastoral counseling class discussion
of the following vignette

A prominent congregant,
Max, comes to speak with Rabbi Smith, who took over the synagogue a few months
earlier. Several weeks ago, another congregant, Dr. Paul, a surgeon, returned
to the community after serving six months in prison for sexual impropriety with
younger female patients. Dr. Paul is in court-mandated psychotherapy and has a
parole officer. During Dr. Paul’s prison term, his wife attended shul rarely,
but their two children came to groups and are students in the local day school.

Max demands that Dr. Paul
be ejected from the kehilla. He
states that Dr. Paul is a danger to the community. Max’s tone gets belligerent
as he threatens to switch his membership and his very generous building fund
pledge to the other synagogue in town. He hints that some of his friends may go
with him.

Students reacted
to the vignette in many ways:

Student #1: Max is out of bounds. While Dr. Paul’s
offense is reprehensible, he has been tried and convicted, and he served his
sentence. I would want to make sure that Dr. Paul has no contact with shul
youth, but neither he nor his family should be barred from the synagogue.

Student #2: I wonder if Max or anyone in his family
was ever abused? Do you know if Max used Dr. Paul or anyone in his family used
Dr. Paul for their own medical care? Perhaps Rabbi Smith can ask a few
questions to try and understand where Max’s outrage is coming from.

Student #3: You both have good points. But I can also
understand the rabbi’s anxiety. I feel kind of sick myself at the thought of
seeing this guy back in shul. Certainly
many people in the community are very uncomfortable with a convicted molester
returning to the community. How does Rabbi Smith model teshuva in this painful situation? Also, how does he deal with his
own concerns about finances if key supporters pull out?

Student #4: I’m thinking about the teshuva issue. Shouldn’t Rabbi Smith be
meeting with Dr. Paul to talk about all these things? Should he have visited
Dr. Paul in prison? Has Rabbi Smith developed any rapport with the Paul family?
Has there been any attempt at apology by Dr. Paul or restitution to his former
patients or their families? How are Mrs. Paul and their children doing? Given
the situation, should Mrs. Smith, the rabbi’s wife, be the one to reach out to
Mrs. Paul?

Student #5: This may not be the main point, but
assuming that Dr. Paul stays in the community, does he get any kibbudim (community honors)? Let’s say he used to be a leader in
his synagogue or his son is having a
bar mitzvah in the next few months….


All of the points raised by students
in class discussion are valid. Criminal behaviors, especially sexual or violent
offenses, shake the foundations of any community, especially a religious
community. Most of us believe that religious life makes better people, or at
least safeguards us against certain kinds of violations. Integrating an
offender back into community life is a significant challenge. Whether a rabbi
was present throughout the whole episode, or came in new, as in the case of
Rabbi Smith, he needs to meet with key constituents. These include Dr. Paul,
the Paul family, and any other people who request rabbinic counseling. Such
members may have been victimized by Dr. Paul or have other experience with
sexual trauma. Although Rabbi Smith respects the confidentiality of individuals
involved, the overall scenario is known to the larger community.

Dr. Paul’s return to the community is sure to elicit discomfort, if not
outright protest as in the case of Max, Rabbi Smith would do well to meet with
several involved synagogue members to anticipate and plan for larger reaction.

The rabbi’s grasp of individual and
group dynamics is key. Rabbi Smith’s understanding of the tensions and
vulnerabilities inherent in the Max/Dr. Paul situation allow him to formulate a
clear plan for which the rabbi can mobilize support.

a comprehensive pastoral counseling program requires commitment of precious
academic time and financial resources. Even more, it calls for flexibility of
mind and tolerance. Today’s Jewish world desperately needs learned rabbis who
can reach kehillot through involvement in the day-to-day challenges of
living. Pastoral counseling is thus a building block in the foundation of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. We hope that semikha preparation
elsewhere seeks to prepare graduates for these challenges, and we look forward
to collaborative efforts in the service of all Jewish communities.