Rabbi reflects on spiritual leadership in times of crisis

Rabbi Benjamin Weiner on a Zoom call with his child.

Rabbi Benjamin Weiner has led the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA) since 2010. He is also a scholar of Yiddish and Irish literature and a writer. During March 2020, the JCA moved to entirely virtual services. I talked with him about the virtual transition, social justice, and Jewish spiritual advice for our times.

RA: What do you think are the key elements of your job as a rabbi?

RBW:  It’s a multifaceted job in terms of how I go about it. Community building is fundamentally what it’s about. That’s the core of the job. It takes on a variety of functions, ranging from religious ritual, like leading service, teaching and educating, and facilitating and inspiring social action, and then also pastoral care. People turn to their religious spiritual community for sustenance and spiritual nourishment. So actually, caring for people is my job on some level. Caring for their emotional, spiritual needs, and in some cases, their physical well-being.

The biggest difference between pre and post pandemic is how much of that job is done face to face and how much of it is done in digital theory with the idea of people, the representation of people through ones and zeros. It’s interesting because you do connect with people; you do see their faces and hear their voices, but not the full physicality of their presence. We all still have the sense of being in relationship with each other, but we haven’t actually physically been in the same space. Everything has become a lot more abstract.

I don’t know what I would do if it weren’t for technology. I kind of have a love-hate relationship with technology, but so much of how we’ve stayed connected has been relying on technology almost exclusively for almost two years.

RA: I remember in Hebrew School, whenever the Torah discussed plague times—which is pretty frequent—I always was a little confused and laughed a little bit. What lessons do you draw from Jewish liturgy during this time?

RBW: There are a few ways to reflect on that. One is we’re living in Biblical times, like what forest is on fire today or what pandemic? But then also, there is a way in which we almost need mythology to speak of our own times, because they are so intense and there’s so much upheaval of so many different types that the mythological level might even make more sense to us now. Then, it might have done so at seemingly easier times. There’s also the reality of being in a community, a tradition which is many, many centuries old, thousands of years old. There’s a whole other dimension to our experience we can rely on. “That year, there was that plague. And this year, there was this program, there was that upheaval there.” There was this kind of leaning into a version of Jewish historical memory as a way of trying to give us some perspective.

RA: People have talked a lot about how isolating and atomizing the pandemic has been. Have you seen any ways in which the community has come together or certain groups within it have grown closer?

RBW: Sure, there are some people that are just sick of zoom and have just dropped off. But, those that have been able to avail themselves of the technology and gotten used to the rhythm of the technology have continued to feel plugged in. I’m sure that there are a number of folks that I’ve just grown out of the habit of seeing on a regular basis that I used to see all the time. It’s been a long time. It’s been really different.

But I can also answer affirmatively to the second question. Absolutely. I can point to a few areas. The first one that is really important to stress is people that have been historically excluded from being in community with others because of inaccessibility. The JCA has begun to do a lot of disability rights activism around these issues, entirely prompted by the experience of the pandemic. Members who have disabilities of various types, when we thought the pandemic was going to be winding down, said “Look, I’m really worried that [kinds of accessibility that expanded during the pandemic] are just going to disappear.” For me, it’s been a game-changer.” One person told me that they have never felt so connected to their Jewishness or to Jewish community as they did during the pandemic. The kind of cynical way they put it was that the things they’ve been advocating for a long time were done overnight as soon as everyone needed them. We should try to take these lessons to heart and to move forward into what activists call non-exclusion, as opposed to inclusion, because non-exclusion implies they shouldn’t have been left out in the first place. A new commitment to the principles of non-exclusion has grown directly out of the experience of the pandemic.

There’s also been an intense increase in other social justice and social action energy over the past two years, including anti-racism and environmental work. The idea that people seek grounding for that kind of work and community in Jewish community and religious community has definitely been an area of growth. I mean, it’s always been a socially engaged community in one way or the other. But I think there’s been a huge increase over the past year.

RA: What does the typical day of a digital rabbi look like?

RBW: Firstly, it takes place a lot more often in my house than it does here in my office. My work environment has radically shifted, such that I’m home a lot more than I’m in the building. What I’ve come to realize is that people have places of work for a variety of reasons. Being a Rabbi, it’s not just a job, it’s like your stamp for life. Being able to have the place where you do it and the place where you don’t is helpful. So when you start being a rabbi from home, it’s complicated because there’s no end to it. Your personal and your professional become so intertwined.

My day is regulated by my Zoom engagements. Early on in the pandemic, I decided that we should probably have services of some kind every day, so people felt more connected to each other, so that community members had something to rely on on a daily basis in the midst of all the upheaval that’s continued for almost two years now. On the general weekday, we have morning service around 8:15; we have study around 12:30; then we have evening service at 7:00. Those are the signposts of my day. In between those, I may have a variety of appointments like committee meetings, pastoral visits with people one on one, most of which will also take place on Zoom. Much of what a rabbi does is answer emails to be perfectly honest. It’s mostly tending, like tending a garden. It’s tending a community.

One of the funniest details about being a pandemic rabbi is that I only put on the collar shirt. I keep the jeans on. Maybe that’s emblematic of something. You only see this much of me, so, why not be comfortable? It might speak to a broader phenomenon.

Another difference is transition times when working from home because when I go from doing one rabbi thing to another rabbi thing, in between I am taking care of my kids, or since I live on a farm, I go out to the barn and make sure the goats are fed. Then I come back and lead the service. It’s just a different rhythm of life. There are some aspects I like more having my role more embedded in my actual life, but in some ways in which it gets to be a headache. Sometimes, boundaries become a little bit more difficult to establish and maintain.

RA: What do you think it signifies to do more religious practice in your home? It’s interesting to think about what are our Jewish holy spaces. Classically, we have the sanctuary and the bimah. But are there places in your home that you view differently now?

RBW: It’s a really interesting question. There are a couple of ways to address that. There’s a place in my house that I use predominantly for my rabbi work, which is like a little study I have on the second floor. It’s an old farmhouse. So it used to be like the sewing room, but now I call it my rabbi room. One debate that happened in our ritual life committee was that certain congregants expressed a preference that even if it was a zoom service, they would rather see me in the sanctuary than at my house. Finally, we decided, it wasn’t that many and I would prefer to stay in my house, rather than drive in just to be seen with a nice backdrop. But it raised an interesting question about our spiritual spaces. Judaism is portable. Any space you set up is a Jewish space: we’ve had some pretty dingy rooms become the holy of holies in our time. But at the same time, to what extent do the possessions that the community holds in common represent the community? To what extent do our communal objects convey the feeling of community which people are looking for? As the rabbi, I ask myself to what extent does my face represent that for people. Should I wash it more often? Do I become a kind of token or totem of community? If you see the rabbi, you know that the community still exists. That’s why I decided to give maximum facetime every day. The community as a kind of intangible entity has definitely continued to exist, but how do you know that when it’s so abstract?

We had a lot of debate about how to do high holiday services this year. In our discussion, we realized we could do it on Zoom, because Zoom has become our sanctuary. Zoom as a house of worship is something that we’ve been working with for the past two years.

RA: One benefit, thinking about zoom becoming a new structure in our lives, is that distance is no longer as much of a separation. Are there instances of doing work with other communities or people visiting services from further afield which maybe would not have happened during a more normal time?

RBW: Absolutely. One example of that is members who have moved away coming to services. We have old members that are out in California or down in Virginia. We’ve actually gotten some new membership from out of town. One of our members relocated here from California, and then she told her friend about our daily Gemara study. Her friend from San Diego now joins us on a regular basis. Our joke is always that she’ll say “Good morning” and we’ll say “Good afternoon.”

I had a funny experience during the High Holidays service. I was watching the screen of a member of ours that lives in California, in the morning service, and I watched the sunrise through her window on Zoom. We started the service at like 9:30 a.m. and it was still dark there. I watched the sun rise through a window behind her in California as I was leading the service here in Amherst. I’ve also had more of my own family showing up at JCA events than ever before. My younger brother had a chance to come to the high holidays at the JCA from his house in Ohio. It’s been fun for me to see my family experiencing me and the community that I serve and that I really care for.

We also had the chance to have more guest speakers from out of town. We’ve had special lectures and presentations by people. It’s easier for us to collaborate with other congregations through Zoom, because we can just share a zoom link. So we’ve begun a regular monthly joint Shabbat service with a synagogue in Springfield, where my wife is the Cantor. That would never have happened if the service wasn’t on zoom. We have done much more joint programming during these past two years than we ever had before, with CBI and Beit Ahava [in Northampton], and with Temple Israel [in Greenfield]. Because it’s just so much easier to facilitate. It’s been a lot of fun.

RA: What do you think “the return” looks like? It’s kind of funny to talk about “returning to normalcy” because we’ve already been saying it for a year, but what do you think it could look like? If and when?

RBW: Firstly, I think about non-exclusivity: Zoom is not going to go away from us. There’s a certain amount of our programming, which is always going to be this way…for however long always is. And whatever programming “goes back to normal” is going to have a tech component now because we want to maintain access.

Beyond that, there’s going to be newness to the normal. It’s not just gonna be like, “Okay, it’s over; everybody back to where you were on March 1, 2020.” There will have to be this taking stock and reckoning about what this has been. It’s been such a bizarre change of everything for so long. There will have to be a period of emotional processing. As long as we’re still navigating the situation to some extent, our minds and bodies are in crisis management mode which by necessity entails limiting the amount of deep diving into our feelings. It’s really when we get a breather from that, that all of a sudden, all this stuff starts to come out that we’ve been holding back. To what extent will that manifest as a delayed trauma response? What are people carrying? What’s the spiritual reality? That’s why I think I’m here. To provide a spiritual reality, a Jewish-flavored spiritual reality or whatever you want to call it. In what ways will our relationships change when we get back to whatever getting back is to? So The Return is not just a logistical question, but also a spiritual question.

Logistically, it’s a curiosity. Have certain functions atrophied? Like, do we still know how to do everything? Are all our muscles still working for running our community on a regular basis in person? Do we have any ingrained hesitance or reticence or fear of being around other people? In what ways are we changed? Are we irrevocably changed by the pandemic?

RA: Personally, what are the areas that you feel you have changed or grown the most?

RBW: I was a technological idiot. One of the first nights in March, I called a colleague: I said, “I’m hearing about this thing called Zoom. Do you know about this Zoom thing? I hear people are using it for services.” The first virtual service was so awkward and it’s just learning how to be a facilitator of online spiritual experience, religious experience. It’s been a kind of technological improvisation around religious life. 

I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to be a spiritual leader during times of crisis. That’s been impactful. It’s not just religion as another leisure activity, like “Do I go to the movies or go to synagogue?” People have real fears and real questions and real uncertainties, including me. I have those also. I have a responsibility to people when they’re going through that and have to dig deeper and understand. Say what you will about religion, it’s been kind of a perennial part of the human experience. I have a wonderful friend who’s a retired evolutionary neuroscientist, who tells me that his theory is that religious practices can be extravagant and abusive and awful, but there’s a certain element of it, which he thinks has co-evolved with human biology as a cultural container for the things that we actually experience physiologically. It’s a dimension of human cultural experience with deep emotional relevance and deep communal relevance. I’ve thought a lot about what it’s like when things are not easy, when there are real challenges to being a spiritual leader. It’s all been an opportunity for growth, it’s different than just being a regular old suburban clergyman, you know?

RA: What are the Jewish stories, philosophies, or teachings that you have thought about the most during the pandemic or that you find most relevant generally?

RBW: One of my favorite images from Torah, which I constantly return to, is the idea of building the tabernacle in the wilderness. They have this place of sanctuary and insight, but all around them is the desert. There’s a teaching that says, a Midrash, which says, it was only when they actually built the Mishkan that the world stopped teetering. There was something unstable about the world until they built the Mishkan and it stabilized, clearly not in a real geological or cosmological planetary standpoint, but from a cultural standpoint. If we’re in a wilderness and we’re in a world that keeps teetering, we’re not going to get it to stop, but you can build a sanctuary. And the meaning of that sanctuary is twofold. It’s not just to be safe, it’s also to be insightful. They didn’t just go in there to feel protected, they went in there because they wanted to know what’s—and I’m not a huge theist—God gonna say to me next? They look into the unknown and begin recognizing that it’s not in their ability to tell the world to calm down. The image from Torah is that when you are wandering in the wilderness, and there’s a lot of uncertainty, you have the ability to build a sanctuary. That’s probably my favorite image from a traditional source. 

RA: What are the things and people that have helped you through the pandemic?

RBW: It’s a cliche, but my family has been the most important thing to me during this time. I know that’s a bit of a cliche, but it’s true. I’ve been grounded by my family. I also have tried to do a lot of reading and watch some movies. My daughter showed up only three months before the pandemic began. So it’s been great having so much more time to be at home and get to know her. Even my son who I already thought I knew pretty well, I realized it wasn’t as well as I thought I did.

I also started writing poetry last year. I’ve always been a writer, but for some reason I found myself writing little poems here and there. It’s a form of expression. People always talk about creativity as a way of dealing with complexity. It’s finding a way to not just be impacted by what’s going on, but to actually pick up the pieces, pull the shards out of your flesh, and then make something out of it.