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Rabbis of L.A. | Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn: Learning to Become the Wounded Healer

Though she hasn’t been to shul lately, her shul has been with her: the B’nai David community, located in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, has organized meal trains, said her father’s name at minyan, and supported her the way that she has supported them.
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September 9, 2021
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn

In late July, the synagogue leadership of B’nai David-Judea approached Alissa Thomas-Newborn, their community’s Rabbanit since 2015, and suggested she take a leave of absence.

The gesture wasn’t intended as punishment, but as a gift.

Thomas-Newborn’s father, Blade Thomas, had fallen severely ill with a chronic and life threatening illness. As his eldest child, Thomas-Newborn — who also happens to be a board certified chaplain, experienced in delivering palliative, psychiatric and end of life care in hospital settings — seemed the natural choice to oversee her father’s medical needs. She flew him from his home in Royal Oak, Michigan to Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, where she could sit by his side and serve as his advocate.

But no amount of education or experience could have prepared her for the difficulty and intensity of watching her parent suffer.

“I’ve had the privilege of being the spiritual care provider at someone’s bedside before,” Thomas-Newborn said during a phone interview, her voice tender with emotion. “I’ve also been the patient. But I haven’t been the family member, so this has been surreal.” 

Within a month, Thomas underwent six or seven surgeries, Thomas-Newborn told me. She couldn’t remember the exact number because she stopped counting. Back in Michigan, the doctors were so baffled by her father’s condition, “They basically discharged him home to die,” she said. “One doctor said to me, ‘Your questions are better than any answers we have.’”

The situation was dire enough to compel Thomas-Newborn away from her family, which includes her husband, Akiva, and two-year-old daughter, Ella, as well as the community she loves to serve, in order to devote herself full-time to her father’s care. 

“I keep thinking it’s going to get better and I’m going to get back to work,” she said. “But each week, a new issue comes up.”

There are days when her father is alert and days he slips into a distant realm of consciousness. Days when he is stable and days of excruciating pain. Sometimes they watch the news. More times they’ve said the Viddui.

“I find that in the hospital setting, where we are feeling the highs and lows of life, come moments that are the most holy, and where I’ve personally felt God.”

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Thomas-Newborn said. “But I find that in the hospital setting, where we are feeling the highs and lows of life, come moments that are the most holy, and where I’ve personally felt God.”

She said she feels this every time she and her father pray the Mi Sheiberach — Judaism’s healing prayer — first in Hebrew, because she’s Orthodox, and then in the Debbie Friedman melody, because her father is reform. She also described hours spent reading to her father as an act of prayer. They chose “Man’s Search for Meaning,” psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s account of living as a prisoner in a Nazi concerntration camp. 

“It’s been really meaningful to be reading these words to him, which describe everything my Dad is fighting for right now,” she said. “How do you find meaning and the will to live and God in the absolute toughest moments of life? It reminds me of why I got into this field.”

Though she hasn’t been to shul lately, her shul has been with her: the B’nai David community, located in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, has organized meal trains, said her father’s name at minyan, and supported her the way that she has supported them. “That’s what tefillah b’tzibur — prayer and community — is all about. Jewish tradition teaches that God’s presence descends upon a community that has a minyan.” 

And yet, there is an unavoidable loneliness to this ordeal.  

“The hospital is empty,” Thomas-Newborn said, citing a COVID policy that permits only one visitor per patient at a time. Because of pandemic restrictions, she has witnessed hospital staff step into less boundaried roles, often serving as patients’ surrogate families.

For  Thomas-Newborn, too, the familiar boundary between personal and professional has dissolved: At her father’s bedside, she is neither rabbanit nor chaplain; she is his child.

“It can be debilitating,” Thomas-Newborn said of the emotional toll. “There’s a point of exhaustion. I’ve certainly felt at times like ‘How am I going to keep going? This was such a painful day. How am I going to be there for my daughter?’

“When you’re in survival mode, you can’t deny the pain you’re experiencing. You have to give yourself a chance to break.”

Distanced from her normal routine, Thomas-Newborn has seized on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of “praying with your feet.” Instead of the mitzvot she usually fulfills by rote, caring for her father has imbued her religious obligation with more awareness and intention. She referenced Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book, “The Wounded Healer,” and said she will now better serve her congregation by ministering from her own wounds.

Throughout this destabilizing process, Thomas-Newborn said she felt anchored by the Jewish calendar.

“This year I’ve felt the uncertainty and fragility of life in an acute way,” Thomas-Newborn said. “This is the time of year we think about ‘Who will live and who will die,’ when we call upon the liturgy to put into words what we sometimes lose the ability to say. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are so rich in all of these feelings. Turn to any page of the machzor and it describes all of what we’re talking about.

“There’s a reason why spiritual care is part of the interdisciplinary team in a hospital setting,” she added. “Because healing includes the soul.”

Fast Takes with Thomas-Newborn

DANIELLE BERRIN: What’s currently on your night table?
ALISSA THOMAS-NEWBORN: A candle, an aromatherapy oil diffuser, my phone and a book by Jonathan Krakauer. 

DB: Last show you binge-watched?

ATN: “Clickbait”

DB: Your day off looks like…

ATN: Hanging out with my Mom and my dog, and doing something relaxing, like sitting by the beach and getting a drink.

DB: Favorite thing to do in Israel?

ATN: Going to the Kotel and archaeological digs.

DB: Something about you most people don’t know?

ATN: My Dad taught me to surf and skateboard. 

DB: Most essential Torah verse?

ATN: V’chai bahem — that you should live through the mitzvot. That from them you should get life, vitality.  

DB: Biggest challenge facing the Jewish world?

ATN: Coming together; the struggles that come with divisiveness.

DB: Guilty pleasure?

ATN: I definitely have guilty pleasures… hold on. 

DB: Favorite Jewish food?

ATN: Latkes

DB: If you weren’t a rabbanit you’d be…

ATN: When I was a kid I was a musical theater performer but practically speaking, a therapist.

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