A Ritual for Retirement

Life Transitions, Men

by Dr. William Kates

After 53 years of practicing clinical psychiatry – almost exclusively around the long term psychotherapeutic treatment of adults – I decided to retire. I looked forward to this time with a mixture of hope and worry: hope that not having the responsibilities for patients would leave me open to other, less intense concerns and pleasures, and, worry that this loss would disrupt my sense of usefulness and meaning. I began to think about how I could mark this time of transition, but I knew that a party would not be sufficient.

One day in the car, I was musing out loud about what to do when my son suggested I go to the mikveh. I had not thought about this, but as soon as he said it, I became teary-eyed. I’d heard from my daughter-in-law how powerful a role the mikveh played during several of her crucial life moments. I followed my feelings and made the decision to have a retirement ceremony with an immersion at Mayyim Hayyim.

As the time of the immersion approached, it became clear to me why I had been so overwhelmed with emotions. This was the exact experience I wanted to prepare me for this transition. My work with patients had become an important expression of my Jewish values: striving to be compassionate, caring, and respectful; trying to be helpful through crises; accompanying people through long and difficult inner and outer journeys, and treating the privacy, confidentiality, and boundaries of the relationships as a sacred trust not to be violated. A ritual at Mayyim Hayyim where many of those qualities are equally respected was what I needed to help me through this change. Additionally, it would not be enough just to know intellectually that I was retired; I needed to feel it in my body. An immersion seemed not only right, but necessary.

My family, colleagues, and dear friends assembled at Mayyim Hayim for a rich morning of discussing my work, reading poetry, singing songs, and of course, the immersion with its wonderful prayers. It was especially moving for me to hear a wonderful niggun (wordless melody) chanted in the atrium while I was immersing. I felt held and seen. And I knew and felt in my body that I was officially retired.

Dr. William Kates, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, trained as a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston. A member of the Harvard Medical School clinical faculty for 53 years, he spent 12 years as a full-time staff psychiatrist at Cambridge Hospital and then as a part-time clinical instructor and supervisor at the Beth Israel Hospital. In his private practice from which he retired at the end of 2017, he worked primarily with patients in long-term, individual psychotherapy. A devoted husband, father, and grandfather, he has been involved in several independent minyanim and is a member of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline.

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