Spiritual Specialists

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Rabbi Dr. Tvsi Schur has been the Jewish chaplain at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Orleans Street for 13 years. (David Stuck)

It’s not every day you meet a rabbi who shares an office with a Catholic priest. While this might sound like the setup for a joke, it’s actually not uncommon for Jewish hospital chaplains to work in close proximity with spiritual leaders of disparate faiths, as does Dr. Tvsi Schur, the Jewish chaplain at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Orleans Street in East Baltimore.

In fact, a chaplaincy position is almost non- denominational, as interfaith education is part of the training. And even for Jewish chaplains who work specifically with Jewish patients, the boundaries of different sects of Judaism, and degrees of belief, are crossed on a daily basis.


The work of a hospital chaplain is both taxing and rewarding. While no two positions are identical, many chaplains work long hours in their role, providing clinical care and emotional and spiritual support to individuals during their most vulnerable moments.

A Day in the Life

Schur, who’s been a chaplain for 43 years, begins his days at Johns Hopkins, where he has worked for 13 years, by checking a list of Jewish patients provided to him by the hospital. The charts include the patient’s name, age, how many days they’ve been in the hospital and their location in the hospital. From these details, the 71-year-old Schur maps out his course of action, which will take him everywhere from the cancer treatment center and the intensive care unit to the pediatric unit and sometimes the emergency room itself.

Schur, like many chaplains, didn’t become ordained specifically to enter into chaplaincy. He was ordained in 1968 in Chicago and began practicing at a congregation in Philadelphia in 1969. When another Philadelphia rabbi, Chaplain Abraham Pelberg, learned Schur was looking to supplement his income, he suggested Schur pursue a chaplaincy position at the University of Pennsylvania. Pelberg had resigned his position at the university, and the job was open. He even recommended the 23-year-old Schur as his replacement.

Although they initially thought Schur was too young, the hospital administration afforded him the chance. He spent the next three years as a chaplain there.

After short stints in congregational rabbinical work in Rochester, New York, and Miami, Schur made the plunge into full-time clinical pastoral counseling in 1978 as the director of Jewish Chaplaincy/Community Mohel for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

“I never did learn to spell Milwaukee,” Schur joked, but after 20 years in Wisconsin, he did recognize that pastoral care was his calling in the rabbinate. He’s even written two books about his profession: “Moments of Inspiration: Behind the Scenes with Chaplain Rabbi Tvsi” and “Illness and Crisis: Coping the Jewish Way.”

Now at Hopkins, Schur suffered a stroke four years ago. For a short time, he was able to use a cane to walk, but then he fell and injured a knee. He now uses a walker. Frustrating as these setbacks might be, Schur looks at them as an opportunity to connect.

Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson is the director of pastoral care and chaplaincy for LifeBridge Health. (Provided)

“Due to my personal illness challenges, I’m able to relate to many of the patients I see,” he said.

Schur estimates he walks more than a mile and a half of hospital hallways each day. Though a wheelchair might be easier than a walker, he doesn’t want patients worrying about him.

“I’m going to keep walking for as long as I can,” he said.

Before he embarks on his long hike each day, Schur makes sure he hasn’t forgotten a small stack of prayer books and a green canvas bag filled with Beanie Babies and other stuffed animals with yarmulkes sewn to their heads. The Jewish Caring Network provides Schur with these resources that brighten up a patient’s day.

“I’m the Jewish Santa Claus,” Schur quipped to one his patients after introducing himself as Johns Hopkins’ “Jewish schlepper.”

Schur is jokey and casual with his patients. He’s just as likely to talk about sports, food or music as he is about Torah.

Although he’s there to provide patients with spiritual guidance, he does not initiate prayer with patients except when a patient is visibly struggling and looking for support, but is perhaps afraid to ask him to pray for them.

“I don’t initiate prayer. I don’t want the patients to feel judged,” he said. “Oftentimes if they ask, I say to them, ‘I’ll say a prayer for you if you say a prayer for me.’ They look at me like I’m nuts, but I say, ‘In the eyes of God, your prayer is as important as mine.’”

On one recent day, Schur visited about 10 patients. His original list had several more names, but it turned out these patients had already been discharged. Death was not imminent for any of the patients Schur saw; most were post-op. But as usual, the level of comfort and confusion varied among them.

There was only one patient, in physical and emotional pain, with whom he initiated prayer.

“I lift my eyes to the mountains where shall my help come,” he sang to her, from Psalms 121.

Through pain and through tears, she was grateful.

When Schur feels overwhelmed, he remembers something a rabbi in Israel once told him: “You’re doing God’s work.”

“It’s hard sometimes,” said Schur. “But I really feel like I’m doing God’s work.”

History of Jewish Chaplaincy

The phrase “pastoral care” is used to describe the spiritual and emotional support provided by ordained rabbis, priests, ministers, preachers, imams and even some lay people to those who are suffering, troubled or perplexed.

The term is often used interchangeably with “health care chaplaincy,” though chaplaincy is not limited to health care field, of course. The U.S. military employs thousands of chaplains, and most prisons have chaplains as well.

In an in-depth article regarding Jewish chaplaincy published in the American Jewish Archives Journal, Robert Tabak wrote, “In Jewish life, there is a long-term trend toward professionalization in a number of areas that were originally avocational. The mohel (ritual circumciser) is a specialization centuries old, as most fathers did not feel qualified to carry out this task personally. A paid rabbinate goes back to at least the Middle Ages, with justification for paying people for this role the source of considerable debate.”

Chaplaincy is no different. The essential tenets of chaplaincy are in line with the Jewish values of bikkur holim (visiting the sick) and gemilut Chassadim (deeds of loving-kindness), values that are considered general obligations for all Jews, not specifically professional chaplains.

Rabbi Ruth Smith is a staff chaplain at the University of Maryland Medical Center. (Justin Tsucalas)

Tabak writes, “While the Talmud seems to prohibit payment for visiting the sick, medieval sources find exceptions to this rule based on local custom and the length of time the visitor spends with the sick.”

The intentional organization of professional Jewish chaplains is far from ancient, especially in the health care field. It wasn’t until after World War II that there was an emergence of Jewish chaplains in health care or geriatric care centers.

The framework for what would become the National Association of Jewish Chaplains was created at an interfaith pastoral care seminar held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1988. The group held its founding convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1990. In 2014, the organization changed its name to Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains, in order to be inclusive of the many NAJC members who were chaplains in Israel, Canada and Europe.

“We are the professional organization of Jewish spiritual health specialists,” said Rabbi Rafael Goldstein, executive director of NAJC. “Part of the use of the word ‘specialist’ is helping people understand that chaplains are specialists when it comes to spiritual care. Even though rabbis are wonderful people who provide spiritual care, the specialists of spiritual care are chaplains.”

Earning the right to be called a specialist is not an easy task. As part of the core requirements to become certified by NAJC, a chaplain must complete 1,600 classroom and clinical hours and earn four units of clinical pastoral education.

Although rabbinical ordination is not required to be a chaplain, between 80 and 90 percent of Jewish chaplains are rabbis. A considerable number of chaplains are laypeople, including many Orthodox women.

An Interfaith Position

One of the original NAJC founding members is Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson, the director of pastoral care and chaplaincy at LifeBridge Health in Baltimore. His office is next to the small chapel at Sinai Hospital. Although Ackerson is no longer associated with the NAJC, his commitment to chaplaincy is still strong.

Ackerson has experience as both a health care and military chaplain: He joined the Army in 1985 while he was still in rabbinical school at Yeshiva University. He has served as a chaplain in 48 of the 50 states, and will get to 50 after serving in North and South Dakota this summer. He’s served in 37 countries.

For Ackerson, life as a chaplain has meant sacrificing significant hours of family time.

“My wife has put up with my absence for thousands of nights in the military, including an 18-month stint in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

His current job as director includes overseeing the entire chaplain department for LifeBridge Health, tending to budget-related issues, attending meetings regarding construction and teaching medical residents.

Five years ago, Ackerson suffered a heart attack, after which he dropped his work hours from 80 per week to 60.

Still, he said, “I’m constantly on call. I’m constantly woken up in the middle of the night or pulled out of family dinner.” He estimates he hasn’t been with his wife on Rosh Hashanah since 1992.

When asked what the biggest difference is between military and hospital chaplaincies, Ackerson said, “There’s less exercise required” for the latter. “One of the reasons it’s a fairly easy transition is that we deal with people of all faiths as well as our own,” he added. “It’s that openness and willingness to work with folks wherever they come from.”

Ackerson is often asked how he ministers to groups of a different faith. His answer? “The only thing people really care about is that you care about them. ‘Are you here to listen to me or to help me?’ That is what they care about.”

Ackerson illustrated the point by telling a hypothetical story of a deacon who questions her faith after being diagnosed with an illness. To go to a pastor and express a crisis of faith would likely not be good for her deaconry. But with a hospital chaplain, such questioning is acceptable.

“A chaplain is a safe space,” he said.

The same can be said for interfaith co-workers. Schur is the only rabbi at the Johns Hopkins Hospital on Orleans Street. Along with sharing an office with a Catholic priest, Schur expressed admiration for Rev. Rhonda Cooper, a self-described “old Methodist preacher” from Knoxville, Tennessee, who also works as a chaplain at Johns Hopkins.

“It’s one of the few religious settings where as co-workers we never debate our faiths,” she said. “Sometimes in church you get into that kind of thing, but here at the hospital it’s more about what we’re supposed to be doing.”

This holds true for Rabbi Ruth Smith, a staff chaplain at the University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore, where the majority of her work is interfaith.

“The thing I loved most about being in the pulpit was being with families and meeting people individually,” said Smith. “In a congregation, you get to know people pretty slowly. They come to services, the kids grow up with you. It’s a slower progression. This is walking in a door and being right there with them.”

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is the chaplain of the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s hospice program. (Provided)

While none of chaplains the JT spoke with got ordained specifically to enter the chaplaincy, they all mentioned that the one- on-one nature of counseling patients is extremely rewarding, even if there is an added sense of pressure.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is the hospice care chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Howard County. For a decade she served at Beth Shalom Congregation in Carroll County, and at regular intervals was called to the hospital and specifically to the hospice when they had a Jewish patient who did not have a connection to a congregation or a rabbi. She began the work on a pro bono basis.

“It allowed me to do what I loved most about the rabbinate in a very concentrated way,” said Scheinerman.

When Jewish Federation of Howard County started a hospice program and offered Scheinerman a job, she said it took her all of one second to make up her mind. Which is not to say there aren’t difficulties.

“When I first started, my presence in the hospital was not particularly desired by the medical staff. I got the sense that I was an unnecessary nuisance,” she said. “But over the course of time that changed, and it changed really dramatically.”

In fact, even before she started with Federation, medical staff at hospitals started consulting her before operations, discussing medications and a patient’s state of mind. Such interaction is key to the chaplaincy role. They get used to bridging boundaries, whether of the pastoral- medical variety or of the different types of Jewish observance.

As Schur put it, “You know what I tell people? ‘My stomach is Orthodox, my feet are Reform and my arms are Conservative. I’m Jewish.”

cgraham@midatlanticmedia.com

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