What would I want my rabbi to know? Part II

Posted on July 10, 2007

I wrote about this first six months ago in I cried at shul and then in Shul, and of course I wrote about it in What would I want my rabbi to know? Part 1.

I’m still dealing with it. And I still have no answers.

I’m not even sure I have questions and maybe that’s part of the problem. Back in Part 1, I wrote

I wish I could just schedule an appointment and tell him all this. Tell him what I need. But I don’t trust that what I want, what I think I need, what I wrote at the top of this post, is appropriate.

I know that I have to ask. I know that I need to voice what I need. I know that the more specific I can be, the better. But I’m stuck on the appropriateness.

Is what I want from my rabbi something that would fall in his job description, so to speak, or am I looking for what I need in the wrong place?

I want to trust him. I want to trust that when he says he’ll do something, he does. Right now that doesn’t exist. Sometimes he follows through and sometimes he doesn’t, and I never know which it will be. Last winter, he offered to give me some referrals to Jewish counselors for the religious piece of my depression and I said yes that would be very nice, but then nothing happened. And I got worse before I got better and it seemed pointless to ask later.

Besides, I was afraid that asking again, or bringing up that he’d offered, would be taken as a criticism of him. I can see that happening all too well. I think it’s realistic. And I know for a fact that he hates criticism.

I want to understand how to reconcile being Jewish and living with depression. I talked with a friend today who remarked how the Scandinavian trait of holding one’s emotions in was so foreign to Jewish culture. Yet it’s not okay to be open about depression in Jewish culture either. So which is it? How open can I be? Should I be? Can I be any more honest with other Jews than I can with everyone else?

I don’t know if these are questions a rabbi can help me answer. I only know that I don’t have the answer and am not qualified to answer them.

I want to feel like I matter to the shul, like I help make a difference, like I contribute in some way to the congregation.

I want to feel like he’d notice if I stopped coming to shul. I want to feel like he’d care whether I disappeared off the face of the earth or not. The last time I saw him was when I said Kaddish the first Shabbat after my baby daughter’s burial at the end of May. I haven’t been able to get up my courage to go to shul since. I miss it horribly but it is too hard to go. It is the one place where I am forced to confront myself, my pain, my anxieties, my resentments, my hopes, my fears.

When I talked with him after shul at the end of January (in I cried at shul), I told him that having this illness somehow makes me feel less Jewish. He rolled his eyes, clearly dismissing that as an absurd idea. I’ve also written in that same post that my depression makes me just feel less.

I want to feel like I’ve learned enough about Judaism in the past twelve years of off-and-on formal learning and twenty-three-plus years of informal learning to be considered–by him–as reasonably knowledgeable for a lay person. Like I finally qualify to really be called Jewish. Like I earned the trust he placed in me when he brought me before the beit din at my conversion.

I want to feel like I really belong, that I’m not still an outsider looking in. I want to feel like I can and should stop questioning my authenticity as a Jew. I want to feel like I’m good enough.

Two years ago I came up with an interpretation of the Four Children in the Passover haggadah that really excited me. I told my rabbi about it, explaining my interpretation. He said he’d never heard anything like it before, but he liked it a lot. He asked me to write up what I’d just explained to him and the shul would include it in the Pesach handouts they make available each year. But I didn’t trust it would actually happen and I didn’t want to deal with the letdown of submitting it only to have it left out, so I didn’t send it in.

I want to hear these things from him and yet I am not sure I can always believe him. I know he means well but the many times there has been a lack of follow-through just hurts too much.

A prominent member of our congregation recently lost his mother, aleha hashalom. He wrote an article distributed to the congregation that read in part

what I have learned is how deeply [our rabbi] is committed to our congregants, particularly to their individual Jewish lives. [His] attention and consolation and advice was precious to me and my family.

I do not feel that I received much of anything in the way of attention and consolation and advice from my rabbi–the same man praised by this other congregant–when my father, alav hashalom, died three years ago. Or when my daughter died in May. Once my conversion was over and I had no reason to meet every two weeks with my rabbi, I am not at all sure that there is much of any commitment on his part to my individual Jewish life. If there is, how do I find it? How do I see it? Feel it?

All I can think of is, what does this prominent member have that I don’t? Why does he get what I felt I needed, both when my father died and just recently when my baby died?

He is able to donate a generous amount of money to the shul.
He is born Jewish.
His brain chemistry is normal, not wacky.

I have none of these things, since the whole thing with my maternal great-grandmother still meant I needed a conversion. Is that why? Is that why I don’t count as much? Does my individual Jewish life not matter as much?

I never say these things out loud, never tell anyone especially the rabbi for fear I would be labeled too needy. But these things are in my head anyway. I don’t know if it’s the depression talking or my history or reality.

And it’s why I don’t know what’s appropriate for me to ask for. Or if the rabbi is even who I should be asking.


  1. Rivka

    Ayelet: you are right, he could be struggling with something I know nothing about.

    I am very fortunate to have several close friends who know about my challenges and my struggles. Most are not Jewish but they are very supportive. They fill many of my social needs. What I do not have are many close Jewish friends. (I have three, though we see each other rarely.)

    Too many women from shul work full time and lead very busy lives and we only see each other on Shabbat. I am not sure that I feel close enough to any of them to trust them with the real me yet.

    Jack: I am looking forward to that place. Thank you.

  2. Jack Steiner

    Normal or wacky brain chemistry makes everyone question aspects of our lives. It is normal to question. It is normal to feel out of sorts.

    The hard part sometimes is trying to accept who we are. In your situation I think that it is exasperated a little bit by your challenge.

    Keep fighting. I think that you are going to come to a place where you are comfortable.

  3. Ayelet

    His brain chemistry is normal, not wacky.

    You don’t know that. So many people struggle in silence. We could fill countless support groups. The problem is, nobody would be brave enough to attend!

    As for your feelings in shul, I feel your hurt when you speak of how lonely you feel there. I get so angry at your rabbi and angry at others for thinking he’s so great when he has failed you so miserably. Grrr. I wish there was a way for you to get your needs filled outside the shul.

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