A Passover Message to Synagogue Presidents from USCJ

Dear Presidents,

The fourth question during the Seder is Sh’b’chol haleilot anu ochlin bein yoshvin uvein m’subin, Halaylah hazeh kulanu m’subin – On all other nights we eat either sitting up or reclining, but on this night, we all recline.

If ever there was a time in our lives when we all need to recline, both figuratively and literally, it is now, in the face of COVID-19.  We have been working harder than ever to keep our congregations connected, arrange for virtual services and minyanim, innovate with virtual programming, and so much more.

While we and our fellow lay leaders have been doing that, our clergy and professional partners have been doing all that and more.  They have their usual roles in services, education, and their other ongoing work – and they also face unprecedented needs for outreach, pastoral care for congregants who are alone or lonely, ill or caring for the ill, and unfortunately, arranging for funerals and shiva minyanim for those afflicted by the virus.

Our clergy and professional partners are trained for these responsibilities, and they would be the first to say they understand the need to step up to today’s challenges.  But it is the role of our congregational leaders to care for the caregivers and make sure they, too, get a chance to catch their breath and regain their strength.

What can we each do? Here are some practical suggestions:

Discuss with clergy and staff members their own health needs during this time.  Be sure they are not expected to take risks to their own wellbeing while fulfilling pastoral responsibilities, and help community members understand and respect those limits.

Make sure clergy and professionals are taking a day off each week – or at the very least, are empowered to carve out some “quiet time” when they can separate from the calls, emails, and Zoom meetings. The demands placed on our clergy to provide pastoral care have increased dramatically, and they are under a tremendous amount of stress as a result.

Check in with them on how working from home is going – how does it change what they are able to do, with childcare and other responsibilities in the mix, and discuss how this might change expectations by leadership and congregants.

Think about what things could be done by volunteers, and how to manage that handoff.  Consider forming a team of social workers, psychologists, other care professionals, and hesed volunteers to manage the work of outreach and support of congregants.

Ensure the leadership has “let go” of goals and projects that must be given less priority these days, and understand how relationship building, online programming, and other priorities now take precedence.

Bring clergy and professionals and staff into conversations around financial and personnel challenges as partners, determining the best practical and ethical steps that ensure the continued sustainability of the congregation.

Stay aware that synagogues are “systems” – when leaders or congregants feel “stressed,” that emotional energy may be directed in unintentional but hurtful ways.  When we encounter symptoms like anger or frustration, it’s important for leaders to take a moment, breathe, and reflect.

And last but not least, find ways to express gratitude and give positive feedback – don’t assume the clergy and staff of your synagoues know you appreciate what they’re doing. Above all, this is the time for menschlikhkeit – putting our most kind behavior forward.

Nobody knows how this pandemic will continue to spread and how long it will be before we can even start thinking about returning to “normal” – whatever that may come to mean.  Until then, let’s all keep in mind we are in this together for the foreseeable future. We are only as strong as our clergy and professional staff, so let’s do all we can to keep them strong physically and emotionally.

We all wish you and yours a Chag Pesach Sameach, and may you all be blessed with good health.

Ned Gladstein
International President, USCJ

Leslie Lichter
Interim CEO, USCJ