Jewish Chaplain Need Faces Obstacles


For more than two years, Norma Glickman led a mostly solitary vigil as she sat by her husband’s bedside during his all too frequent hospitalizations.

It was not until the day he died, and only after he took his last breath, that a nurse finally asked her if she would like to meet with a Jewish chaplain.

As Glickman recounts it, the spiritual support and comfort that she and her husband needed was not offered until it was too late.

There may be a number of explanations as to why the Glickmans didn’t have access to a Jewish chaplain, including the fact that as Norma states, “I didn’t know it was something I could have requested.”

However, even if the request had been made, it’s questionable whether or not a Jewish chaplain would have been available.

The fact is that there is a significant and recognized shortage of qualified Jewish chaplains. As the need for their services grows, we as a community need to re-examine and remove the obstacles that have long hindered the growth of this profession.

On Jan. 9, I attended a four-day conference in Philadelphia sponsored by the National Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC). More than 100 chaplains from all over the United States and Israel attended. Discussions andworkshops ranged from professional interests, such as the possible collaboration with other similar groups forming common certification standards, to the more highly charged, including looking at domestic violence in Jewish families, facing the reality of long-term care, elder abuse, etc.

The chaplains were a most idealistic group, and their energy and enthusiasm for the works of chesed that they do was palpable. Whether it was military chaplains who described miraculous healing stories on the front lines, or those who worked in various public and private institutions, they all shared a conviction that their work was vital, and it gave them a sense of meaning and fulfillment.

At the same time, their dedication to their profession was tempered by the reality of a limited job market and the challenge of upgrading the status of their profession. As one participant remarked, “I’m frustrated by the fact that so many people need our services, and yet institutions simply aren’t hiring.” This is particularly distressing given the growing need for trained professionals in this field.

In 2002, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles released a report titled, “Service to Jews in Institutions.” This important work examined the services provided to Jews in the prison system, hospitals, nursing homes and hospices. However, it also noted that there are other “vulnerable populations,” including Jews living in residential recovery programs, those living in shelters, as well as Jewish seniors and disabled living independently.

The report cited statistics from the Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey ’97, including the fact the number of Jews in Los Angeles older than 65 grew from 11.1 percent to 20.4 percent in 1997 (with 4,500 living in residential facilities), and that “almost one in five households reported that someone in the household had been hospitalized in the preceding year.” These numbers are sure to grow as baby boomers age and advances in health care prolong life expectancy.

Among the report’s findings was the fact that there were “deficits in the number of chaplains and parachaplains” and, as a result, one of the suggestions made was to “conduct a training program for both ordained clergy and nonordained Jews that gives them the skills and knowledge needed for chaplaincy.”

At the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (AJR, CA), we took the report findings and, particularly, the latter recommendation very seriously. As a result, AJR, CA, established a Jewish Chaplaincy Program in 2003.

This program is two academic years, plus one summer, with a year’s practicum/field work and a masters’ thesis among the requirements. The program weaves together an integration of Judaism, training and counseling, human development, the skills to lead relevant liturgical ceremonies, halachic requirements relating to life-cycle events, knowledge of Jewish medical ethics and issues related to the dying, etc.

The graduating student will be capable of working in various settings, but the question is will there be jobs available? For while The Federation study acknowledges the need for Jewish chaplains, a number of obstacles still need to be confronted and overcome.

Low pay and few benefits have been among the negative factors that have contributed to the dearth of chaplains. Related to that, both the medical and insurance industries still adhere to the principle that the healing of the body takes precedence over the less measurable needs of the healing of the soul. This translates into lack of reimbursement to chaplains by insurance companies and the paucity of chaplaincy positions in health care institutions.

In addition, until fairly recently, Jewish chaplains were overwhelmingly ordained rabbis, and there has been resistance among some to accept nonordained colleagues, the feeling being that only clergy have the necessary religious training required to minister in this realm. However, with the opportunities for professional/religious training available, this attitude needs to change.

Indeed, according to Cecille Asekoff, the NAJC’s coordinator, there does seem to be “a trend of nonordained people going into chaplaincy, as compared to 10 or 15 years ago.”

This change is encouraging, because while it may be part of the job description of congregational clergy to visit their sick congregants, not everyone belongs to a synagogue, nor is it just the sick who need their spiritual needs met. In addition, congregational clergy have so many responsibilities already that good intentions aside, many may simply not have the time to do all that they would like in this area.

As the need for qualified Jewish chaplains grows, we as a community must act. The budgetary constraints of nonprofit institutions are a reality that cannot be ignored. But, at the same time, how can we ignore the spiritual comfort of so many of our fellow Jews?

As for Norma Glickman, the experience that she and her late husband went through has had a profound impact on her. Last summer, the former program director for seniors at the Westside JCC applied and was accepted as a first-year student in the AJR, CA’s Jewish Chaplaincy Program.

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb is dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California’s Rabbinical School and Chaplaincy Program. He is also a licensed clinical social worker and holds a Ph.D in psychology.