Drs. Michelle Fried­man and Rachel Yehu­da are the co-authors of The Art of Jew­ish Pas­toral Coun­sel­ing: A Guide for All Faiths. With the hol­i­day sea­son approach­ing, they will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil togeth­er as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

How did a nice psychiatrist/​psychoanalyst, not to men­tion a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, get mixed up with the world of rab­bis and wind up writ­ing a book on pas­toral coun­sel­ing? Aren’t men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als and cler­gy like oil and water — do they not embody the gulf between sci­ence and faith, between non-judg­men­tal explo­ration and direct­ed guidance?

We believe that the two fields can coex­ist and even nour­ish each oth­er. Per­haps blend­ing the rig­or­ous method­ol­o­gy and prin­ci­pals of men­tal health treat­ment with the wis­dom of reli­gion can cre­ate a heal­ing expe­ri­ence that com­bines the best of both worlds — the yin and yang of a spir­i­tu­al­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly sat­is­fy­ing response. Our odyssey start­ed two decades ago when Michelle had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to bridge her pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al pas­sions by orga­niz­ing a con­fer­ence on Jew­ish respons­es to anx­i­ety and depres­sion. This led to an invi­ta­tion to be the pas­toral coun­sel­ing expert at four-day rab­binic con­fer­ence. She was in for a big surprise.

Per­haps the serene wood­ed set­ting of the retreat cen­ter encour­aged trust and open­ness. As the days passed, par­tic­i­pants increas­ing­ly shared painful and some­times shock­ing vignettes that con­gre­gants dis­closed to them on a reg­u­lar basis. While these well-mean­ing, good rab­bis did the best they could, they were often over­whelmed by their own anx­i­ety and sim­ply did not know what to do. Whether ear­ly on in their careers or many years out, these cler­gy felt alone and unsup­port­ed out there in the field. Their sem­i­nary years had pre­pared them to answer ques­tions about Jew­ish rit­u­al but not on how to lis­ten and respond to sto­ries of loss, betray­al, and con­fu­sion. Unlike men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als, whose train­ing includes super­vi­sion and encour­ages per­son­al ther­a­py, rab­bis rarely share pas­toral chal­lenges with their peers.

Michelle left that retreat chas­tened. Cler­gy are first respon­ders to the messy needs of their con­gre­gants. She start­ed doing one-off pro­grams here and there for rab­binic alum­ni groups and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions. When Rab­bi Avi Weiss called her out of the blue in 1999 and asked if she was inter­est­ed in head­ing up pas­toral coun­sel­ing at Yeshi­v­at Chovevei Torah (YCT), the rab­bini­cal sem­i­nary he was start­ing for Ortho­dox rab­bis, it sound­ed like an intrigu­ing adven­ture. Michelle had no idea of what a pas­toral coun­sel­ing pro­gram was, so she bor­rowed from her own psy­chi­atric and psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic train­ing pro­grams and brain­stormed with the few peo­ple she could find who were engaged in sim­i­lar work. 

One of the peo­ple she called was Rachel. Rachel is a psy­chol­o­gist and neu­ro­scient who had by then devel­oped sev­er­al suc­cess­ful clin­i­cal treat­ment pro­grams for trau­ma-relat­ed ill­ness like post­trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der at the Icahn School of Med­i­cine at Mount Sinai, which includ­ed mod­ules for train­ing young res­i­dents and interns. These pro­grams includ­ed the Spe­cial­ized Clin­ic for Holo­caust Sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies. Rachel was by then serv­ing on the Board of Direc­tors of YCT. Michelle asked Rachel to teach rab­bini­cal stu­dents how to deal with con­gre­gants in the after­math of trau­ma and disaster. 

The years rolled by, and the pas­toral coun­sel­ing pro­gram at YCT flour­ished. One of the major teach­ing tech­niques to emerge was role-play­ing, in which rab­bini­cal stu­dents are giv­en sce­nar­ios to play-act: one stu­dent would act the part of the con­gre­gant while the oth­er played the part of the rab­bi. Anoth­er was process group, where stu­dents met every week with a men­tal health facil­i­ta­tor and, in a con­fi­den­tial set­ting, talk through feel­ings and issues that emerge in their train­ing. Oth­er sem­i­nar­ies strength­ened their own pro­grams, and men­tal health aware­ness grew across the denom­i­na­tions. Both Michelle and Rachel were invit­ed to speak at Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty pro­grams across the denom­i­na­tion­al spec­trum on post­par­tum depres­sion, psy­chi­atric med­ica­tions, sex­u­al abuse, and how to respond to indi­vid­ual and com­mu­nal trau­ma. Emails and calls came from around the coun­try from rab­bis who sought con­sul­ta­tion on tough pas­toral situations.

It was time to write a book. The goal was not to cre­ate yet anoth­er infor­ma­tive but dry, aca­d­e­m­ic piece with a for­mu­la­ic review of the lit­er­a­ture, data charts, and copi­ous foot­notes, not anoth­er com­pi­la­tion of chap­ters about top­ics per­tain­ing to men­tal ill­ness that do not exact­ly pro­vide guid­ance about how to nav­i­gate spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tions. There were enough of those. It felt impor­tant to write a book that explored the feel­ing expe­ri­ence of the per­son who sat in the pas­toral counselor’s seat and con­front­ed human dra­ma and raw need. To write for the rab­bi who lis­tens to peo­ple deal­ing with lone­li­ness or mar­gin­al­iza­tion, par­ents strug­gling to con­nect to their chil­dren, spous­es whose mar­riages are falling apart, elders con­fronting frailty, and for the school prin­ci­pal or camp direc­tor who sees the boy or girl strug­gling with a dif­fi­cult fam­i­ly, with sex­u­al­i­ty, with Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. The goal was to share what had been gleaned over these decades of deliv­er­ing men­tal health ser­vices on the one hand, and teach­ing rab­bis at YCT

So that’s what we did. We cre­at­ed four fic­tion­al char­ac­ters who go through almost 70 dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios culled from our com­bined logs of prac­tice and super­vi­sion. We craft­ed expo­si­tions on each sce­nario that explain basic prin­ci­ples of pas­toral coun­sel­ing from a Jew­ish per­spec­tive. Toward the end of the process, we read the book out loud to each oth­er to pick up on awk­ward or con­fus­ing sen­tences. It feels great to offer this book that can help peo­ple in posi­tions of spir­i­tu­al author­i­ty lis­ten wise­ly and well. 

Michelle Fried­man and Rachel Yehu­da are the co-authors of The Art of Jew­ish Pas­toral Coun­sel­ing: A Guide for All Faiths and pro­fes­sors at the Icahn School of Med­i­cine at Mount Sinai Hos­pi­tal in New York City. Along with their inde­pen­dent posi­tions and dis­tinc­tions, both authors teach pas­toral coun­sel­ing at Yeshi­v­at Chovevei Torah Rab­bini­cal School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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