In a place where there is no woman…
The case for Orthodox female chaplains.
By Chaplain Daniel Coleman
I often wonder what it would take to encourage Orthodox females to become chaplains.
Board-certified chaplains are members of interdisciplinary healthcare teams, providing spiritual care to patients, families, and staff in moments of illness, loss, crisis, transition, and celebration. To become a chaplain, advanced post-high school Jewish education and clinical chaplaincy training are required; Semichah (rabbinic ordination) is not. When it comes to suffering or healing on humanity, God doesn’t discriminate. In the same vein, chaplains are trained to bring healing by providing care that is sensitive to all people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, faith (or lack of it), etc. That said, the lack of Modern Orthodox female chaplains in this country leaves the profession poorer. Their voice, along with many other qualities that can help educate and sensitize healthcare professionals to the unique concerns of observant women, is missing.
It is now Rosh Chodesh Adar. My wife - bless her – has already started preparing for Pesach. I, however, get away with leaving my preparations till a few days before. Like manna from heaven, our home ‘miraculously prepares itself’ for the holiday. So when I consult with female patients at this time of the year, or before any major holiday, I’m conditioned to ignore or play down their feelings of guilt even though that’s a potentially significant aspect of their hospitalization. I may not even think to explore a burgeoning and prevalent fear that they won’t be able to prepare for Pesach as comprehensively as in years past.
Even if the patient herself is courageous enough to bring up her Pesach-related concerns, my own biases about how wonderful it is to be able to get out of all the intense preparations may impede my ability to appropriately appreciate and validate her suffering. Having an Orthodox female chaplain on the team would enhance the likelihood that she (or her colleagues) would use this opportunity to help the patient talk about how/if the role of provider gives meaning to her life, and the implications of losing that role, even if only temporarily.
Recently, I was referred by a physician to see his patient who had been admitted with severe emphysema. Though she had trouble breathing, she began telling me her story: A former alcoholic and still a heavy smoker, she said she felt guilty about killing herself through smoking and not having had children to leave her mark on the world. “I’m dying for a cigarette,” she admitted bitterly. I invited her to review some key aspects of her life and her initial response was to tell me that she had been estranged from her family for a long time and had only one friend. Only in her fifties, she told me she had been an elementary school teacher for decades, and I reflected back to her that she must have touched many people’s lives over the years. She went silent for a minute or two, biting back some tears – unsuccessfully.
Soon she reverted to talking about her family, regretting that she couldn’t be there for them when she was drinking. I wondered aloud what forgiveness might look like for her. She felt it was too late for reconciliation, but wished her family could know that she had tried her best to straighten out her life and was sorry she had let them down. Before the end of my visit that Wednesday, she asked me to bring her a set of electric Shabbat candles before Shabbat. Though our conversation hadn’t touched on religion, I readily agreed.
Unfortunately, the next time I saw this patient on Friday afternoon she was in intensive care. Comatose, she was likely unaware that members of her family, including her mother and two brothers, were at her bedside. They were in shock because they hadn’t known how seriously ill she was, and felt somewhat cheated that she had hidden this from them. I helped them express their disappointment and anger over her having abandoned them. As we talked further, the family also voiced their appreciation for the time I had spent with her. “She was never able to tell us what she was going through. Thank you for being there for her.” They were even more surprised that she had asked for Shabbat candles since she hadn’t been religious, but they gladly accepted them from me before I left.
The following Monday, I learnt from the medical team that the patient’s family had lit the candles for her later that Friday, and that she had taken her last breath shortly afterward. I was comforted that she had light to accompany her on her journey, and hoped her family had found comfort in that too. Perhaps that’s the promise in Tehillim (18) “For You will light my candle: the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness.”
Would the dynamics of these visits have been different with an Orthodox female chaplain? I don’t know for sure. But it’s likely the themes of children (or lack of them), and the metaphors inherent in Shabbat candles and light would have had additional potency.
What gender-based biases might I (consciously or unconsciously) bring to the conversation as a patient confides in me about an adulterous husband or abusive boyfriend? And how would the spiritual support provided to a nurse with three children going through a tortuous divorce be different if the chaplaincy care came from a female professional?
Reviewing some of my other recent consultations, I wonder if the patient or staff member would have felt more open to discussing some of their burdens and concerns if the chaplain was a frum (observant) female. For example: A Jewish patient distressed over whether to continue a relationship with his non-Jewish partner; an administrator seeking guidance over whether the time has come to freeze her eggs in the hope that someday she’ll find her bashert (soulmate); a physician who wonders why Jewish guys were more interested in her before she became Jewish; a frum single patient in her forties who - after years of fertility treatment kept secret from friends and family – is on bed rest in the home stretch before celebrating the joyous birth of her child.
I believe the field of chaplaincy would be greatly enriched by Orthodox females. If you or someone you know is looking to make a lasting difference by embarking on a rewarding spiritual career in a healthcare setting, I invite you to be in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chaplain Daniel Coleman provides non-judgmental religious and spiritual care to patients of all faiths and none at North Shore University Hospital. He is a board member of NAJC and a member of APC (professionalchaplains.org). His wife Anat helped inspire this piece, edited it, took their son out for a few hours so that Daniel could work on this, and is currently menu-planning for Pesach.