Chaplaincy program bears fruit in Israel

Chaplaincy program bears fruit in Israel

In Jerusalem Cecille Asekoff, center, confers with certified Israeli spiritual care providers Einat Ramon, left, and Hila Zemer.     
In Jerusalem Cecille Asekoff, center, confers with certified Israeli spiritual care providers Einat Ramon, left, and Hila Zemer.     

Ten years after she began organizing chaplaincy programs in Israel, Cecille Asekoff is seeing her dream come true.

During a 10-day visit to Jerusalem that ended on May 22 Asekoff saw the fruits of her efforts, as executive vice president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, to professionalize the ranks of those who minister to the sick, the elderly, and the dying in Israel.

There are now 23 professional spiritual caregivers certified who work in health-care facilities in many parts of the country, “and another dozen or so are in the pipeline,” said Asekoff at an interview in her office on the Aidekman campus in Whippany. “People are receiving pastoral care in every nook and cranny in Israel, and there are more and more of them every day.”

With financial aid from such sources as the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, UJA-Federation of New York, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, training programs for professional spiritual and pastoral caregivers are expanding in many parts of Israel. 

Asekoff, who also serves as director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest, has been visiting Israel to set up and oversee training programs in many parts of the country for nearly a decade. 

The committee and the NAJC, she said, “absolutely” helped make the programs in Israel a success. The training “is not just reading books and writing book reports,” said Asekoff. “It is clinical supervision. It is individual supervision. It is group supervision. It is a spiritual assessment that the trainees conduct on themselves.” 

Asekoff acknowledged that at this point only Jews have applied for the training.

“But part of what it means to be a professional chaplain is that you can provide spiritual and pastoral care on a multi-faith level,” she said. “We have a responsibility to train people of various faiths, including Muslims and Christians. We are reaching out to non-Jews on official and non-official levels,” she said, “but to date no one who is not Jewish has signed up for the professional training.”

Those who are being trained, however, are making inroads beyond Israel’s Jews. At Rambam Hospital in Haifa, for example, 50 percent of the patients are not Jewish, said Asekoff. In addition, the Jewish chaplaincy service is part of an international multi-faith committee that accredits programs in the United States and Europe and is working now to adjust their accreditation standards to Israeli culture.

In contrast to America and Europe, Israelis being trained in the field of spiritual and pastoral care are “coming out of the non-clerical world,” she said. “Spiritual care is not necessarily religious, but we do insist that Jewish chaplains have grounding in Jewish literature and Jewish ritual.”

Currently, the chaplaincy training program gets no support from the Israeli government. The hospitals receive government funds, but none specifically allocated to spiritual care providers.

“I’d like to see the field recognized by the government and included in the budget lines of health-care facilities,” Asekoff said. “We have to go and lobby the Knesset and have our message published in the newspapers.”

She remains optimistic. 

“I believe professional spiritual and pastoral care chaplaincy is the one thread that can unite all of us with our different ideas, with our different beliefs, with our different colors and sizes. Something we all share together is walking through life and entering people’s lives at critical moments and being able to service them and make their journey more palatable.”

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