Clearly, rabbis are not always at ease in a hospital setting, nor are they always knowledgeable about today's medical practices. But for spiritual comfort in time of crisis, even the not-very-religious frequently turn to their rabbis.
A unique program at Hebrew Union College brings rabbinical students into the world of medicine so that they can better serve their future congregants. HUC's chaplaincy training program, partially funded by a grant from Mr. and Mrs. Irving Kalsman, provides for student internships in hospitals throughout Southern California. The program's innovative centerpiece is a one-semester course in which Dr. William Cutter (assisted this year by Rabbi Alan Henkin) uses Jewish texts to talk philosophically about illness and then brings students into the hospital to see for themselves what healing is all about.
The carefully selected student rabbis meet with doctors, make hospital rounds to visit patients, then keep personal journals of what they've learned.
"This class is a place where they really lose their innocence," said Cutter, professor of education and literature at HUC and a rabbi, "and that is a wonderful thing."
Some of the students (two men and five women) believe that, as ordained rabbis, they might gravitate toward a hospital chaplain's post. Others have signed on as a way of countering painful memories.
"It was a chance for me to face reality," said Daniel Treiser, who, as a boy, coped with his father's heart attack. "I knew it was there, and I knew I wasn't comfortable with it."
Recognizing how much harder it is for a rabbi to help with healing than with celebration, Miriam Cotzin summed up a common view: "It's about learning how to really be present for people in difficult and challenging moments."
During the semester, these student rabbis have gained practical insight into the mitzvah of bikur holim (visiting the sick). Karen Shahon, who, as an HUC chaplaincy intern, spends more time at UCLA Medical Center than her fellow students, has discovered one good way to interact with the seriously ill: "It's not always what you say but what you don't say. The silent times really help people."
While focusing on the illness of others, the students also gain new understanding of themselves. At the first session, the Rev. David Myler, head chaplain at UCLA Medical Center, warned the students that "it's very important to learn what gets triggered in you and what kind of things push your buttons."
Later, after a first round of visits to sickbeds, Susan Lippe wrote in her journal, "I need to learn to control my tears." Fortunately, none of this semester's student rabbis has fainted at the sight of blood and tubes. When Lippe recently spent an afternoon in the ICU, comforting a seriously ill patient and his loved ones, her main problem was that "it was hard to suppress my curiosity and be present only for the family."
An important part of the HUC course is the informal lectures by top medical professionals. Dr. Leslie Eber, a cardiologist who has treated Cutter (who has had several major heart attacks), gave the students an in-depth look at heart disease. He then brought home to them the crucial importance of the rabbi within the healing process. When Eber's own 90-year-old mother was recently hospitalized, a visit from a young female rabbi made all the difference. "It was like a beautiful, warm wind that came through that room. It helped her turn the corner emotionally."
By the same token, in this era of HMO's and medical cutbacks, the rabbi must take up the slack for doctors who are too angry and confused to pay attention to a patient's emotional state. Eber told the rabbis-to-be: "We need you because we're not doing our job anymore. We're treating people on conveyor belts. I don't think people are getting bad care. I think they're getting heartless care."
It's the rabbis, then, who need to put heart back into the medical system.
Karen Shahon, an HUC chaplaincy intern, talks with a patient at UCLA Medical Center. Photo by Peter Halmagyi