At a time when we are all being bombarded with reminders on how to keep ourselves well physically, it may be easy to overlook that there is more to healing than focusing solely on the body. An under-recognized resource in the Jewish community, however, is uniquely prepared to help us take a more holistic approach.
The concept of Jewish chaplains had its beginnings in the military, going as far back as the Civil War. Today’s Jewish chaplains include rabbis and individuals from other professional backgrounds who feel called to offer what is now known as spiritual care. Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) has 300 professional members as well as 300 supporters, and has grown to be an international organization.
NAJC past-president Chaplain Bruce Feldstein MD, BCC directs Jewish Chaplaincy Services serving Stanford Medicine, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties (JFCS). For the first 20 years of his career, Feldstein was an emergency room physician practicing medicine in one of healthcare’s most intense environments. Midway down a professional path that he expected to stay on, however, Feldstein sustained a life-changing back injury that meant he could no longer work as an emergency doctor.
Faced with what could have been a career-ending crisis, however, Feldstein tapped into another dimension of healing that had long inspired him. Finding a new professional path, he founded The Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medicine. Now another two decades have gone by and his unique combination of medical training, personal experience with life-changing disruption, and deep knowledge of spiritual care are ideally suited to another situation he never expected.
While much of what Jewish chaplains do takes place at the bedside in a wide range of healthcare and residential settings, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to bring the insights of Jewish spiritual care to the wider community. “Chaplains provide existential, emotional, religious and other support during times of great personal disruption,” Feldstein said. “When there is no going back, there is only moving forward. Even in the most difficult situations, it is possible to do that with meaning, purpose and connectedness,” he added.
A SPIRITUAL FITNESS TOOLKIT FOR DESIGNING OUR WELL-BEING Recently Feldstein co-led a new three-part series with JFCS clinical social worker Mimi Ezray LCSW, MPH, who has decades of experience working with parents, children and teens. Together they developed “Designing Our Well-Being: Drawing from Medicine and Jewish Tradition” to educate participants about knowledge and tools that can be readily applied to the unprecedented situation facing all of us today. Blending Torah texts, spiritual fitness exercises, real stories from bedside care and current encounters with the new world of “tele-chaplaincy,” they taught how even in these times, it is possible to find moments of joy. The Spiritual Fitness Toolkit for Designing Our Well-Being is now available for download.
There may be no going back to the world we knew before, but as we take the first steps on a new path, it is reassuring to know that we can look to Jewish chaplains to accompany us and help us find our way.
NAJC has created a web page with an extensive array of resources to address the emotional and spiritual impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.