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Asking the Clergy: What is the most challenging thing you've had to do?

From left, Michel Engu Dobbs Roshi of Ocean

From left, Michel Engu Dobbs Roshi of Ocean Zendo meditation center, the Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr. of Church-in-the-Garden and Rabbi Anchelle Perl of Chabad of Mineola. Credit: Michel Engu Dobbs Roshi; Church-in-the-Garden; Avraham Perl

In addition to educating and inspiring, religious leaders may feel called upon to battle rising secularism, uphold fading traditions and right injustices. This week’s clergy discuss duties that can be difficult to navigate and take them out of their comfort zones.

Rabbi Anchelle Perl

Director, Chabad of Mineola

Trying to stop families from cremating their loved ones is one area of constant trial and error for me. Time and time again I find myself sitting with families to explain that Jewish law and tradition is to be buried in the ground.

Our bodies don't belong to us. They are given to us on loan for the duration of our lives on this Earth. Cremation is like borrowing someone's car and torching it instead of giving it back — not nice! A central Jewish belief is that those who have died will be resurrected when the Messiah arrives. That means that their souls will return to their bodies and they will live again.

The Jewish burial practices prepare the body for this experience. Cremation makes it difficult. The Kabbalah teaches that after the burial, a part of the soul always remains at the grave site. Being cremated, the soul has no resting place in this world. Because the soul is eternal, burning up the body is like burning a live person!

Then, in my explanation, I usually get very personal. I tell them that my grandfather was cremated — by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Do you want to imitate and further their evil desires?

Michel Engu Dobbs Roshi

Zen priest, Ocean Zendo meditation center, Bridgehampton

My Zen teacher, Peter Matthiessen, the American novelist also known as Isshin Muryo Roshi, once told me, “Go to the hard places, that's where we grow.” His teacher created the Zen Peacemaker Order, which holds bearing witness as one of its core tenets.

It’s a new take on an old tradition; Jizo Bosatsu is one of Mahayana Buddhism’s principal bodhisattvas — persons who are a kind of Buddhist saint who set aside their own awakening to awaken all beings. He took a vow to teach all beings.

I have participated in Bearing Witness retreats, which have been and continue to be held at Auschwitz, at American Indian historical or sacred sites and reservations. This practice has taught me that when I can be present and attentive, even in those difficult places, connection occurs.

For the past eight years, I’ve been blessed to work with incarcerated young men at the Suffolk County jail in Riverhead. At times, this work can be challenging, but I’ve found that when I show up, with an open mind, and an open heart, and just listen, something like healing might happen.

The Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr.

Pastor, Church-in-the-Garden

Dealing with the lack of relevancy of the church in people's lives, and creating the space for an encounter with God, is my most challenging aspect of being a spiritual leader.

When people believe or feel that the church and the mission of the church are not essential to them or society, it is hard to get them to come and support the services and outreach that are vital and desperately needed in our communities. The community falls victim to rampant individualism, and a spirituality that forgoes fellowship and prefers isolationism. Thus, we eliminate the atmosphere for an encounter with the divine, who is fundamentally concerned about humanity developing relationships with one another.

I had to challenge myself on how the church can do relevant ministry, which brings us together no matter our socioeconomic or ideological stances. Therefore, at our church, we invite everyone to engage a congregation concerned with meeting people at the point of their needs and working through the challenges of life together.

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