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Michael Zoosman

A letter to my chaplain colleague Imam Sohaib Sultan, z”l, of blessed memory

Image: A picture that the writer keeps at his desk of his friend and multifaith chaplaincy colleague Imam Sohaib Sultan, z’l, of blessed memory. Uncopyrighted graphic from Facebook post here: https://www.facebook.com/OrlPrinceton/posts/sohaib-sultan-lived-gracefully-and-made-a-lasting-contribution-to-the-princeton-/10160443740112502/

Wassalamualaikum/Shalom Aleichem Sohaib,

I cannot begin to imagine what you would say in the wake of all the death and horror that the world has witnessed in Israel and Gaza since October 7th. 

How can I forget that summer you and I met in 2008, when we each had enrolled in the same Clinical Pastoral Education internship at the University of Connecticut Medical Center? We were the only two non-Christian members of our cohort of chaplain interns. I felt that you and I bonded in a unique way as we navigated the well-intentioned idiosyncrasies of an American pastoral care education system that was continuing to expand from its inspiring Christian roots. 

As we embarked upon our first chaplaincy experiences providing spiritual care in the face of death, we learned together how to encounter Divinity within every human being, even at the most fraught times – moments of acute medical and existential crisis. We shared with one another powerful stories of spiritual care at the bedside, as well as tears and laughter as we reflected on our (usually my!) missteps and how we would hope to grow from them. 

All the while, you exposed me to the vast richness of the Islamic tradition you had acquired as the author of The Koran for Dummies. I learned from you so many of the meaningful cognates that the sister languages of Arabic and Hebrew share, including Rahman/Rachaman for “The Compassionate One” as a name for the Divine. 

Just as our traditions shared this quality, so too did we share compassion for one another and our peoples’ histories and plights. Before meeting you, I had never before been exposed to the term Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) to refer to the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which I previously only had known as the Israeli War for Independence. This was but one of the many ways you helped to grow within me a trait that should unite people of all spiritual traditions: empathy for all humanity. Indeed, you modelled this yourself when you opened your heart to me as I related to you the story of my family’s experience in the Holocaust: how my grandmother and her sisters were able to survive after a Polish Catholic farmer gave up his life so that authorities would not discover that he was them hiding on his farm. We – multi-faith chaplains from different spiritual traditions – felt humbled by his act of martyrdom that overcame the religious divide.

After we completed our chaplaincy internship, you went off to serve as the first Muslim chaplain at Princeton University, while I ventured to Vancouver, British Columbia to become a congregational cantor and Jewish prison chaplain. I look back with great regret that we lost touch in the ensuing years. It was only when I was at the bedside of my own father as he entered hospice in New England during the COVID-19 pandemic that I remembered the lessons I had learned with you about impending death those years prior and felt compelled to reach out to you again. When I did so, I was overjoyed to discover that you were the father of a beautiful little girl who was about the same age as my own daughter at the time. That joy, however, was shattered when you then told me of your recent diagnosis of terminal cancer…

Not long after our reconnection that day, I learned of your untimely passing on April 16, 2021 at the age of 40, one year my senior. It should not have surprised me to see how even in the face of your own mortality and imminent passing, you saw fit to teach and model for your community, and all humanity, how spirituality can transcend death, a concept that my own Jewish tradition echoes, stating “aza chamavet ahava” – “love is as strong as death.” (Song of Songs, 8:6)

My dearest Sohaib, I have kept your picture here on the wall of my desk at the hospital where I work as chaplain ever since your passing. You remain looking over me every day as I navigate how best to provide multi-faith spiritual care to the patients and families I serve, and even now as I type these very words. I cannot reach out to you to ensure that all your loved ones are safe in the wake of this awful war, nor to exchange thoughts and prayers over the ongoing captivity and killings – the unfolding disaster – in our peoples’ shared land. When I spoke about the war with the gracious imam at my hospital, we articulated our profound sorrows and he expressed how this is a conflict within the same extended family. How right I feel he is. Indeed, I see you and your daughter’s face on the faces of so many of the victims in Gaza, just as I see my daughters’ and mine on the faces of the victims in Israel.

I cannot claim to know with certainty what you would think about all of this, my brother, but there are some truths that I carry with me at this awful time: 

You and I experienced together some of our first trials by fire as spiritual care providers walking the line between life and death with patients of every creed. 

You and I viscerally learned the value of life that transformative summer. 

You and I are descendants of the children of Abraham/Ibrahim and celebrated our shared lineage over the years. 

You and I came to see each other as indeed created B’tzelem Elohim – in the Divine Image.

You reminded me of the power of spirituality when my father was facing imminent death – a lesson that I continue to hold close to my heart as he continues to live as a “hospice graduate” these many years later. 

You crossed over to Olam Habah – the World to Come – both grounded and elevated by your profound faith as expressed in your loving, life-affirming and sacred Muslim tradition.

And so: I am convinced in my soul that you would join me and countless other Jewish and Muslim spiritual leaders across the world as we plead with all our cousins, chanting – Inshallah/ Im Yirtzeh Hashem/ G-d-willing –  “May all the killings END.”

A toast to you, Imam Sohaib Sultan, of blessed memory: L’chaim – to Life – everlasting!

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM

Board Certified Chaplain –  Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action

 

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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