As a rabbi and a therapist, E. Noach Shapiro feels he is uniquely positioned to help people meet their challenges. With his expertise in therapy and spirituality, he said, “I can accompany people on a journey of transformation.”
It is a journey he knows well: The former rabbi at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair decided in 2009 to move to Israel with his wife, Monica Rawicz, and their four children.
After what he described as “a powerful and incredible, unbelievably rich experience,” he headed back to the United States in 2011 to earn a master’s degree in social work at New York University. The family followed six months later, settling back into Montclair.
Since then, he has worked at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in its psychiatric crisis unit for children and adults, and currently provides outpatient therapy for adults.
He will draw on this journey as scholar-in-residence Friday-Saturday, Jan. 23-24, at B’nai Keshet, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair. He will focus on the topic of forgiveness.
As a rabbi he will consider the framework offered by Maimonides, the medieval sage who conditioned forgiveness in terms of teshuva, or repentance.
“According to Maimonides, if someone who has wronged us tries to do teshuva three times, and the person is sincere, we have to forgive the person,” said Shapiro. “If we don’t, the sin transfers to us.”
Added Shapiro: “That’s heavy stuff, and we never talk about it.”
As a therapist, however, he has some issues with the approach. “The bitter irony here is that forgiveness is grounded in the action or inaction of the perpetrator. What if the perpetrator is dead, or is not sorry, or is a stranger? The wounded person may end up at the other spectrum of forgiveness: with anger and resentment. What do we do with the anger and resentment? Is there a mechanism to relieve it that is not defined in terms of the perpetrator?”
The Talmud, he said, also understands that people can become attached to their grievances and suffering and can find it hard to let go.
“People get addicted to anger and suffering. They don’t ask for it, but over time it sometimes just becomes part of a person’s identity,” he said. Shapiro finds that insight “transformative” as an example of how Jewish sources can have implications for a real-life therapy practice.
Shapiro acknowledged that his new role marks an enormous personal transition.
“Everyone in the family has their own story,” he said of his experience in Israel. “For me as a Conservative rabbi, it was hard to find work.” He also found his shift from being a public figure in an intense community role to being an unemployed civilian “very hard.” But he used the unexpected down time to carve out a new path for himself.
Today he is affiliated with the Jewish Wellness Center in Montclair and is starting a private practice. He is still figuring out the balance between his two titles.
“When I was making up my business cards, I was trying to figure out what to say. I’ve spent such a huge chunk of my life with ‘rabbi’ as my title,” he said. But he knows it can have an intimidating effect on people. For now, his entry on Psychology Today, a commonly used website for therapists, reads “Mr. E. Noach Shapiro.” While “rabbi” is not on the site, he calls himself a “psychotherapist and spiritual leader.”
And working through that “corrosive anger?” It’s listed as one of his specialties. As he said on the phone, “I’m in a perfect position to bring these ideas together and do some good in the world.”