Caring for Communities, Mind and Soul

RIETS – Ferkauf Joint Program in Pastoral Counseling Imbues Future Rabbis With Skills to Care for Constituents’ Mental Wellbeing

Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology have announced a joint pilot program in pastoral counseling that will provide rabbinic leadership with new tools to meet the emotional needs of their future constituents.

jointrietsfThe two-year program, which combines Ferkauf’s mental health expertise and resources with the experience and spiritual guidance of RIETS faculty, is the first of its kind, offering in-depth training in mental health counseling that is an increasingly important component of modern rabbinic responsibilities. Students take 10 graduate-level courses designed especially to address the unique challenges faced by communal leaders, including two foundational pastoral psychology courses which are required within their first two years of semicha studies, and ultimately receive a certificate in mental health counseling as well as semicha. The coursework can also be applied to a master’s degree in mental health counseling with an emphasis in pastoral psychology at Ferkauf.

“The growing need for rabbis and religious educators to become more informed, sensitive, and adept in the application of mental health principles, along with the reality that congregants increasingly view counseling skills as a critical component of the rabbi’s job description, makes this program essential to the training of well-prepared Orthodox rabbis,” said Rabbi Menachem Penner, the Max and Marion Grill Dean of RIETS. “It has the potential to significantly change the American rabbinate.”

The program covers a wide range of topics, from couples and family counseling to crisis counseling, which includes dealing with substance abuse treatment and grief, loss and bereavement counseling. All classes are held on the Wilf Campus, making them easily accessible for RIETS students, whose main center of study is the Jacob and Dreizel Glueck Beit Midrash; they’re also held on evenings or during summer sessions to accommodate students’ busy schedules.

The pastoral psychology program is the first partnership between a rabbinic training program and a graduate school of psychology.

“The skillset used in pastoral counseling is incredibly nuanced and complex, but absolutely essential for communal leaders,” said Dr. Lawrence Siegel, dean of Ferkauf. “We were honored to share our expertise with RIETS students to create an ever-more thoughtful and capable generation of Jewish leaders. I am delighted to be coordinating this program with my colleague, Rabbi Penner.”

“Rabbis are increasingly called upon to come equipped with the knowledge base, skills and disposition to be effective counselors,” said Dr. David Pelcovitz, the Gwendolyn and Joseph Strauss Chair in Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration and an instructor in pastoral counseling at RIETS. “How do you handle death notifications or guide a family through grief? In the sequence of pastoral psychology classes that we teach, it’s become clear that rabbinic students are looking for this. Each of the classes we’ll offer contextualizes what’s taught in a general counseling training within settings we know from experience that rabbis and Jewish educators face on a regular basis.”

The program also has a focus on self-care, a critical and often overlooked component of Jewish leadership. “The rabbinate can be lonely and highly stressful, and sometimes you can lose sight of that boundary of how it’s affecting you,” said Pelcovitz. “Our hope is that through ongoing discussion groups we’ll be able to increase the emotional awareness of our students and provide them with the tools to navigate their own stress and challenges.”

“Pastoral psychology is crucial for my rabbinic education because so much of being a rabbi is beyond the books and laws, it’s about really understanding people so you’re able to guide every Jew, as a human being, along the beautiful path of Torah,” said Yechiel Bresler, a student in the program. “Pastoral psychology teaches us how to understand the depth and emotions of humans during all stages of life. My favorite part of the program is the roleplaying we do—it gives us the opportunity to put ourselves into real life situations without feeling the pressure of messing something up.”

The program is open to current students as well as recent alumni looking to enhance their own skills and abilities to better serve their communities. For more information, visit