He came to my office at 10 a.m. on January 30, two weeks to the day after the shooting. He made his appointment without referral, and I couldn’t help but assume he had chosen me because we happened to have the same name.
At 9:55, having answered emails for two hours and polished off my second cup of coffee, I moved from my desk to the armchair by the short table and pulled up the day’s patient roster on my tablet. Immediately, I took note of the first appointment, initially because seeing my own name jolted me a bit, and then subsequently because I remembered the shooting at Congregation Beth Sholom. The news coverage had been incessant, and so I had to assume the Ethan Stern coming to see me at 10 a.m. was the Rabbi Ethan Stern from the news. It was no mystery to me why Rabbi Stern would seek help, but I wondered in that moment what it must say about a person that they would seek out a therapist with their same name. As I picked up the stylus to note the peculiarity of the situation, a knock at the door alerted me that Rabbi Stern had arrived.
“You ready?” the office manager asked. I affirmed and set the tablet and the stylus on the table. She disappeared and I heard her say from around the corner: “Go on in.” As I approached the door to my office, Rabbi Stern appeared in jeans, a windbreaker, and a baseball cap. He had a short, black beard with speckles of gray, and tight black curls were peeking out from under his hat. He was mid- to late-thirties, and under six feet. The windbreaker was loose, and his hands filled the front pockets so it billowed out, but I could see from his face he was thin, and likely had foregone several meals recently. His large, brown eyes were dark, so dark it looked like pupil and iris were all one big, black disc.
“Dr. Stern?” he asked, stopping in the doorway, his eyes fixed on mine.
“Yes,” I said, stepping toward him and extending my hand. “Please come in.” I thought I noticed the slightest sign of relief when I answered, at which point he fully entered the office and shook my hand. “So, you’re also Ethan Stern,” I said, emphasizing the last name because, for some reason, in that moment I wanted to make it sound less like a question.
“Yes, I am,” he said, a faint smile appearing at the corners of his mouth. I motioned for him to sit in the armchair across the table from me. He sat down, unzipped his windbreaker, and removed his baseball cap, freeing the pent-up black curls, and revealing a small green and white yarmulke clipped to the hair on the crown of his head. It shouldn’t have surprised me, given what I knew about his profession, but I must have stared for a second too long.
“Are you Jewish, Dr. Stern?” he asked, crossing his legs and placing his hands in his lap, his eyes still fixed on mine. Most patients didn’t get to the personal questions until the process was well underway, and religion rarely ever came up. However, I supposed in his line of work it might not be that personal of a question.
“Most of my patients just call me Ethan,” I said. “You can, too, if you like.”
“Won’t that be a bit awkward?” he asked, looking genuinely puzzled. “What would you call me?” I hadn’t yet picked my tablet back up from the table, which I regretted in that moment because I became even more confused about my new patient’s choice of therapist. I didn’t want to make a big show of notetaking this exchange, however, so I left it.
“What would make you most comfortable?” I asked him, relieved I had at least sidestepped his first question.
“Since we’re both Ethan,” he said, pursing his lips, “why don’t I call you ‘Doctor,’ and you call me ‘Rabbi?’” I wasn’t enthusiastic about the solution, but I generally preferred to let the patient direct our interactions, and the names were entirely professional, so I assented, and picked up my tablet, quickly scribbling a note about our noms de thérapie.
“So, Rabbi,” I began, “what would you like to talk about?”
“Jewish?” he said, tilting his head down and imploring me with those giant eyes. I never knew exactly how to answer this question in casual settings and could not remember the last time I had to broach it in a clinical one. Like most secular Jews, I would usually say something like “my family is Jewish,” or “I’m ethnically Jewish, but I don’t practice,” or my personal favorite: “I’m Jew-ish.” In session, though, personal information was to be avoided at all costs, and personal questions were an opportunity to learn about the patient.
“Is that something that’s important to you,” I asked, “that your therapist be Jewish?” His eyes never left mine.
“When I saw your name, I figured you almost certainly were,” he said. “A doctor named Ethan Stern. Not much of a risk. But you have blue eyes, so I wasn’t sure. But you are, right?” I wanted to write down this exchange in my notes, but I felt like his eyes had mine in a lock. I tried to think of a way I could acknowledge what we both knew to be true but also help me to understand this man. I thought perhaps burying an implicit acknowledgement would move us forward.
“What does my being Jewish mean for you?” I asked, leaning forward, still locked. “Is that something you think will help us as we work together?”
“Good, I thought so,” he said, leaning back and glancing out the office window behind me, finally releasing me from his gaze. I scribbled some notes and looked up, thinking his eyes would have fixed on me again, but he was still looking out the window. “When I saw your name, I thought: ‘That’s not nothing.’ You know?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What’s not nothing?”
“I mean that the best proof of God is His sense of humor.” At this he turned back to me and flashed a toothy smile. He didn’t laugh, but it looked like he wanted to. I made another note.
“Are you looking for proof of God’s existence?” I asked, my stylus poised for his response. The smile disappeared, and he looked back to the window. We sat in silence for about thirty seconds. He scratched the side of his beard, then his upper lip. He uncrossed his legs and let his eyes wander around the room before they settled to his left, seemingly fixated on the shelves behind my desk.
“That would be another good joke, wouldn’t it?” he asked, a shadow of the smile returning to his face, eyes still turned to the left. “Finding HaShem in an atheist doctor’s office.” I felt my jaw slacken, and I caught myself before my mouth opened, so shocked was I at his statement, less at its directness than at its accuracy. I thought he might flash me another grin once he’d said it, but instead he looked down at his hands.
“What makes you think I’m an atheist?” I asked, wondering if I had revealed something.
“Well,” he began, raising his brow but keeping his eyes on his hands, “you’re obviously not orthodox, and certainly not strictly observant. No mezuzah on the door, no kipah, no tzitzit, no kosher restaurant within fifty miles of here. So, at most you’re pretty Reform. You flinched when you saw my kipah, which means you probably don’t go to synagogue often. Maybe you’re purely High Holy Days, but that reaction to a kipah most likely means not only do you avoid shul, but observant people actively make you uncomfortable. You could be just one of those ‘secular’ Jews who doesn’t spend much time thinking about religion, but that can’t be right because you’re a man of science, a man of thought. Ph.D. in psychology from one of the top universities in the country. I’ve read your articles and your book. You don’t not think about anything. So, you’re going to believe something. Not a single religious text on your bookshelves, but every book ever written by or about Freud. Lots of famous Jews on the bookshelf, but no Judaism. Not where your head is at, clearly. Now, you could be an agnostic, leaving the door cracked for Elijah, but the way you asked me if I was looking for proof of God makes me say ‘no.’ You said it without even the slightest bit of hope in your voice, just matter of fact, as if you were asking me whether I need my parking validated. Agnostics hold on to the hope that God’s existence could be proved or disproved. The Devoid and the Devout both agree that the search for proof of the Almighty is pointless. So, you and I are on the same page in that sense.” When he had finished speaking, his brow fell and he looked up, once again capturing me with his stare.
“Do you always observe people you meet like this?” I asked, immediately wishing I had said “typically” or “usually” instead of “always.”
“Generally,” he said, “but I don’t often share my observations. Like you, I want people to feel like they can talk to me and confide in me. Since I’m paying you for the same privilege, I figured it was alright.”
“So,” I said, feeling like I could match his glibness with a bit of my own, “since you aren’t here to look for proof of God, why don’t we talk about why you are here?” He pursed his lips again and nodded.
“You want to talk about the shooting,” he said. He seemed almost disappointed.
“Is that why you’ve come here?” I asked, struggling to keep the frustration out of my voice. He sighed.
“In a sense, I suppose.” Feeling that I was losing him, but clueless as to how, I pressed forward.
“Could you tell me a little about what happened?” I asked. He blinked a few times and his giant eyes narrowed with incredulity.
“Surely, you know everything that happened by now,” he said. “It’s been all over everything. I’ve lost track of how many news and police interviews I’ve given.”
“What’s that been like for you?” I asked, sensing an opening. He leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees, clasped his left fist with his right hand, and rested his chin on top.
“It’s like...” he began, and then stopped, thinking. “It’s like when you’re at your mother’s funeral, and everyone wants to talk to you and have you tell them it’s alright, that they don’t have to feel sorry for you because she was old and she’s at peace now and it’s really better this way, but all you want to do is be sad because your mommy is gone and she’s never coming back. But you’re an adult and she was old, and so you’re expected to sit shiva with the whole town and make arrangements and all that. You know what I’m talking about?” I nodded.
“So,” he continued, “now I’m the rabbi for the synagogue that got shot up, and it’s my job to make everyone feel like what happened...not that it’s okay, but that it’s okay for them all—the police and the reporters and even the families—to move on with their lives. And I suppose they have to move on with their lives eventually, and I guess someone has to give them that license. And apparently that’s me.” He spoke with almost no affect in his voice. Cognitively, it seemed like we had finally broached the subject of his trauma. Emotionally, however, it felt like he was just recounting a list of errands he had run the day before.
“Could you tell me a little more about how you felt when your mother died?” I asked.
“Oh, my mom’s not dead,” he said, apparently surprised by my presumption. “Sorry if I misled you. I was just trying to think of the most accurate analogy, and I’ve tended to so many people mourning their parents over the years, I’m very familiar with it.” I jotted “mother alive” on my tablet and then scribbled nonsense for a few seconds while I regrouped.
“Rabbi,” I said, “since the shooting, have you had any trouble sleeping?”
“Not particularly,” he said.
“You were there, is that right? When it happened?”
“Yes, I was on the bimah. We were in the middle of the Torah blessing.”
“What did you feel in that moment?” I asked.
“I was terrified,” he answered in a dull monotone. “I thought I was going to die.”
“And since then,” I said, increasingly ill at ease, “what have you felt, specifically when you think about it?”
“A deep, profound sadness, a sense of irreparable loss,” he said, speaking in the same manner in which someone might complain of an itchy scalp. I set the stylus down on the table and set the tablet next to me on the armchair. I studied Rabbi’s face for some time. As far as I could tell, he was being genuine. I looked for signs of psychopathy, but he did not seem to be lying about his feelings. If he was, he would fake it better. It appeared to me that this person was simply so in tune with his own emotions, he could recount them for me completely dispassionately. I wanted to ask him: OK, smart guy, if you’re so well adjusted, what the hell do you need me for?
“Rabbi,” I finally said, “you’ve been through a traumatic experience, and of course that takes an emotional toll. It seems to me, though, that you are processing that toll fairly well. Is there something else you’re feeling about the shooting that you’re maybe not able to express? I’m trying to figure out how I can help you process this trauma.”
“I don’t think I need you to help me process the shooting,” he said, “but thank you for your concern. You’re clearly a conscientious doctor. Like I said before, the shooting isn’t really why I’m here.” Frustrated and uneasy though I was, I became hopeful that we had finally built enough of a dialogue to get him to open up.
“So why seek me out?” I asked. “What can I help you with?” Rabbi sat up, stretched his palms out on his knees, and looked directly into my eyes.
“I want you to help me to stop believing in God.” Though I tried to keep all my facial muscles still, I couldn’t help a sharp inhalation.
“I’m not really in the business of telling people what they should or shouldn’t believe about God, Rabbi. That’s a personal choice. What makes you want...”
“I know that,” he cut me off, though not with any more energy than he had exhibited to this point. “I’ve already made the choice to stop believing. I just can’t seem to figure out how. I was hoping you could help me.” He sighed softly and then removed his yarmulke from his head, careful not to let the clip pull out any of his curls. He held it with the fingertips of both hands, looked at it for a moment, set it on the table, and then looked back at me. “You stopped, so I figured you could tell me how you did it.” A lump caught in my throat.
“What do you mean, ‘I stopped?’” His eyes bored into mine, unblinking.
“You could have been me, but you chose to be you. Two weeks ago, I realized I had made a mistake. I had gone down the wrong road. I felt a bullet soar straight past my ear, and I knew I had made the wrong choice. But I’ve been on this road so long, I don’t know how to get back. I need to know how to not think what I’ve thought and not be who I’ve become. Only you can help me do this.” At this point his hands snapped forward and grabbed mine. I wanted to pull back, but I felt paralyzed, locked in place by his constant stare. And then a cold terror filled my chest and my heart raced. I felt individual drops of sweat squeezing from the pores on my scalp. I don’t know how long we sat like that in silence, me stunned and breathless, him with that mesmerizing gaze. It was not an intimidating stare; it was inquisitive, like he was studying me, as though my face held the answer that would help him escape the shackles of his own choice.
“I could have been you,” he said. “Maybe it’s not too late. Though, I will say...I can’t for the life of me figure out why you have blue eyes.”