I’ve had many pastoral moments during my time as a rabbinical student, from hospital visits to counseling people through major life transitions. One pastoral moment that stands out, however, happened in a falafel shop.
As I was paying for my food, the cashier saw my chaplain badge and asked me if I worked at the hospital. I told her I did. She was quiet for a moment, and then said to me: “It’s so important what you do. My mom died a couple of years ago and it’s been really hard for me. You help people going through hard times, and we need more people like you.”
She handed me my credit card and my food. I could have thanked her and left, but I heard in her words a request for connection. Instead of leaving, I asked her about her mom. She told me her mom taught her what it meant to have faith, and how she’s lost that since her mom passed. I asked her more about her mom’s faith. I only stayed a couple of minutes, but by the end of our conversation she had decided to reconnect with God as a way of reconnecting with her mother.
The other chaplain with me was baffled by the exchange. Why did she talk to me and not him? Why did I continue the conversation, when I already provide pastoral care to others all day?
This moment sums up who I strive to be as a rabbi: a pastoral presence at all times, with all people. Open to receiving people’s fears and dreams, even in the most mundane places.
I believe religious leaders occupy a unique and powerful position as pastoral care providers, primarily to the communities we serve, but also to anyone we may come in contact with. We learn that we are often seen as symbolic exemplars: paradigms of the best of humanity, symbols of our religion, and representatives of God. That is not a 9-5 job. I take the role of symbolic exemplar seriously, and enter every interaction with the goal to be open, honest, and kind. As spiritual leaders, we teach not only through our words, but also through our behaviors.
As a rabbi, I am many things: a teacher, a preacher, a ritual leader, a worshipper, a counselor and mentor, and a transmitter of text, tradition, and culture. Like many others in this field, I am energized by learning and teaching. I find great power in prayer. I am enriched by our traditions, and inspired to innovate our rituals to make them more inclusive for today’s Jews.
But in every setting, with every role, I am first and foremost a pastoral presence. Whether it’s braiding challahs with the kindergarten class, leading Torah study on Saturday morning, or doing a funeral intake with a bereaved family, I am conscious to include the pastoral element. I have been told that I have a soft, kind energy that I bring to everything I do. I believe it is not enough to be pastoral only in times of clear crisis: people deserve sensitivity and care at all times.
Some may consider me reserved, as I give others a chance to speak first. This is not just by nature, but an intentional practice. I teach by centering my students’ voices. I might not be the loudest voice in the room, but I am confident I can make others feel safe and secure in our interactions. My leadership challenges the perspective that only larger-than-life charismatic people can be leaders. Quiet leadership, which emphasizes the leadership value of listening, is a subtle practice of creating space in order to empower others to take the space they need. In making space for others, I can make connections and build community.
While paying for my food at the falafel shop, at first I said nothing. I made eye contact with the cashier and responded with a smile, creating a moment of connection. She transformed this momentary connection into a momentous one when she trusted me enough to open up about her mother. While it seemed random to my colleague, I believe the cashier could feel my pastoral presence. Sometimes the best pastoral care starts with offering a genuine connection and creating space for sharing. Genuine connection and space can be created in any interaction, forming endless opportunities for pastoral care. It is my mission to always be prepared and ready to respond.