Jewish Journal

Exploring Judaism’s Healing Potential

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

Posted on Jan. 20, 2005 at 7:00 pm


Rabbi Donald Goor, senior rabbi of Temple Judea in the West Valley, has identified a deficiency within the Jewish community: There's not enough emphasis on care of the soul.

"In my rabbinate, I see so many people who walk around wounded. They function very well in life, but they carry pain."

This weekend, Goor and approximately 100 others will explore how Judaism can heal this pain when they meet at the third-annual Partner Gathering, convened by the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health. For two days, leaders of the Jewish Healing movement from around the country will discuss how to help those facing illness, loss and other life challenges.

The Kalsman Institute, a department of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, promotes "training, collaboration and dialogue on health care healing and spirituality at the intersection of Judaism and health."

So where exactly do Judaism and health intersect? It's very broad, said Kalsman Institute Assistant Director Michele Prince. "It ranges from bio-ethics and public policy to the most intimate clinical and pastoral work."

Kalsman Institute Director Rabbi William Cutter said that each Partner Gathering draws rabbis, social workers, physicians, hospital chaplains, medical ethicists, directors of healing centers and others to "cross pollinate."

Keynote speaker Victor Fuchs, an emeritus professor of economy at Stanford University and member of the university's Center for Biomedical Ethics, will discuss health policy from an economic perspective. He hopes to provide what may be new ways of thinking for some participants.

"The preacher's job is to help people choose between good and evil; the economist's job is to help them think about how you choose between good and good," he said.

Also during the gathering, singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman will be honored for her role in the spiritual health movement.

Goor, Steering Committee chair of the Kalsman Institute, has worked with his congregants to create a Caring Community, which supports members facing both physical and spiritual challenges. When both the husband and wife of a member family fell ill, for example, Temple Judea congregants drove the children to school and performed other errands. The synagogue has healing services, support groups and a bikur cholim (visiting the sick) program.

Caring Communities -- and the healing movement from which they stem -- see Judaism as an integral part of emotional well-being. Although Judaism has long been concerned with both body and soul, its role in healing is not necessarily recognized today.

"The Jewish medical model is a holistic model," said Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Union for Reform Judaism's (URJ) Department of Jewish Family Concerns. "The medical writings of Maimonides [discussed] both physical and mental health.... Maimonides and Judaism understood that everything is connected."

The healing movement gained momentum in the 1990s, when the popularity of healing services reached its peak. These services incorporated special liturgy, poems and music to bring spiritual comfort to those facing illness or bereavement. Now, Address said, the challenge is to determine what comes next.

In the meantime, a number of programs exist locally and nationally. Here in Los Angeles, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFSLA) received a grant several years ago to create "a healing center without walls," said Sally Weber, director of Jewish community programs for JFSLA and a member of the Kalsman Institute Steering Committee. One of the first projects involved a staff training around spirituality and counseling. Although funding was not renewed, the initial efforts helped agency staff bring spirituality into interactions with clients, Weber said. It also led to the formation of a Rabbi-Social Worker Roundtable and a training for volunteers with the Friends of the Elderly Program to address spiritual concerns. More recently, JFSLA participated in an October program to train bikur cholim volunteers. The Jewish Federation, the Kalsman Institute and about a dozen additional agencies collaborated on the program, which drew 180 participants.

Among national efforts, the URJ's Department of Jewish Family Concerns has created a host of resources in its efforts to foster Caring Communities within member congregations. Address, who also serves on the Kalsman Institute Steering Committee, is completing a "Sacred Aging Resource Kit," which he said was created because half of Reform congregants are 50 years of age or older. The six-part program includes segments on support for caregivers; ethical decision making relating to medical care; and new rituals for the extended life span. One ritual, for example, centers on removing a wedding ring following the year of mourning for a spouse.

The Reform Jewish Nurses Network, another project of the URJ, helps nurses connect with one another to give spiritual support, share resources and discuss ethical issues. Other initiatives focus on AIDS, dying and bereavement and support for mental health professionals.

All of these endeavors seek to provide ways to tap into Judaism as a source of solace and inspiration in times of challenge. Address noted that in the daily Amidah, we ask not to be cured, but to be healed.

"Even 2,000 years ago, Judaism understood that cure is not always possible, but healing is always possible," he said.

Rabbi Richard Address will be speaking about "The Sandwich Generation" during Shabbat services on Jan. 21, 7:30 p.m. and Jan. 22, 11 a.m., at Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For more information, call (805) 497-7101.


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