When Jason Weiner began serving as a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center nearly fifteen years ago, he was completely unprepared for what he would encounter.
Still in his 20s, Weiner had not trained for this kind of work, nor was he convinced he wanted to do it. His first patient visit stunned him with its gravity: A high school teacher had been hospitalized due to stress and shock. As Weiner sat with him, the teacher confessed that earlier that week, he had belittled a student, telling her that if she spent as much time studying as she did applying makeup, she might amount to something one day. The student committed suicide. The teacher was bereft.
“He was crying and I had no idea what to say,” Weiner, 42, recalled. “I felt horrible for him and that young woman. Then, my next patient asked, ‘Rabbi, should we pull the plug? What does Jewish law say?’ I was like, wow, this is intense. I’m a little bit out of my league here.’”
At the time, Weiner was happy in his role as a congregational rabbi at Young Israel of Century City. But when Cedars’ then-chaplain, Rabbi Levi Meier fell ill, Weiner could not refuse a colleague’s request for help.
“I found it very difficult at first,” he said of stepping into one of the most delicate and demanding ecclesiastical roles. “People were dealing with really severe crises, asking me questions about life and death. If I gave the wrong answer, it could impact someone’s life in a very significant way. I was really intimidated by that and it was really hard.”
But he didn’t turn away. Instead, Weiner spent the next several years training and immersing himself in the role. His willingness to inhabit a path he did not plan for is proof that a calling is not always a choice. And it’s an apt metaphor for a rabbinate that has since been defined by endless encounters with fate; by illness, accidents and death, illustrating that there are experiences in life for which preparation is secondary to presence.
“It’s about showing people that you sincerely care, that you’re with them and that you’re listening.”
“It took me a while to realize it’s not so much about what you say or what advice you give,” Weiner said. “It’s about being a truly compassionate, un-anxious presence. It’s about showing people that you sincerely care, that you’re with them and that you’re listening. Because the goal is to help people find their own strength and their own way of coping.”
After his predecessor, Rabbi Meier, died, Cedars did a search for a new Jewish chaplain. But by then, Weiner had become indispensable and they hired him.
“At that point I had fallen in love,” Weiner said. “I found it to be very sincere and meaningful work. Every day you’re on the front lines of life and death, so things matter in the hospital in ways that are sometimes more profound and feel more important than in other areas of life.”
He was also temperamentally suited to the position. “I’m an introvert,” he said, “better at listening than talking.”
Unlike the pulpit, where preaching is the central power of the platform, Weiner’s work depends more on routine and even mundane actions.
Over the last year and a half, as the Covid-19 pandemic catapulted Cedars into crisis mode, families were prohibited from visiting their loved ones at bedside. Weiner got used to holding up smartphones so families could FaceTime. Or delivering homemade meals to patients who were picky eaters. One woman, he told me, slept outside in her car for more than a month while her husband fought Covid from a hospital bed. Weiner moved the husband closer to the window so he could wave to his wife waiting below.
In extraordinary circumstances, simple things can rise to the level of the miraculous.
Early in the pandemic, when even nurses and doctors avoided entering patients’ rooms, Weiner ensured that observant Jews were properly prepared for burial. During his first Jewish Covid death, he stood in the hallway, on the phone with the family, reciting Hebrew prayers while a non-Jewish nurse risked her health to close the patient’s eyes and mouth and position the body according to Jewish law.
“I was for sure putting myself at severe risk,” he said. “But I had this attitude of, ‘I have to do this. People are counting on me. Sometimes it was a burden, but it also felt like a privilege.”
With five kids and a wife at home, Weiner was vigilant about taking every precaution against Covid. Every day, he wore layers of personal protective equipment (PPE) and took loads of vitamins. For months on end, he would go home, shower and change his clothes before greeting anyone in his family. But he was less well defended against the emotional and psychological toll of the tragedies he witnessed and the energy he expended.
“I don’t cope well,” he confessed. “When I first started, I remember sitting at a restaurant on Pico and an ambulance went by. And I had this vision in my head of the scene at the emergency room, and all the sudden I got very nervous and anxious. All the stuff I see, it’s in me. I absorb it.”
Weiner said he’s getting better at the self care aspect, and now runs as often as possible to relieve his stress. Before Covid, he would listen to podcasts and lectures during his free time. But now, he prefers to listen to music.
The hardest part of the job, he said, is confronting his own powerlessness. How do you pray for healing when healing isn’t possible?
Weiner recalled one time he became close to a young patient who was terminally ill and later died. When Weiner showed up at the shiva, her father raged at him in grief: “Your prayers didn’t work!” he shouted. Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish prayer for healing, seemed like false hope.
“I felt like I really failed,” Weiner said.
It made him rethink his approach to prayer.
“Now I help people look at prayer in terms of building a relationship with God,” he said, “or as a coping mechanism, a metaphysical support system. Prayer can be about hope but not expectation.
“Prayers aren’t about being answered, they’re about being heard.”
Fast Takes with Rabbi Jason Weiner
Danielle Berrin: What’s currently on your night table?
Jason Weiner: The Choice by Edith Eger
DB: Last show you binge-watched?
JW: On YouTube, the Israeli show Od Nifgash “We will meet again.”
DB: Your day off looks like…
JW: Running at the beach.
DB: Favorite thing to do in Israel?
JW: Just being in Jerusalem. Anywhere in Jerusalem makes me happy.
DB: Something about you most people don’t know?
JW: I was in a punk rock band in high school and college.
DB: Most essential Torah verse?
JW: Every human is created betzelem elohim, in the divine image
DB: Biggest challenge facing the Jewish world?
DB: Guilty pleasure?
JW: Dark chocolate
DB: Favorite Jewish food?
DB: If you weren’t a rabbi you’d be…
JW: A city planner.