Greater MetroWest CARES, the Committee Addressing Resources to Engage Seniors, is coordinated by Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and brings together leaders from Greater MetroWest agencies to promote independence and support vitality among older adults. Throughout the year, Greater MetroWest agencies have the opportunity to address critical eldercare issues in this column. This month’s article on the different roles of a Jewish chaplain and a congregational rabbi is presented by the Joint Chaplaincy Committee.
Being hospitalized is surely one of life’s most stressful situations. While in the hospital, many professionals care for the patient: physicians, nurses, physical therapists, technicians, social workers, case managers, etc. Each one is concerned with a specific “piece of the patient,” such as physical symptoms, blood work, diagnosis, treatment, medications, discharge planning, etc. But who is concerned with the patient as a whole person and her/his state of being? Two individuals working in complementary roles are concerned about the whole spiritual person. One, the chaplain, is based in the hospital as a member of the professional hospital staff; the other, the congregational rabbi, is based in the patient’s synagogue/community and comes to the hospital to visit the patient and provide pastoral support.
Are both the chaplain and the rabbi really necessary? Aren’t they really doing the same work and wouldn’t just one be enough to do the job? The answer is a clear “no.” Each has a different role and only with the involvement of both does the patient receive total spiritual support. Furthermore, while one individual may be a chaplain and a rabbi, a chaplain is not necessarily a rabbi and a rabbi is not necessarily a chaplain.
Chaplains are specifically trained in clinical pastoral education and credentialed in the practice of professional spiritual care. They help create a “sacred space for people in stressful, life-changing, or transitional moments, to find meaning, hope, connection, and comfort by enabling them to identify and draw upon their own sources of inner strength.” Chaplains provide a safe, non-judgmental way for patients to share their stories. They allow them to explore, rediscover, and draw upon their inner resources. Chaplains encourage patients to reconnect with their core beliefs and to find meaning, and even hope, in painful times. The chaplain’s purpose is to help the patient say what is true for her/him at a particular moment, validate that truth, and thereby help ease the patient’s burden. In this way, chaplains help patients experience “healing,” which is very different from “cure.” Additionally, a hospital chaplain is uniquely positioned as a member of the hospital staff to make helpful connections for patients and families with other hospital resources that can be appropriately supportive.
The congregational rabbi brings to his/her hospitalized congregant an array of support, encouragement, and hope. The rabbi symbolically brings the patient’s community and the entire Jewish people to the bedside, immediately helping to alleviate feelings of loneliness and vulnerability, which are very common when hospitalized. “My Rabbi’s” visit is uplifting for the patient who, as a result, feels connected and valued at a stressful and difficult time. “My Rabbi’s” visit means the rabbi, my synagogue, and even God care deeply about me and wish me well. Moreover, when the rabbi knows both the patient and the family, and has shared significant life cycle events and perhaps tough times with them, the words the rabbi speaks and the message the rabbi brings can be really on target, and can offer the kind of tailor-made support the patient needs. Questions of halacha (Jewish law) are properly addressed to the rabbi, who is also uniquely equipped to make the appropriate connections with the synagogue’s caring committee to provide additional support both during the hospitalization and after discharge.
Both the chaplain and the congregational rabbi are needed in their complementary roles. Should you ever be hospitalized, may you be blessed with their supportive presence and a healing of the body, soul, and spirit.