Over the past year, I have led efforts to teach, guide and coach rabbis and other clergy of every Jewish denomination. We have worked with over 500 individual members of the clergy, serving hundreds of thousands of people since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
So let me say this to my dear clergy colleagues: As we celebrate another High Holiday season under the shadow of the pandemic, I know that there is nothing you need more than support in making impossible decisions about vaccinations, masks, social distancing and the integrity of worship.
Which is why I am baffled as to why some would add to your burden with irresponsible, pain-inducing criticism that could only worsen the challenge, trauma and moral injury that our clergy are experiencing.
I agree that mitigating all risk at the expense of our Jewish way of life is untenable, and there are appropriate ways to debate safety measures during a public health crisis. Yet second-guessing rabbis like you, as you work overtime to protect your communities while meeting their spiritual needs, isn’t one.
Those of us paying attention have seen your tremendous creativity and labor to ensure our people have meaningful spiritual and communal ways to learn and connect to Torah. I see you toiling to create innovative outdoor or remote opportunities for unvaccinated children to engage in Jewish learning and living; teaching congregants to lead backyard minyans; managing complicated technology for interactive remote services and study groups; introducing Torah treks and prayerful hikes; and other ways to help people engage with each other and practice traditions while reducing health risks.
I hear your trauma at having buried the many older members of your shul who have died alone this year. When you gather again, the seats of many “regulars” will be tragically empty. I understand your fear that the immunocompromised and younger, unvaccinated members may be endangered by the high risk that in-person gatherings can pose.
I listen to you agonize as you balance the calls for individual choice and/or trust from some in your community with your desire to have proof of vaccine and/or testing and mask mandates to protect the vulnerable.
Many of your communities model remarkable shared leadership as clergy, boards and medical advisors together make decisions carefully. Others of you suffer, having to carry out and even be blamed for decisions that you fear are dangerous. With every change, we see you creating backups to backups, even as it means having to do twice the work, ignoring your exhaustion and pastoring to flocks who require your help as they, too, deal with their justified angst.
And I know that you are experiencing moral injury and burnout from this reality, and you also fear for your own and your family’s health, also feeling a loss of spiritual connection.
Life under COVID is full of difficult calls, weighing physical against mental health; children’s education against the threat of the virus; risks of gathering in our sanctuaries versus the atrophying of our communities and souls. No one wants to undermine centuries of religious choices and obligations.
But you know preserving life is the paramount value of the Torah, and our tradition is rife with examples of moderating observances for our safety. You’ve contributed to and read myriad rabbinic opinions offering halachic and ethical ways to adapt for emergencies. .
My dear colleagues, please know: You are enough. You are doing enough. You can and you must make decisions that are the best and safest you can make, to preserve the lives and the health of your beloved members (and yourselves). Ignore the naysayers. I pray those who see how hard you are working will raise their voices and bolster you with love. With all of the hugs, love and hope for your spiritual renewal. PJC
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein is executive director of the Center for Rabbinic Innovation, a project of the Office of Innovation. This piece first appeared on JTA.