Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Nicole Guzik: Integrating Spiritual and Mental Health

Guzik’s happiness is the result of finding a specific focus within her rabbinate for the first time.
October 6, 2021
Rabbi Nicole Guzik

The first question I asked Nicole Guzik elicited what is probably one of the most un-Jewish answers in the history of our people. 

“I’m feeling happy,” Guzik, 40, declared. 

The question was “Ayekha (where are you)?” and I was hoping to get a sense of where she is in the trajectory of her rabbinic journey. 

She said it again. “I feel happy.”

I wondered, did she not understand the question?

This is not the response I expected from the Sinai Temple rabbi who recently launched the Sinai Temple Mental Health Center, an unprecedented new initiative underwritten by the Frederic D. Rosen and Nadine Schiff-Rosen Family Foundation at the congregation Guzik has served for the past 16 years, since she was an intern. 

“But I’m also in therapy,” she clarified. “We don’t have to be in crisis to be in therapy.”

Guzik’s happiness is the result of finding a specific focus within her rabbinate for the first time; one that allows her to stretch beyond the traditional routines of Jewish life and into a realm that offers a more holistic approach to spiritual well being: She’s studying to become a therapist. 

“One of my mentors in rabbinical school said, ‘You should really find a niche in your rabbinate where you can go deeper,’” Guzik told me. “And I never really understood what that would look like. I never had that area of depth.” 

Along came the pandemic to throw into stark relief something Guzik had always known, but accepted as a condition of life: human beings tend to suffer. As a rabbi, whom people bare their souls to on a daily basis, she wanted better tools for approaching pastoral counseling.

“I felt like an imposter,” Guzik said. “Congregants would come into my office — I have a blue couch, very Freudian — and they would almost lie down and spill their stories. And I was very aware that the person they are on the other side of my door, whatever story they were presenting to the community, that story would take an entirely different shape as soon as they sat on the couch.”

Often people would burst into tears. Or share intimate, painful details about their lives — from broken marriages to physical or emotional abuse, issues with children or depression.

“After a while, I got sick of giving that answer. I thought, ‘Just go become a therapist.’”

“And I would have to say, ‘I am not a therapist. I can’t counsel you.’ Because my job is to guide people on their Jewish journey and journey of faith,” Guzik said. “But I always felt something was missing from the conversation. And after a while, I got sick of giving that answer. I thought, ‘Just go become a therapist.’”

Guzik’s first encounter with therapy occurred while she was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Then in her 20s, she had just ended what she described as a traumatic relationship and had also recently experienced the tragic death of a close friend. JTS offered confidential counseling, which Guzik said many students used, though few of them discussed it. “Looking back on it now, I realize how incredible it was that JTS offered something like that 20 years ago,” Guzik said.

In 2019, Guzik enrolled in an online degree program for a Master’s in Marriage and Family Counseling (MFT) through Touro University. She worried she’d never be able to complete the program with her demanding schedule as a full- time pulpit rabbi, wife and mother of three — but her husband Erez (also a rabbi at Sinai Temple) insisted they could make it work. To their surprise, the pandemic work-from-home model made it more manageable and Guzik has since completed her studies. She is now in the middle of fulfilling the 500-hour direct counseling requirement.

Though the boundaries between rabbi and therapist were always a little blurry, her entry into therapy has made the differences more clear. “As a therapist, I do not divulge anything about myself; I’m a blank slate,” Guzik said. “But as a rabbi, my congregants know me.” 

Still, she said she now has a more meaningful framework through which to engage congregants seeking her support. “I have a different sense of what question may need to be asked,” she said, “Or I’ll be able to hear parts of a congregant’s story that weren’t as evident before. I may see someone [who is] described as a sad or angry person and realize that no one’s ever asked them what led to that part of their story.”

Guzik will also be able to refer congregants to the synagogue’s new mental health center, which will offer once a month programming around various mental health issues as well as limited individual and group counseling sessions led by the center’s director, Carolyn Hoffman, a licensed clinical social worker. 

Guzik hopes to foster an environment that will de-stigmatize mental health issues within the congregation but also encourage people to learn healthier behavioral responses in their own relationships.

“The word that comes to mind is ‘pause,’’’ Guzik said, describing the benefit of therapy. “It allows you to live life in a proactive rather than reactive way.”

Guzik is also working on a book about self-love through a Jewish lens, utilizing traditional and contemporary sources. 

“So I guess that’s what I mean by happy,” she said, almost embarrassed by her emotional good fortune. “I feel very professionally fulfilled, but I’m also still growing; I’m happy because I know there’s so much more.”

And although she’s adding an additional role to her rabbinate, she still prefers her original vocation. “I get to be a rabbi to all,” she said. “And I love that. Which is why I want to be a rabbi first.”

Fast Takes with Rabbi Nicole Guzik

Danielle Berrin: What’s currently on your night table?

Nicole Guzik: A picture of my almost 10-year-old daughter, Annie, when she was a newborn; moisturizer; and the Gehart and Tuttle book, Theory-Based Treatment Planning for Marriage and Family Therapists. 

DB: Last show you binge-watched?

NG: Cobra-Kai

DB: Your day off looks like…

NG: I have no day off because Mondays are now my therapy day so I see clients back-to-back. 

DB: Favorite thing to do in Israel?

NG: I like to visit this spot, Rehov Chabad, overlooking the Kotel. It’s the space where Erez proposed that we always go back to to contemplate how things have changed and how nothing has changed.

DB: Something about you most people don’t know?

NG: I went to public school in Orange County. 

DB: Most essential Torah verse?

NG: Leviticus 19:14, You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind. But not for the literal meaning; to me it [suggests that] a lot of us set each other up for failure, and I love thinking about how different this world would be if we set each other up for success.

DB: Biggest challenge facing the Jewish world?

NG: Political polarization. The question we often ask as rabbis now is ‘Who will this offend?’ versus ‘How will this make an impact or create meaning?’

DB: Guilty pleasure?

NG: Drinking black coffee to golden oldies.

DB: Favorite Jewish food?

NG: I like both to eat and make brisket, especially for Rosh Hashana. I love to feed people. 

DB: If you weren’t a rabbi you’d be…

NG: I always wanted to go into journalism. I probably would end up writing for the Jewish Journal. 

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