When do clergy get a break? After the holidays.

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Rabbi Marc Israel, center, and Cantor Rochelle Helzner, right, dance at Israel’s installation at Tikvat Israel Congregation in November, 2019.
Photo by Larry M. Levine

By Isabella Lefkowitz-Rao

In the months leading up to the High Holy Days, Rabbi Marc Israel and Cantor Rochelle Helzner of Tikvat Israel Congregation worked to adapt the holiday celebrations to the reality imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.


Working with the Rockville congregation’s High Holy Day Task Force, Israel and Helzner facilitated live-streamed services, in-person shofar blowings, video tributes and holiday gift bags. They worked harder than usual to make sure the whole congregation was engaged, no matter where they were.

The members and leaders of the Conservative congregation decided their clergy needed a break. They also deserved a reward for their hard work and persistence.

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So they signed up Israel and Helzner for Heshbon Heshvan, a cross-denominational online initiative that ran from Oct. 18 to 22.

Like a sabbatical, but only a week long, Heshbon Heshvan, also dubbed #JewishWellnessWeek and #JewishClergySelfCare, gave clergy around the world not only the week away from their congregational responsibilities, but an opportunity to take classes and connect with their peers.


“It wasn’t just a sit out on the beach break,” Israel said. “It was an opportunity to connect with people who had gone through similar experiences and to process everything that’s been going on.”

Israel said he attended yoga classes, study sessions, comedy shows and social justice workshops during the week. Helzner practiced her craft by singing niggunim, or wordless songs, and in singing workshops.

The two also viewed virtual services at other synagogues to pick up tips and new strategies for their own services at Tikvat Israel.

“For us, even more important than the break itself was the idea of the break,” Israel said. He and Helzner appreciated the congregation’s show of appreciation of their work.

Services at Tikvat Israel were lay led during the days of Heshbon Heshvan. “At the risk of talking myself out of a job, it’s nice to know that you don’t need a rabbi sometimes,” Israel said.

Helzner said she spent the time refreshing her body, mind and spirit.

“I ate babka for breakfast on Shabbat morning which, if you’re a singer, is a big no-no,” she said. In addition to classes, Helzner placed emphasis on her mental health, starting a new exercise regimen and trying new recipes.

Not only will the knowledge from the classes be useful in her work, but the de-stressing left her ready to face the unknown in the months to come.

“This has changed the way we do things forever, some in ways that we already know and some in ways that we will discover,” Israel said. “We really have the opportunity here to think about the service in a different way.”

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