By H. Rafael Goldstein
I have worked in a formerly Catholic hospital and a major hospice as a Jewish chaplain, and have had the pleasure of working with very dedicated nuns and priests who did amazing work with Jewish patients. And I also worked in a 500-bed community hospital at which one of the admission questions was, “Would you like to see a chaplain?” In the year that I was there, not one Jewish patient ever said yes to that question. Is there a problem with accessing and providing spiritual support to Jewish patients when you are an interfaith chaplain, or serving in an interfaith capacity?
Jewish patients, like most patients, are afraid when they are in the hospital. Are they going to get better? Will a procedure lead to even more pain and suffering? Will the doctors come in with even more bad news? But Jewish patients face an additional fear when someone from a different faith comes into their room and offers spiritual support: “Is this person going to try to convert me, or threaten my religious beliefs?” This is probably the No. 1 barrier for non-Jewish chaplains who are offering spiritual support. I am not sure why this comes up as a basic fear from Jewish patients. I suspect it comes from darker times, when vulnerable people were indeed imposed upon for conversion by well-meaning religious professionals.
To overcome this fear, the chaplain needs to add to his/her introduction something to put the patient’s fears at rest. Those first few seconds at the doorway can make a huge difference. “I am Sr. Helen from the Department of Spiritual Care and I am here to check on how you are doing spiritually and emotionally. I know you are Jewish, and as an interfaith chaplain I respect and honor your religious beliefs.” Putting the patient at ease about who you are and that you are not a threat is essential if you want to get past the “No thanks, Sister.”
The other thing to remember is that there is no typical Jewish patient, just as there is no typical Catholic patient. Catholic patients may go to church and receive Communion daily, or once a month on a Sunday, or only on holidays — or maybe last saw the inside of a church for a funeral 20 years ago. The same is true for Jewish patients, who might be very observant, or non-observant, and everything in between. For some Jewish patients, an opportunity to see “a rabbi” might mean a man in a black hat and untrimmed beard, which they would not want — or which they absolutely would want. There’s no way to know what the perception of the Jewish patient might be. But there are hints.
If you see anything in the room or on the patient that says “observant Jewish person” (e.g. kippah on the patient’s head, a Hebrew prayer book, anything in Hebrew), pick up on the cues. If you don’t, don’t assume — please ask! The vast majority of people will minimize the importance of their religion, which is an opportunity for you to help them with their spiritual awareness. Ask for permission to ask questions, and provide the spiritual care we are trained to provide by asking questions and active listening, and you will have a receptive patient.
As chaplains, we share the common belief that spiritual care can make a huge difference in living with illness and in recovery. We know it also increases patient satisfaction scores in a hospital (see Marin et al., “Relationship Between Chaplain Visits and Patient Satisfaction.” I am in the et al.!). Jewish patients need spiritual care as much as any other patient, and breaking through the barriers they might put up can really help them access the help they need from their inner spirit, from universal energy, from their Higher Power, from the Holy One.
May the Holy One continue to bless you in your work, and, together, may we bring healing to the world, one patient at a time.
Rabbi Dr. H. Rafael Goldstein, BCC, is the Executive Director of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains.