Teshuva – Return Sometimes Starts With Leaving
Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class XI. Rachel has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek since 2007. She currently serves as co-chair of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. Rachel can be reached at: email@example.com.
When I started as the rabbi of my synagogue, the congregation had just come through a difficult period of instability of rabbinic leadership and of dysfunctional lay leadership. The interim rabbi who preceded me helped immensely as they let go of baggage from the past and finally grieved the departure of their two previous permanent rabbis, so that when I arrived, the congregation was poised for renewal and open to change.
As my lay partners and I focused on building towards the future, I witnessed how the lay leaders who had been the most dysfunctional started to see that there was no longer a place for their negativity. In the new environment, positive, forward thinking leaders began to take the place of “nay-sayers.”
As these changes took place, one leader, “Linda,” resigned from the congregation altogether. She told me she was feeling unwanted and alienated. This was difficult for me –I have a typical rabbinic personality, wanting to please everyone. But “Linda” was determined to leave, and none of us who called her could convince her to stay.
About a year later, Linda was diagnosed with cancer. When I heard the terrible news, I and other congregants called to check in and let her know that we were here for her. As she tentatively reconnected with us, Linda realized that she needed to be part of a supportive, spiritual community. And, thinking of the worst, she couldn’t imagine dying and having a rabbi who didn’t know her officiate at the funeral. It didn’t take long for her to rejoin the synagogue.
Watching all of this unfold, I understood that Linda’s previous feelings of alienation were part of an internal process of recognition that the community dynamic had changed, of feeling discomfort with the new dynamic, and therefore perceiving that she was being rejected. In truth, no one had rejected her. Her diagnosis of cancer and the outreach from our community showed her that she had always been a part of us.
Thankfully, “Linda” came through treatment successfully and is now cancer free. Throughout her treatment and recovery, I and other congregants visited and brought her meals. As I prepared for the next High Holy Days, I saw an opportunity to create a powerful healing moment for Linda and our community. I knew it was a risk, but I decided to go for it, and I invited Linda to be one of two lay people who offer personal prayers during morning services. I asked her to tell her story of leaving the congregation, of her cancer diagnosis, and of her journey back to us.
On Yom Kippur morning, “Linda” offered a beautiful prayer of gratitude for the possibility of return, and in that moment of prayer, our whole congregation experienced true teshuvah and tikkun. Sometimes leaving is necessary to make return and healing possible.