A Jewish Chaplain

Sometimes the chaplain is the only one who can mourn.

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Dealing With Emotions

While I am with the person I am serving, I must suspend my own emotional responses so that I can fully understand his or hers. After I leave the person, I must reflect: How did I feel? Why did I feel that? What was it about my own past that evoked the emotions I had during the encounter? Also, did I serve the person well? What could I have done better? What should I not have done at all?

One particular experience sticks with me. This happened in 2004, when I was a chaplain-intern at a small Catholic hospital in New York. I have changed the names of the people involved. One morning, the Director of Pastoral Care of the hospital asked me to see Selma, an 81-year-old Jewish woman,
who had been comatose for a week and was going to be extubated that afternoon.

Praying for Patients

This would in all likelihood result in her death within twenty-four hours. I got my siddur in hand and took the elevator up to Selma’s floor. I was apprehensive. The family is probably not Orthodox, I thought to myself. Will they reject me, either because I’m a representative of religion and they are secular, or because, on the contrary, I am only a layperson and not a rabbi? Will they consider me intrusive? Will they make demands on me that I will have trouble meeting? Will they be on good terms with each other, or will I walk into a family quarrel?

I approached Selma’s room nervously, peeked in, but saw no one there beside the bed. I walked over to Selma’s side. She was a small, heavyset woman with dull gray hair, and clear, soft skin--all in all unremarkable looking. As expected, she was hooked up to numerous tubes and monitors. We were alone, and though she was not conscious, I held her hand and began to sing to her.

I chose Jewish tunes that I thought she might recognize from her youth: Adon Olam, Day-day-yeinu, Shema Yisrael. I spoke to her: “I’m sorry you’ve been through such a tough time. I hope you’re feeling calm and have no pain. I’d like to say vidui with you. Vidui is a prayer of confession that Jews say when they’re very sick. Many people who have said vidui have gotten better, so don’t be scared about my saying it.” I then recited vidui. “I have to leave for a little while, but I’ll be back soon,” I assured her.

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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.