Chaplains: The Unsung Heroes of American Judaism

Chaplain at patient's bedside

The chaplain at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, Rabbi Harold Stern, at a patient's bedside.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Calvary Hospital

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Oct. 19, 2022

By Lawrence Goodman

As part of her job at Boston Children's Hospital, Susan Harris '78 consoles grieving parents who've just lost a child, supports families with end-of-life care, and comforts children with terminal illnesses.

But on Fridays, in anticipation of the Sabbath, she also gives out challah. Even critically ill children who feel too weak to eat or have lost their appetite will take a few bites of the traditional sweet Jewish bread.

"It can be a turning point," said Harris, the hospital's director of spiritual care. "I don't mean dramatically, but small changes in perspective make a difference."

Such are the responsibilities, obligations, and challenges of a Jewish chaplain. Typically not employed by a synagogue, yet rabbis by training, they work in healthcare, prisons, colleges and universities, and other organizations, offering everything from morale boosters to life-changing spiritual guidance.

And yet, according to a new report by Brandeis scholars Wendy Cadge, Bethamie Horowitz, and several colleagues, the work of Jewish chaplains often goes underappreciated and overlooked.

Hiding in Plain Sight 

The report, published by the Brandeis-based Chaplaincy Innovation Lab (CIL), is the most comprehensive examination to date on the state of Jewish chaplaincy in America.

It found there are roughly 1,000 Jewish chaplains nationwide, often serving isolated or marginalized individuals: the sick, incarcerated, and unhoused, individuals struggling with substance abuse, and immigrants.

The report also calls for an expanded role for chaplains in American Jewish life by promoting them to leadership positions and involving them in the strategic decisions of major Jewish organizations.

It argues that chaplains have an especially vital role to play in serving the increasing number of non-Orthodox American Jews who are not affiliated with synagogues. The American Jewish population is also disproportionately elderly compared to Americans in general, and among this demographic, there may be a greater need for chaplaincy services.

"Jewish chaplains are a communal resource hiding in plain sight," said Cadge, Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanistic Social Sciences. "Chaplains are trained to meet people where and as they are."

Among the new report's major findings:

Chaplains of the Past

Though the chaplaincy profession dates to the early Middle Ages, Jewish chaplains only appeared in America in the mid-19th century, with the advent of Jewish hospitals. For example, as part of its mission to provide "comfort and protection in sickness to deserving and needy Israelites," Jews' Hospital in New York invited four rabbis to offer patients what was then called "pastoral care."

In 1861, the self-styled "Reverend Doctor" Arnold Fischel lobbied Abraham Lincoln to let Jewish chaplains serve in the military despite federal legislation permitting only Christians. Lincoln compromised, interpreting the phrase requiring chaplains to be of "some Christian denomination" broadly enough to include Jews.

Though rabbis frequently visited Jewish inmates through the 1800s, it wasn't until 1895 that New York state funded an official Jewish chaplain for its prisons. Other states soon followed. Hillels began appearing on college campuses in the 1920s, spreading Jewish chaplains to higher education.

In 2018, Cadge started the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab (CIL) to bring chaplains of all faiths into a conversation with educators and social scientists about the work of chaplaincy and spiritual care.

Earlier this year, CIL released results from a survey showing that about a quarter of American adults had had a chaplain assist, counsel, or visit with them at some point in their lives. More than half of these said their experience with the chaplain was "very valuable."

"When people have distressing periods in their lives, crises, or something that really shakes them, it's often a chaplain who will be poised to help," said Horowitz, research director of CIL's Mapping Jewish Chaplaincy project. "Chaplains are absolutely vital."

Building a Better Chaplaincy

The new CIL report on Jewish chaplains calls for an expanded role for the profession as Jewish organizations reinvent themselves to serve the needs of America's Jews.

The report says that in the past, these organizations have focused on "Jewish survival" and "Jewish continuity." They are now more attuned to what the report calls issues of "resilience and human flourishing."

Chaplains are especially well-suited to help meet these new concerns, the report says.

"We want Jewish leaders who are facing different kinds of problems and dilemmas in their organizations to ask if chaplains might be part of the solution," said Cadge, the CIL's founder and director. "By better integrating chaplains in the Jewish community, we will be able to better care for people who are on the fringes, who are overlooked, or who are not involved with local congregations."

The CIL report offers several recommendations, including:

Sara Paasche-Orlow (Massachusetts Board of Rabbis) and Mychal Springer (New York-Presbyterian Hospital) also contributed to the report on Jewish chaplains. Brandeis PhD candidate Joseph Weisburg conducted research on the history of Jewish chaplaincy.