A Jewish Chaplain

Sometimes the chaplain is the only one who can mourn.

Reprinted with permission from


,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.

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.

Mourning With The Family

I visited other patients. A couple of hours later I returned to Selma’s floor. As soon as I got off the elevator I saw her family at the door to her room. They stood at the entrance, but did not enter the room. The key player was clearly the short, attractive middle-aged woman in the center; both the young man on her left and the middle aged man on her right had their arms around her and were rubbing her back soothingly.

I had to wonder why these people made no move to enter the room. I had enough experience by this time to realize that some people have difficulty with illness and death. They’re probably squeamish about getting too close to a dying relative, I thought.

I went up to them. “Hello, I’m Margaret Goldstein, the Jewish chaplain- intern here.” “Oh, hello, I’m glad you came,” said the middle-aged man. “This is Doris, Selma’s daughter, I’m Doris’ husband Ted, and this is our son Arthur. We were just going to lunch, but Doris says she’s not hungry. Maybe you can stay with her?” “Of course,” I said. Doris continued to stand at the doorway as her husband and son left. “Why don’t we sit?” I suggested, and quickly dragged chairs to the doorway. “Okay, that would be good, but could we just sit out here?” Doris asked, as I was about to position the chairs an inch into the room.

So we sat, in the hall right outside Selma’s room, and talked. Doris told me about her husband, an engineer, and her son who was finishing college with honors. They lived in upstate New York. Her mother, she said, lived in a nursing home in Queens and had become sick only recently.

The doctor had advised that her mother was going to die soon and they decided to take his advice and extubate her. “This must be very difficult for you,” I said. “Yes. Well, yes and no.” “I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through,” I said. “No, I guess you can’t.” “Tell me about it.” Doris sighed.

Empathizing with Painful Stories

Tears appeared in her eyes and she slumped forward slightly. “No one outside my family knows anything about this.” I thought, she’s referring to the extubation. She must be ambivalent about her decision. “You haven’t told anyone,” I said. “No.” Doris sighed again, and now began to weep. “I’m not crying because she’s dying. I’m crying because of what she’s done to me.”

And to my great surprise Doris told me that her mother was an embittered, angry woman. She poured out stories of cruelty and abuse inflicted on her over the years by her mother. Selma’s husband ran away from her when Doris and her brother were still very young. He died shortly thereafter, so that there was no longer anyone to protect the children from Selma.

“Every time my mother got mad at me, she’d say she wished she’d had an abortion so she wouldn’t have to deal with me. And she was mad at me all the time. She beat me, she called me names. I don’t know how I got through it. But the one thing I cannot forgive her for is what she did to my brother. He did not get through it. She was even worse to him than she was to me–and he committed suicide because of her. So I’m not crying because she’s dying. I’m crying because of what she did to me, and what she did to him.”

“It sounds as if she was a very, very sick woman,” I said. And, though my heart was in my throat, “I want to pray for you, and for your family, if that’s all right?” “Okay.” “Keil maleh rahamim, I am here with Doris, whose life has been filled with suffering since she was a child. She lost her father, she lost her brother. Thank you, God, for giving Doris a loving husband and son. Please let them continue to give her comfort and joy. Let the next days be the start of a happier life for Doris, a life of nachas, joy from her son, and peace, and calm. Thank you.”

Reflecting On The Loss

“Oh, thank you so much. That was so wonderful,” Doris said. I think she was relieved that my prayer validated her and did not ask for reconciliation with her mother. We continued to talk, about her husband and her son, and she faced them with equanimity when they returned from lunch. I said goodbye. When I came back after my own lunch, the family had left. I returned to Selma’s side, hardly knowing what to do or say. I mourned her yiddisha neshama, her life that had gone so wrong, her imminent death that would come without love or grief. I wished her peace and left.

Selma was extubated later that day and died a few hours later. The visit with Doris affected me profoundly and I spent some time analyzing my reactions to it. I also had to consider whether I had helped Doris as much as I might have, what else I might have done or said, or what I perhaps should not have done at all.

Four years later, I still think about Selma and I still mourn her. Sometimes, the chaplain is the only one who can mourn.

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