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Helping rabbis set boundaries amid pressures
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Helping rabbis set boundaries amid pressures

Rabbi Yona Reiss, right, speaks with community members following his Feb. 12 appearance at the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park. Photo by Debra Rubin
Rabbi Yona Reiss, right, speaks with community members following his Feb. 12 appearance at the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park. Photo by Debra Rubin

Today’s rabbis often find themselves struggling with a new breed of pressures — coping with changing gender roles, financial strains, and exploding technological advances.

In order to ease the burden, both rabbis and their congregants need to know when “the rabbinical role ends” and when it’s appropriate for those with troubles to seek outside professional help.

“The community has to be aware of when to lay off the rav,” said Rabbi Yona Reiss, dean of Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and former director of the Beth Din (rabbinical court) of America. “There also may be times when it is more appropriate to refer to other parties or professionals — for example, a marriage counselor.”

Reiss spoke Feb. 12 at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park at a program of the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park.

He told his audience of over 100 people that beyond congregants’ realizing that their religious leader is entitled to some down time with his own family, a rabbi who tries to intervene in certain domestic disputes, for example, is often heading for danger. Reiss told the story of one rabbi who got in the middle of a bitter child custody fight and found himself named in a lawsuit.

Rabbis need to set “parameters and boundaries” that will be respected by community members out of consideration not only for the rabbi’s personal life, but for his health as well.

“It is not unusual for rabbis to get burned out,” said Reiss. “We’re finding out it’s not unusual for rabbonim to get sick, have heart attacks and other illnesses because their job is so stressful. I don’t know many rabbinical students who go into the rabbinate for the glory, and if they do they are disabused of that notion within a few weeks.”

The current economic climate only adds to the pressures on some rabbis — particularly at smaller congregations — who often must turn to teaching or other work to earn extra income.

The evolving role of women has also placed more strain on families and on the community, said Reiss, as women enter the workplace and become more involved in learning and teaching Torah. “There’s no longer a clear demarcation between the roles of men and women, like I remember watching when I was a child, on The Brady Bunch,” he said, referring to the 1969-1974 sitcom about a family with a stay-at-home mom and a working dad.

Rabbis also need to stay on top of social networking “with Facebooking and tweeting all over the place,” said Reiss, who admitted being “not that old, but feeling like an old fuddy-duddy” when it comes to such technology.

The “whole different dynamic” created by technology can open up possibilities to the rabbinate but also can pose difficulties, he cautioned. With “cyberspace encroaching on the most intimate settings,” it’s an added challenge to “maintain our halachic integrity and sense of modesty.”

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