Training rabbis as counselors

Training rabbis as counselors

Two YU schools offer joint program to sensitize future leaders

Rabbi David Pelcovitz teaches future rabbis how to cope with their own emotions as they confront other people’s traumas. (Courtesy Yeshiva University)
Rabbi David Pelcovitz teaches future rabbis how to cope with their own emotions as they confront other people’s traumas. (Courtesy Yeshiva University)


Marital discord, parenting problems, eating disorders, abuse, addictions — these and similar issues can affect any family, but when they occur in Orthodox circles the rabbi often is the first person approached for help.

To better prepare Orthodox rabbis to meet the emotional needs of their future congregants or students, Yeshiva University has launched a first-of-its-kind partnership between a rabbinic training program and a graduate school of psychology.

The joint pilot program of the university’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and its Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology accepted an initial nine applicants from RIETS last spring. It is part of a wider effort to equip new rabbis with the knowledge base, skills, and disposition to be effective counselors.

“The growing need for rabbis and religious educators to become more informed, sensitive, and adept in the application of mental-health principles, along with the reality that congregants increasingly view counseling skills as a critical component of the rabbi’s job description, makes this program essential to the training of well-prepared Orthodox rabbis,” Rabbi Menachem Penner, RIETS’s dean, said. “It has the potential to significantly change the American rabbinate.”

Credits from the 10 graduate-level courses, which cover such topics as substance-abuse treatment, couples and family counseling, crisis counseling, grief, loss, and bereavement counseling and self-care, and are designed to be taken over a two-year period, lead to a certificate of completion. They also can be applied toward a master’s degree at Ferkauf.

Dr. Lawrence Siegel, Ferkauf’s dean, said that imparting the “incredibly nuanced and complex” skills needed for pastoral counseling will help shape “an ever-more-thoughtful and capable generation of Jewish leaders.”

One of the nine students in the joint program is Yitz Richmond, 25, of Teaneck.

“Nowadays there’s a big emphasis on the pastoral aspect of the rabbinate, and by earning this certificate we can serve our communities better,” said Mr. Richmond, who is in his third of four years at RIETS and hopes to become a pulpit rabbi as well as a psychotherapist.

“I’ve already had two classes at RIETS about the issues the average rabbi will see during his career, such as divorce, infertility, and mental diseases,” he said. “The certificate courses enhance what we’ve learned there.

“The first course spoke about the different schools of psychology, and taught us that it’s important to find one’s own comfort level in the therapeutic profession. The second class taught us how to develop an empathetic relationship with clients and how to take care of ourselves.”

Rabbi Neal Turk of Teaneck, who coordinates the mental-health training aspects in the RIETS curriculum, said that self-awareness was emphasized as a critical component for rabbis-in-training by many mental-health professionals consulted by RIETS.

“Having been a pulpit rabbi for many years, I know that you deal with people in different kinds of crises, and it brings out a lot of emotions in yourself,” Rabbi Turk said. “Rabbis going into the pulpit or educational leadership must develop their understanding of themselves so they can be more effective, in the same way that mental-health professionals need to go through this as part of their training.”

In the coming academic year, all student rabbis in the pulpit track will have the opportunity to schedule individual sessions with mental-health professionals to talk things out. “We want them to have an address to go to here, as they’re being trained,” Rabbi Turk said.

“Our hope is that through ongoing discussion groups we’ll be able to increase the emotional awareness of our students and provide them with the tools to navigate their own stress and challenges,” said Dr. David Pelcovitz, chairman of Jewish education at the university’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration and an instructor in pastoral counseling at RIETS.

Rabbi Turk said that RIETS has included mandatory pastoral psychology classes for years, “but this is taking it many steps deeper. We’re not turning them into psychologists or social workers. We are giving them the ability to have a better understanding of themselves and of the issues they will face, so that they will be better pastors and better understand their reactions to things as they confront them.”

The RIETS-Ferkauf program includes six courses with Ferkauf staff and four with RIETS instructors. That will impart “a much more substantial understanding of the issues and how to deal with difficult problems,” Rabbi Turk said.

A second group of applicants will begin the joint program next spring.

Each incoming RIETS class comprises roughly 50 men, half of whom typically aspire to be pulpit rabbis or educators. Rabbi Turk has been beefing up efforts to impart better pastoral skills and greater self-awareness for these future rabbis to meet challenges that inevitably will come up, he said.

Among the new initiatives is a course that exposes them to strategies for handling particularly difficult issues, such as homosexuality and its effects on the entire Orthodox family.

“I always tell every single one of our students that they will deal with this earlier in their career than I did,” Rabbi Turk said. “And you can ruin someone’s life if you deal with it the wrong way. There are no easy answers or solutions.”

He emphasized that rabbis must learn to recognize when a problem is beyond their expertise and needs the attention of a professional counselor. Even after referring to such a professional, the rabbi should be prepared to continue “holding the person’s hand” through the process, he said.

“There is more awareness these days that rabbis will be confronted with everything,” Rabbi Turk said. “When they are confronted with a tough issue, I want them not to have heard of it first in their office. I want them to have heard of it here, to remember which psychology professor spoke about it, and to know they can call him or her for advice.”

The synagogue rabbi is seen as a community leader, he said, “and the more successful you are as the rabbi of a community the more people will come to you with their family issues. You have to have more than just Torah learning under your belt.”

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