For Rabbi Jason Weiner, his one-year chaplaincy internship at Beth Israel Medical Center New York’s Lower East Side was a not-so-pleasant requirement while he was a rabbinic student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
“I didn’t feel like I had any impact. I didn’t feel like I could really help people,” said Weiner, who is now senior rabbi and manager of spiritual care at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The feeling changed in 2007, when Weiner, who was serving as assistant rabbi at Young Israel of Century City, was asked to fill in part time at Cedars-Sinai because the hospital’s longtime chaplain, Rabbi Levi Meier, had fallen ill.
“I quickly began to build confidence in the impact a chaplain could have in people’s lives. I began to realize how appreciative people were, and how fulfilling it was, and how much I was learning and growing. I felt like I was on the front lines of life and death. The intensity of that really drew me in,” he said.
Weiner now heads a team of 11 chaplains of different faiths who together serve more than 1,000 patients each month — a huge jump from the three chaplains who covered the hospital when Weiner was hired in 2009.
Like Weiner, many of the Cedars’ chaplains have found deep meaning in spiritual care in hospitals only after serving in other clerical settings or other professions altogether. One of his chaplains was a Sunday school teacher who went looking for more meaningful work after 9/11. Two are Orthodox women in second careers who have found in chaplaincy work one of the only ministering outlets available to them. Several had worked in congregational settings and found it superficial.
“I loved it, but a lot of the time I felt like a cruise ship director,” said the Rev. Pamela Lazor, the Presbyterian chaplain at Cedars, who worked in a church for 12 years. “There is something about working with people in crisis, something about life and the meaning of life becoming very real and very present. It just drew me in.”
Lazor, Weiner and several other chaplains interviewed insist that the work is more uplifting than it is depressing.
“It’s true that we see some patients die, but the vast majority of people we see go from being very sick and hopeless to healing and recovering. It is inspiring for us to get to walk with people through that journey,” Weiner said.
Along the way, they say, the interactions are more substantial than one might encounter outside of a hospital.
“I always think that people in hospitals are emotionally healthier than in other places. If you see someone standing at the checkout line at the grocery store, and say, ‘Hi, how’re you doing,’ they’re not going to say, ‘Well, I was just diagnosed with cancer, and I have a long-lost relative that I want to make up with, and if I tell her I have cancer, then she’ll forgive me, but I haven’t told my spouse yet.’ That doesn’t happen in normal life.”
Weiner, who is 34 and has four children under 8 years old, said the work has given him a perspective that other people his age might not have.
“When people are not forced to face life and death frequently, they lose touch with how fragile we are and how much you have to appreciate every second you have,” he said. Hearing patients’ regrets has forced him to act on his own priorities as well, he said, like being at home in the evening to spend time with his wife and kids.
Weiner had huge shoes to fill in following Meier, who was both innovative in his work and beloved by the community. And Weiner recognizes he is also young for his position.
“I realized it was not about age, it’s about how you hold yourself and your sincerity. I take it with a grain of humility that people have more life experience than me and there is value to that, but I’ve also gained inspiration from people who have managed, despite their youth, to still have an impact,” Weiner said.
He recently published a book that advises rabbis, medical staff and patients on the ins and outs of Jewish observance in a 21st century hospital.
Weiner ministers in a way that is low-key and attentive, with an easy smile and gentle humor. He admits that sometimes he needs to take a step back to decompress.
“I never watch hospital shows like ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ because I’ll see an image that will bring up something that I thought I had forgotten, and then I realize it’s all still there. It doesn’t go away,” Weiner said.
Chaplains go through their own process of psychological/spiritual analysis during training. Lazor said certain cases still bring the tears she tries to keep at bay so she can effectively do her job.
“Sometimes I realize that what a patient is going through is touching something inside me, and then I need to take care of that. One of the gifts of this work is it helps me finish my own healing in areas I may not be aware of,” Lazor said.
Lazor trains other chaplains and will be heading Cedars’ new Clinical Pastoral Education program. She said she is eager to help others come to the revelation she had when she started training.
“I felt as though I got more back from the patients than I could ever give,” she said. “It felt like it was such an honor and privilege to be doing this work. The only thing I can say is it felt like the most meaningful work of my life.”