“Abuse and Teshuva” (Tzedek in our Synagogue)

Ten days ago, on Rosh Hashanah, we engaged in what Judaism calls “an accounting of our souls.” We each looked inward to determine how we did the past year. Were we good people? Were we the best we could be? Now, on Yom Kippur, we turn our attention outward. Who have we wronged? Who has wronged us? How do we forgive? These are, perhaps, some of the most difficult questions we face as Jews but they are necessary during this season of teshuvah, this season of return. For it is during this time, as we honestly and earnestly embrace these questions, that we can literally turn to those around us and make amends in the hope of achieving the ultimate return—the return to the people we can and ought to be. Teshuvah is, without question, an eternal work in progress. No matter what our intentions, no matter our dedication, none of us will ever be perfect. But what the season of teshuvah offers us is the opportunity, time and time again, to strive to be better people and, on this Yom Kippur, a better community.

Teshuvah is difficult because it forces us to recognize how downright awful human beings can be to one another. Either because of apathy or straight-up dishonesty and cruelty, we, individually, have the power to hurt each other, hurt our nation, and hurt our world. We see extremes of this every day, as refugees from Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia and countries around the world drown, starve, or freeze to death. We see it in our politics, as candidates for national office hurl fury and vitriol at one another. Yes, sometimes, in the act of hurting another person, we see the very worst of humanity. It can be easy, then, in these moments, to give up hope. To wonder the point of forgiveness or understanding. And it can be easy, when we see people at their very lowest, to simply turn a blind eye.

But if we do that, if during this season of return we decide that there is no hope, that progress, mediation, and empathy are impossible, then we miss the greater lesson that teshuvah has to offer, and that is that while we often hurt each other out of a disregard for human life or self-worth, there is another reason that people get hurt, and that reason is passion. The truth is that in our lives, and here, in this community, those who have hurt us haven’t done it because they don’t care. They aren’t apathetic to our feelings, or our needs. Rather, they are so passionate about their issue, their view, their cause, that they fail to see the ways that that very passion (well-intended though it may be) might hurt another person.

We have all been that person. That person who campaigns for his or her agenda without recognizing the collateral damage it can cause. And we’ve all been that collateral damage. But we do not need to continue being the damager. And we do not need to live on feeling damaged. We can return. We must return. That is what teshuvah is all about.

Last week, in an article in the Jewish Daily Forward, I addressed this very issue as it affects synagogues throughout the world. Now, let me just say, I did not choose the title for this article and had I been given a choice, it would have never been titled “I’m a Rabbi and I Was Bullied—by My Own Congregants.” If you haven’t read the article yet, don’t panic. It wasn’t about me being miserable here, or about The Hebrew Congregation of St Thomas being a difficult place to work. In fact, I don’t mention our congregation at all. What I do discuss, however, is the experience I had as a rabbi being bullied and verbally abused. Anyone who has ever been bullied can tell you that it’s a lonely, soul-crushing experience.  That it finds its way into all aspects of your life, professional and personal. And as difficult as it is to be bullied as a child, when you rightfully feel powerless, it is even harder as an adult, when you’re supposed to feel powerful and suddenly don’t. Yes, it was difficult. And it was isolating. But the article wasn’t about that. In fact, it wasn’t even about me.

The upside to being bullied as an adult, to being hurt as an adult, is that you have more resources available to you to cope with the situation. For me, it was to reach out to rabbis in the field, to the governing bodies of our movement, to say “Okay, so this happened to me. What do I do?” When I asked that question, I expected to be flooded with answers, with materials, with solutions. Instead, what I got was a flood of emails from other rabbis who had experienced the same thing. These rabbis, too, were lost, hurting, and confused. They, like me, wanted to be the rabbi their congregations needed: supportive, energetic, committed. But how could they be a spiritual leader, a teacher, and a chaplain, when this dark cloud of abuse was hanging over them?


Teshuvah is an opportunity. It is a moment when we have a choice. We can go on hurting, and being hurt, or we can make a decision. Change and be changed. My article in the Jewish Forward was my decision: change and be changed. What happened to me was not an isolated incident. In a survey of rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators across denominations throughout the United States, 65% reported receiving verbal abuse or bullying more than once during their tenure. Over 70% considered this abuse severe or emotionally exhausting. And those are just the numbers from Jewish professionals. Imagine the numbers if we were to survey congregants, board presidents, and committee members. Too many Jewish leaders and lay leaders are experiencing bullying in their houses of worship, in the spaces that are meant to be their refuge from the storm. My article, my teshuvah, was to say “no more.” Not for me. Not for you. Not for anyone entering through those doors, or the doors of any synagogue.

Teshuvah, true teshuvah, isn’t just about facing our problems. It isn’t just about turning and looking. True teshuvah is the full turn around. It is taking something negative and making it something positive. That is what The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas is doing this year. If you’ve been following my sermons this High Holy Day Season, then you noticed the trend in topics. They were about how we can be actors for social change, how we can contribute to make the world better. I worked from big to small: the world, our national political sphere, and our island community. Today, I am talking about our congregation. About what we can do to make this place better. But that is not enough. True teshuvah doesn’t end with us. It begins with us. This is the year that we say that The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas doesn’t turn a blind eye to abuse, to bullying, to disrespect. Not by anyone. And not to anyone. But it is also the year that we provide our fellow congregations with the resources so that they, too, can become congregations offering sukkat shalom, congregations offering a shelter of peace.

Because ultimately, I am one of the lucky ones. When my article went live, I was overwhelmed by the responses from rabbis sharing their experiences. Their emails always began the same: “I have a similar story.” And yes, the bullying was similar. But that is where the similarities ended. Because they continue to suffer silently in their congregations. Or they left their congregations due to unpleasant circumstances. But that is not me, and that is not us. We—your rabbi, your board, your fellow congregants—are actively working to make this place better for everyone, to make it safer for everyone. And the healing work we do here, for ourselves, will extend outward, to other congregations. The lessons we have learned, and are learning, need not be reserved only for us. There is no central resource on how Jews can properly respond to bullying in their congregations.  But there will be.  We will, quite literally, write the book on this topic.  We will be the model, the leaders by example, on how to turn this endemic situation around.  Because, that, ultimately, is the act of teshuvah. That is the art of a true turn.  Too many mistake teshuvah as turning back towards those who have hurt us, or only as turning our souls away from sin.  We think of teshuvah as a horizontal act; turning ourselves around.  But the act of teshuvah is also a turn vertically, from down, to up; from negative to positive, from helplessness to empowered action.  We turn our heads up, face the world, and go.

There is a reason that God commands that teshuvah be a public act. We cannot simply say a prayer and be forgiven. We need to face our victims, and we need to face our abusers because it is only in the light—that scary, uncomfortable public light—that we can be the change the world needs. Yes, it starts with us. But, ultimately, the whole world is now watching and it is we, collectively, as a community, that can decide what they see.  And I, for one, am excited for what’s next.


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