New RIETS/Ferkauf Joint Mental Health Counseling Program Celebrates First Graduating Class

By: Sarah Casteel  |  September 4, 2017

This past June, the first cohort of students graduated from the Yeshiva University Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology Joint Mental Health Counseling Program.  The two schools have worked in conjunction to create the program, which offers a select group of semikha students the opportunity to receive a unique education in mental health counseling for Orthodox rabbis.  The program is specifically geared toward semikha students going into either the shul rabbinate or Jewish education.  The program takes 18 months, after which the students receive a certificate of completion reflecting their higher level of education in mental health counseling as a part of their rabbinical degree.  

It is becoming increasingly essential for community rabbis to be equipped to deal with mental health issues, which is why all students in RIETS are required to take at least two to four courses in counseling depending on their track in the semikha program.  While stigma about seeking help for mental health issues still exists, it is clear that the orthodox community is beginning to embrace the resources available to them.  In fact, as of this past year, the YU Counseling Center is seeing about 25% of undergraduate students.  Thus, all rabbinical students must have some awareness of and training in mental health issues; however, the RIETS/Ferkauf joint program aims to offer a unique and unprecedented education in this area.  According to Rabbi Menachem Penner, Dean of RIETS, “This is a completely different level, really, than anybody has had before.  We are hoping that within a couple of years, this will become the standard for the shul rabbinate.”  

The program, which consists of a total of six courses, aims to make the semikha students and future community leaders more comfortable dealing with various issues of mental health.  The classes provide a comprehensive education by offering graduate level academics taught by orthodox mental health professionals.  The education also goes beyond the traditional classroom approach, as the students are pushed to spend time processing and discussing the material.  This allows them to understand its applicability in their future careers as community rabbis.

“It really represents not a quantitative, but a qualitative difference in rabbis’ understanding of these issues,” said Penner.  He explained that, because students will become more self-aware, including “understanding what triggers them, and what’s going on inside when they’re going through a stressful situation,” they will end up being much better rabbis.

It is important to note, however, that this education is not intended to allow these rabbis to serve as long-time counselors for their congregants and constituents.  As more understanding and equipped leaders, they will be able to more effectively direct those who seek their assistance to the proper resources.  They will also be more equipped to deal with a variety of situations that come up daily for a community rabbi.

According to Rabbi Neal Turk, who is the Director of the mental health counseling program at RIETS, “These courses will help the students have a much better understanding of counseling, pathology, crisis, couples and families.  As rabbis and Jewish educators, they are not becoming therapists, but they will have a much deeper understanding of how a therapist thinks and what they need to understand in order to counsel them properly.”  The program is divided into six sections: Basic principles of counseling, Psychopathology: child, adolescent and adult, Counseling skills development, Issues in grief counseling, Crisis counseling, Couples and family counseling.

Rabbi Turk explained that, while these graduates are not intended to serve as therapists, “A rabbi is very often going to be on the front line, and the first person that people come to.  One of the things that is very much discussed in the courses is knowing when to refer a person” to a trained professional. The students will come to understand many of the issues that their future congregants and constituents face, and gain the knowledge and tools to know when to tell someone if they need to go for therapy or offer another kind of referral.  In addition to their ability to refer people out, these rabbis can also continue to counsel them on the level typical for a community rabbi.  Graduates of the program will thereby be better rabbis and pastoral counselors on a day to day basis.  

The program aims to enhance and advance rabbis’ resources in serving their communities.  “What we realized is that the challenges facing rabbis today often have to do with emotional issues in his congregants or in his students.  And he faces all the challenges that are out there in society.  A better understanding of those challenges and a better understanding of how to deal with them will make him a better rabbi,” said Turk.  

The program is competitive, requiring applications and acceptance, and hopes to develop a cohort of future rabbis who will begin to revolutionize the ability of the Orthodox rabbinate to serve their communities.  Students in the program are also eligible to apply these courses, in addition to two other courses from the standard semikha program, to a master’s degree in counseling at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology.

According to new President of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, “Communal leadership today requires a multipronged approach that recognizes the role mental health plays in our religious and personal lives. Rabbinate bound semikha students must be able to understand their constituents’ needs and respond to them appropriately and sensitively. We look forward to welcoming more students into the program and ensuring a vibrant, meaningful and healthy future for our community.”

Programs such as this testify to Yeshiva University’s dedication to constantly bettering the Jewish community.  The rabbis graduating from this program have a unique opportunity to take the shul and community rabbinate to a new level, allowing for the reduction of stigma of mental illness and simultaneous increase in use of available counseling resources.  The growth and continuation of this program forecasts a brighter and healthier future for orthodox communities all over the nation.