A Jewish Chaplain

Sometimes the chaplain is the only one who can mourn.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from JOFA,The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

The Role of a Chaplain

In 2002, I began studying to become a chaplain. This entailed taking a 1,600-hour series of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) courses. In addition, since I am neither a rabbi nor a hazzan, but rather an Orthodox laywoman, it was necessary for me to obtain a degree “equivalent” to semikha, rabbinic ordination. I no longer recall what my expectations were when I began my chaplaincy journey, but I do remember being surprised at what I learned.

First, I found that I needed to become much more self aware, that I could not be an effective chaplain unless I recognized my own vulnerabilities, fears, and prejudices. In addition, I learned that as a chaplain I must be able to (1) "walk" with patients in their suffering, (2) help them express what is true for them, and (3) lift my voice in prayer for them. In other words, it is not enough to come smiling into a room, say “How are you today?” and a moment later, “refu’a sheleima, may you have a complete recovery.” I must instead be prepared to invite disclosures, confidences, complaints, and laments.

Upbeat friendly chatting may be a goal of a bikkur holim visitor, but it is not the chaplain’s. I also learned that the chaplain does not only serve the patients. Family members, hospital staff, visitors, and companions of the sick person often also require my services. When death is approaching, or has already occurred, the chaplain serves everyone in the vicinity.

Caring for the Dead & Their Family

Once a patient has died, the body of the deceased must be dealt with: Tubes must be removed, a Jew (perhaps me, for a while) must remain with the body at all times, the hevra kadisha and the funeral parlor must be called. These practicalities are the easy part. Far more difficult is the task of interacting with and comforting the survivors.

Relatives and friends who are present may be in shock, in deep grief, or only a bit sad. They may feel relieved that the end has finally come. They may even be indifferent--but assume that they must feign sadness. Beyond the friends and families, we cannot forget the people on the staff--nurses, aides, doctors, and others--who may have spent time with the patients, worked hard to improve their health, clean and feed them, make them comfortable; all these people experience a range of emotions that the chaplain may have to confront.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Margaret Frenkel Goldstein completed CPE in 2004, and earned an MS in Jewish Studies from Spertus College in Chicago. She is a community chaplain in Queens, NY for eight months a year. The rest of the year she works in Jerusalem as a volunteer at Shaarei Zedek Hospital.