Leading through Loss: Wisdom from the Depths
Jenny Solomon is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, Class X. Jenny serves as a rabbi, teaching, counseling, and leading prayer at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh and in the greater Triangle Jewish Community. She is also building the first community mikveh in Eastern North Carolina. She can be reached at email@example.com
At a recent colloquium on the pursuit of happiness at Emory University, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom quipped that as Jews, we offer degrees in misery, post-graduate studies in angst, and advanced degrees in guilt, but at the end of it all, we get together and celebrate the blessings of life. Part of the Jewish mandate is that despite personal and collective suffering and exile, we commit ourselves to moving through it and prevailing. We are Yisrael, after all– those who struggle and wrestle with God, with ourselves, and the world around us. On this distinguished panel at Emory, Rabbi Sacks referred to the powerful moment in Genesis when Yaakov Avinu tells the angel with whom he wrestles, “I will not let go until you bless me” (Gen. 32:27). According to his interpretation of this verse, Yaakov warns: I will not let go of my struggles, my pain, and my suffering until I discern the blessings that lie within them. It is in this spirit that I share with you some of the blessings of leadership I have discovered in recent years as a result of my own struggles and losses.
The last three years have brought me much joy as well as tremendous sadness. In addition to raising my beautiful children, Meirav (7) and Adi (5), and pursuing meaningful rabbinic work, I experienced three second-trimester miscarriages that remain a mystery to doctors up and down the east coast. Because I was nearly mid-way through each of these pregnancies, my losses were known and felt in our wider- community and congregation, and I had no choice but to grieve these very private losses in a very public way. Each loss taught me about myself, about love, loss, life, and the God in whom I believe. As I continue to heal and integrate these losses into my life, I cannot help but wrest the blessings they offer me. In this reflection, I offer three distinct lessons I learned about Jewish leadership.
After our first miscarriage, congregants began calling with offers to bring over meals. Determined to continue taking care of my family and maintain my privacy, I insisted that people save their efforts and food for those who were really suffering. Never mind that I couldn’t stop crying and my whole world had been turned upside down. Finally, with consistent urging, my husband lovingly convinced me to accept the delivery of meals. And, as I sat down to eat the lasagna, the vegetarian meatloaf, and the carrot soup for the next week, it felt as if I was eating love. Always having been on the side of the relationship that cooked for others, attended to other’s tears, and showed up in people’s darkest moments, I had forgotten how important it is to receive the love and support of others with grace and appreciation. We are not meant to go through life alone and, in this respect, I was no different than my congregants. I found that the loving gestures of a home cooked dinner along with comforting words eased my suffering and my sense of estrangement from the goodness in life. What I later appreciated is that as Jewish leaders, we most certainly need to teach people to give, but we must also teach them how to receive in our times of need.
Fifteen months later, we miscarried again. My grief was equally raw but somehow exponentially worse, unable to believe that we were enduring this kind of loss again. Because I was almost twenty weeks along and everyone, doctors included, felt we were past the point of greatest concern, it came as an even greater shock. It was particularly painful for the group of twenty-two women whom I had been teaching and counseling for over a year and with whom I had become close. Having missed a class immediately after finding out our baby was no longer alive, I was eager to regain my footing and teach the following week. Once again, consumed with tears and over flowing with milk, I was nevertheless insistent that I would be there to teach the next class. But, the night before our class, one of the students called me at home. With an equal dose of hesed and gevurah, she insisted that I take another week off. The class needed to meet, she said, but they would be okay without me. Reluctantly, I acquiesced, knowing deep inside that I was far from ready to stand in front of my class and resume my teaching. The morning after the class met, my student called me again to report on what had transpired in my absence. She told me that the class gathered to share their feelings and their shared sense of loss—feelings they felt safe enough to share because I had helped them create a safe space. They gathered to feel each other’s presence and the deep sense of community that I had helped create. And, they gathered to learn with each of them leading a part of the discussion of the texts I had previously assigned. I had taught them that when we are happy and when we are sad, we sit and learn Torah together. In my absence, they had grown in their confidence to teach each other. After I hung up the phone, I realized the power of tzimtzum in Jewish leadership. In taking the time I needed to move through my intense grief, I gave them the space they needed to grow, share, and learn as a group. Sometimes stepping back as Jewish leaders affords those we serve the room to grow in new and unexpected ways.