October 12, 2006
Wanted: someone to help suffering Jews
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
The problem for the Jews? Not enough Jewish chaplains.
One outcome of The Jewish Federation-Board of Rabbis study was the founding of a new Jewish chaplaincy school, the first of its kind anywhere. The Academy for Jewish Religion|California a pluralistic rabbinic and cantorial school, first opened a chaplaincy school in 2003, and it graduated its first three chaplains in June.
"We felt we could help fill this need in Southern California, and that's what we did," said Rabbi Stan Levy, chairman of the board of AJR. "We know that a lot of people want to be chaplains, and they want to be at a school that really prepares them. They don't want to study at a secular or quasi-Christian place where they don't feel like they were getting thorough Jewish background and the imprimatur of a Jewish Institution."
At AJR's three-year program, students learn clinical pastoral skills, study Judaica -- including prayers and Talmud and midrash pertaining to healing and medical ethics. They also take courses in Hebrew. Students also must get additional clinical pastoral education training outside the school.
Dvora Epstein, one of AJRs first three graduates, started off as a volunteer at St. Joseph's Hospital long before she had even thought about chaplaincy -- or Judaism for that matter.
When her husband died 12 years ago, she wanted to do something "more meaningful" (her first career was in retail), so she started volunteering at the senior outreach department. One day, the Catholic chaplain looked her in the eye and said, "You're meant to be a chaplain. Do me a favor and go back to your birth religion."
Epstein hadn't been active in Judaism for 30 years, but she joined a temple and began to reconnect. When AJR opened its new program, Epstein signed up. This fall she started a full-time job at St. Joseph's Hospital as one of six chaplains. (Another AJR graduate, Judith Sommerstein, is also working there.)
At AJR, Epstein said, "I learned to be present for patients. I learned to relate or to help relate patients' feelings and emotions to sacred text."
In addition to the Hebrew and the ancient teachings about healing, she said, "I learned an appreciation, a deep, deep-founded appreciation and joy in the Torah in the teachings and ancient wisdom of our forefathers."
But some people say that AJR's kind of training is not enough. They believe a chaplain should be a rabbi, well versed in rabbinic studies and not only those pertaining to life-cycle issues.
"I think there's a role for chaplains who are not rabbis," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis. "But where we sit, there's always been a role for rabbis to be chaplains, particularly in Jewish law and life or death matters. The calls we get typically are from patients and their families who want to see a rabbi in their time of crisis or need," he said. "Yes, there's a role for a professional chaplain who is not ordained as a rabbi, but the rabbi is the most important person to help someone in crisis."
The heads of AJR's new chaplaincy program disagree.
Mel Gottlieb, dean of AJR's Rabbinic School and chaplaincy program, points to differences in education and approach.
"A rabbi has longer training, is exposed to talmudic erudition and all the practiced tradition, familiar with liturgy, and a greater part of tradition, but nevertheless," he said, "in some ways [our chaplains] have superior ability."
Rabbis are trained to be orators, motivators, leaders. Chaplains, on the other hand, are counselors -- more akin to therapists and caregivers.
"We found that many rabbis do not have training nor the natural capacity to sit and listen to a patient; they'll come in with advice or reassurance, which is not what the patient needs ... they need to be heard," Gottlieb said.
For example, he said, suppose a person lost a loved one; the chaplain might say, "'Tell me about (your husband), that must be awful; tell me about your relationship....' You get to feel, clear out, and you need that solid training. Many rabbis are not trained to do that."
It is a challenge, he said, to change perceptions toward "lay," nonrabbinic chaplains.
"I think it's the transference toward a holy figure who will guide them and has the competence to bring them the tradition; it's the feeling of being represented by a wise sage, who represents tradition and the knowledge of the ages in terms of death and dying," he said. Jewish lay chaplains can do this, he said.
Yet to some extent, the argument is a moot point, since most rabbis historically haven't been going into full-time chaplain positions.
"For too many years, rabbis who chose chaplaincy, their work is underappreciated -- not seen as essential as rabbis who choose pulpits," Diamond said. "I do believe we need to raise salaries to compensate those rabbis."
For all their hard work of ministering to the sick each day, chaplains earn in the range of $40,000 to $50,000 annually. To be competitive with other rabbinic and professional options, they should make at least $70,000, according to Asikoff.
Why are chaplains so low-paid? First, theirs is still a relatively new profession; second, their clients are not usually ones in position of power and wealth by comparison to, say, a synagogue board. And third, the source for funding the positions: With health insurance in crisis, many hospitals are undergoing tremendous budget cuts, and the first thing to go are the "extras," including the chaplains. In many states, regulations mandate that long-term care facilities for the elderly, such as nursing homes and hospice, must provide for the religious needs of their patients, but, Asikoff said, they can "get around it" by, say, holding a seder, or Friday night service. "We believe there should be a chaplain on-site."
The question is not only about money but about worth.