Jeremy, an articulate, well-dressed fellow, peers across the desk at the young rabbi. He’s bared his soul for the last half hour, wavering between anger and anguish. His addiction has finally become an acknowledged reality, and his wife is threatening to leave him. What are Jeremy’s alternatives? After tears and entreaties, he waits for the rabbi’s response, and in fact, the rabbi answers him with sensitivity and a respectable amount of professionalism — he’s tentative but knowledgeable. Finally, they both sit back as 30 rabbinical students who have been observing their exchange lean in for discussion. Jeremy, who is actually a hired professional actor, takes a coffee break and watches the discussion heat up.
This is no private, behind-closed-doors conversation between congregant and rabbi. It’s a class in pastoral services being given at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) for students enrolled in their three-year semichah track, and it’s one of the ways that RIETS prepares its students for what they might encounter in the field. As the yeshivah’s placement office sends rabbis to communities all over the US, candidates are trained in public speaking, counseling, and homiletics.
“We believe that anything they’ll likely encounter in their communities, shuls, and schools, should first be seen, heard, and processed in a safe and controlled environment, where they can receive instruction and guidance from experienced rabbanim and teachers,” says Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, director of Professional Rabbinics at RIETS.
Is this kind of education really necessary for today’s aspiring rabbis? While no one denies that the fundamental basis for semichah is Shas and poskim, many rabbinical ordination programs are supplementing the standard Torah learning curriculum with some necessary contemporary variations. This last decade has seen an unprecedented growth in Jewish communities — new neighborhoods are emerging; dwindling kehillos are seeing a rebirth, and outreach programs have mushroomed in cities around the world. This growth demands leaders who can address expanding and diverse Jewish needs, while the responsibilities of today’s Jewish leaders are compounded by societal complexities that include marital dilemmas, addictions, financial instability, and mental health issues.
But those who exclusively approach Torah leaders for emotional guidance are not always getting the clinical help they need, according to Rav Mordechai Twerski, the Hornosteipler Rebbe of Brooklyn, himself a trained therapist, who in 2013 created an institute to provide rabbanim with training in counseling and therapy techniques. “Many rabbanim have learned the profound, deeply insightful material that the Torah offers for dealing with these problems, but they need to be taught it in an organized, professional way that allows them to access this wisdom in a way that can effectively heal,” he told Mishpacha at the time.
(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 746)
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