December 14, 2018

In Search of a Prayer During a Trying Time

Photo from Max Pixel.

Last Wednesday I had anterior cervical discectomy and fusion surgery done on my neck. Two of my discs were bulging so badly they were pushing on my spine. My arm had been numb for several months and even though I did physical therapy for over a year in an attempt to avoid the surgery, I could longer wait and the procedure was finally scheduled. Four hours and six screws later, I am recuperating nicely and the benefits of the surgery were instantly felt. I woke up with no numbness or tingling in my arm, and am thrilled with the results.

My procedure was done at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. When I checked in for surgery I immediately asked if I could see the rabbi from the Spiritual Care department for a prayer. I clarified that if a rabbi was not available, I would happily pray with any member of the clergy. I simply wanted to pray with someone dedicated to God, and the religious affiliation was not that important. As I sat with my son and told him how much I wanted for the rabbi to come and say a prayer, and he assured me it would be fine and we could pray on our own, but not to worry because someone was coming.

I was waiting for the nurse to arrive to insert an IV when Chaplain Phil Kiehl walked in. He introduced himself and said he stopped by as he had heard I wanted to pray with him. I almost started to cry I was so happy to see him. He sat with me and my son and took time to get to know us. He asked about the operation, who the surgeon was, who the anesthesiologist was, what my pain was, and what the goal was. After we chatted for a few minutes he joined hands with me and my son and gave what can only be described as a perfect prayer.

It was kind and honest and made me feel very safe in my faith. It was a prayer of compassion and blessings. When Phil left the room, me and my son turned to each other and both said it was the most wonderful prayer and had left us feeling happy and at peace. I went into surgery feeling comfortable with my medical team and embraced by God. The following day as I rested and waited for the doctor to give permission for me to leave the hospital, a woman from the clergy office stopped by. Her name was Rebecca Stringer and she was paying me an unexpected visit to check in on me as she heard I was leaving.

She had a beautiful smile and a warmth I could feel. Her soul was visible and I was profoundly moved by her. We spoke about prayer and the importance it has in both of our lives. We spoke about our children and she shared she had lost a child to cancer. Her beloved little boy had passed away and she spoke of him in a way that painted a picture of love. This angel has a remarkable mother who is rooted in prayer and faith. She helped me more than she could ever know. We did not share the same religion, but we shared a life of faith which was respectful and embracing in a way that I wish it could be for everyone.

She held my hand and said a prayer that made me cry. I will forever remember her generosity of spirit and the feeling it gave me. Her words brought me real healing. We may practice different religions, but we pray to the same God and our exchange was special. I am a woman of faith and have experienced many blessings, but this was a rare moment of an authentic spiritual connection to another human being. We were sisters in prayer and I felt God holding onto us. When you can connect through God, without the judgment of religion, it is remarkable.

When Rebecca left my room I had a feeling of gratitude in the wake of her grace. My surgery was a success and I thank Phil and Rebecca for their kindness. Prayer is personal and mine is generally private, but my prayer this week had company and it was lovely. There is power in prayer and when voices join together it is wonderful. I feel great and am getting stronger each day. I was terrified going into the surgery and am relieved it is over and went so well. Life is good and good health is a blessing. I am grateful, happy, healthy, and keeping the faith.

Ilana Angel writes the Keeping the Faith blog at

Rena Hirsch: Her Life Is ‘Being of Service to God’

Rena Hirsch

Rena Hirsch, who is participating in a chaplaincy internship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, has comforted stroke, heart attack and cancer patients, as well as the occasional gunshot wound or traffic accident victim. Then there was the young Jewish woman who arrived in the emergency room after overdosing on heroin some time ago.

Hirsch discovered that the woman’s mother had died when she was a girl, and that she had been raised in a series of foster homes. “She wanted to turn her life around, so I gave her encouragement and the numbers of rehabilitation facilities,” Hirsch, who is Orthodox, said in her Fairfax-area home, surrounded by Jewish art and books. “We prayed together, and I tried to help connect her to God, because she did believe in God.”

“When you are in a medical crisis, it brings out old traumas,” Hirsch added.  “And when you are a person who is a chaplain, they feel they can share with you their pain.”

“When you are in a medical crisis, it brings out old traumas.”

Hirsch is now in her second year of the two-year layman chaplaincy training at Cedars, which requires 1,600 hours of patient visits to complete. On a volunteer basis, those chaplains provide a compassionate presence for patients and families, helping them sort through their spiritual and emotional distress and providing a spiritual perspective if desired. Hirsch’s goals include “breaking patients’ isolation, and encouraging them to find strength within themselves.”

Hirsch, who was born in Morocco and raised in Toronto, began her volunteer efforts in earnest after she married and moved to Los Angeles 28 years ago.  When her husband suggested that she try matchmaking for baalei teshuvah —  people who are becoming observant — she attended a singles event and began connecting with people and gathering names.

“These people don’t have their parents, teachers or rebbes to match them up,” she said of why the matchmaking is crucial.

Hirsch began to work many hours per week to help Jews who were in the process of becoming or were Sabbath observant. Her clients today range in age from 18 to 75. She often begins by questioning people about what they would like in a prospective spouse; those predilections have changed over the years, she said. “The men, as always, want someone they’re attracted to and is a good person,” she explained. “But these days many men are also looking for someone who can bring in a second income, since it’s so expensive to live in Los Angeles.

“In past years, women were looking for a mensch and a provider,” she added.  “Today they’ve got a longer list; he’s got to be fit, funny, established and educated.”

Hirsch has long arranged for people to meet at her Shabbat dinner table, where she regularly hosts at least 25 guests. During the Journal interview on a Thursday, her kitchen bustled with preparations for that Friday’s Sabbath meal.

Her efforts have resulted in more than 50 marriages, three of which took place in her backyard. Hirsch also has hosted Jewish outreach events for some 40 young people at her home.

Her work with visiting the sick began when she was a young mother who would take her children to speak with the elderly in nursing homes and also at Cedars-Sinai, where she would distribute Shabbat kits to the patients.

To enhance her volunteering skills, she enrolled in the paraprofessional counseling program of the Wagner Program at American Jewish University four years ago. At Wagner, she studied subjects such as childhood development, psychology and gerontology. When it came time to do her internship through Wagner, she chose the chaplaincy program at Cedars-Sinai.

There, her studies have continued with such topics as how to support patients with disabilities or who suffer from mental illnesses.

“For me, my work is about being of service to God,” she said.

Hour of Separation, Hour of Connection by Rabbi Janet Madden

Offering comfort

A few days ago, someone said to me “Oh, you’re a hospital chaplain,” and before I could respond, followed up with “So you go around and visit patients.”

The easiest answer was “Yes.”

I visit patients of all sorts and in all sorts of circumstances. Some are happily going home with a new baby or a new knee. Others are recovering from a surgery, have a newborn in the NICU or have survived a stroke or a cardiac event. Others are undergoing chemotherapy or are testing in hopes of discovering the cause of their illness. Still others are leaving the hospital and transitioning to rehab facilities or going home to the reality of a life-changing, life-limiting or life-ending diagnosis.

But I don’t just visit patients. In addition to providing spiritual care and advocacy to patients, I provide spiritual care to patients’ families and friends and caregivers and to the hospital staff. And because I am also an experienced hospice chaplain and a certified palliative care chaplain, my workdays often involve end-of-life decision making and death.

As a Clinical Pastoral Education-trained chaplain, I am prepared to serve patients and families of any faith tradition or none. As the hospital’s Visiting Rabbi, I am always assigned to spiritual care for the hospital’s Jewish population. In some instances, I work with patients and families over a period of months—even years. Or, as happened this week, my first meeting with a patient and family comes at the time of death. And sometimes, as in this case, facing death often prompts someone who has previously declined chaplaincy visits to open to spiritual care.

After more than a month in the ICU, there were no further treatment options for Ruth. I had been contacted by the palliative care team ten minutes earlier, notifying me that Ruth would be soon placed on comfort care. Her sister had asked for me to be present.

“She’s had a horrible life, a terrible life since she was a teenager,” Ruth’s sister Rachel told me. “Now, I want her to have peace.”

Nine years younger than Ruth, and her power of attorney, Rachel was both broken-hearted and resolute about her decision to place Ruth on comfort care.  Rachel is an RN and she was deeply involved in Ruth’s care. Rachel had steadfastly believed that Ruth would recover from some of the medical issues that had eroded her health and she had refused any spiritual care visits for her sister, fearing that Ruth would “give up hope” if a chaplain visited. Now, Rachel, her sister-in-law and her best friend and I sat together and Rachel shared her sister’s story.

Ruth, a social worker, was 57 years old. Her 72 year old husband lives in a facility for dementia patients; he is non-verbal and needs round-the-clock care. They had no children. For the last 8 years, since her husband had been moved to a facility where he can receive the care he needs, Ruth had lived with her beloved dog. When her dog died, she adopted a second beloved dog and her greatest worry, Rachel told us, was what would happen to her dog.

She cared more about her dog than she did about herself, Rachel said. Ruth drank too much. She gained an unhealthy amount of weight. She wouldn’t exercise. She worked too many hours and suffered from insomnia and didn’t get the medical care that she should. She had few friends and didn’t socialize. She was not connected to a Jewish community or any community.

Ruth mourned the loss of their brothers, both of whom had died, years apart, one as a child, one as a young adult, both on her birthday. She mourned the death of her parents. She mourned her husband, lost to early-onset Alzheimers.

Rachel said that Ruth acknowledged her depression but didn’t want treatment. Ruth had told Rachel months ago that she had had enough; she was ready to die. Ruth had been her babysitter when Rachel was a child and her lifelong friend and confidante. Ruth and Rachel were the last living members of their birth family, and Rachel shared her deep hurt that Ruth did not want to live, that she wanted to leave her.

In the hour that we spent together, the last hour of Ruth’s life, we engaged in life review, talked about grief and loss and about beautiful, sustaining memories. I chanted for Ruth and Rachel, and recited the Viddui and the Shema, We blessed Ruth for a gentle, peaceful transition. Rachel told Ruth how much she loves her, thanked her for the lifetime of loving care that Ruth had given her, and told her that wanted no more pain for her.

A couple of hours later, after Rachel and the others had left, after I had sat with Ruth’s body until it had been picked by by the mortuary transport, after I completed charting the visit, after I prayed and washed my hands, and stepped outside for a few moments of air, I reentered the hospital and went to another room to visit another patient.

Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute. She is a regular contributor to Expired And Inspired.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden




The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting January 9th, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).


The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There will be an orientation session January 2nd.

Information on attending the online orientation and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information. Detailed information on the preview will appear here in the weeks leading up to that event.


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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session, held on the 3rd Wednedsays of the month (but watch for any changes). Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is November 15th with a discussion of creative liturgy by Jean Berman.

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Gamliel Continuing Education Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute and Gamliel students should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in Fall 2017, focusing on Psalms. The next course will be in April, and will look at death as seen in the Zohar. Registration is required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Contact us –  register at, email, or call 410-733-3700.



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If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.




A Chaplain’s calling: ‘It drew me in’

For Rabbi Jason Weiner, his one-year chaplaincy internship at Beth Israel Medical Center New York’s Lower East Side was a not-so-pleasant requirement while he was a rabbinic student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

“I didn’t feel like I had any impact. I didn’t feel like I could really help people,” said Weiner, who is now senior rabbi and manager of spiritual care at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The feeling changed in 2007, when Weiner, who was serving as assistant rabbi at Young Israel of Century City, was asked to fill in part time at Cedars-Sinai because the hospital’s longtime chaplain, Rabbi Levi Meier, had fallen ill. 

“I quickly began to build confidence in the impact a chaplain could have in people’s lives. I began to realize how appreciative people were, and how fulfilling it was, and how much I was learning and growing. I felt like I was on the front lines of life and death. The intensity of that really drew me in,” he said.



Cedars-Sinai’s chaplaincy program puts spirituality on the medical charts

Usually, the frantic words, “Someone get the rabbi!” uttered in a hospital room mean only one thing. So Debbie Marcus burst into tears when Rabbi Jason Weiner was summoned to her grandfather’s room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in July 2008. 

Weiner, then interim Jewish chaplain at Cedars-Sinai, quickly assessed the situation: Albert Rubens, 97, had been brought in with a massive heart attack. Although he was still lucid, it was clear he was not going to make it. 

But even with that devastating news, the rabbi detected that Debbie’s tears were about something more. And he was right. Albert, known to his family as Pop-Pop, had been eager to see Debbie, then 39, get married, but she and her then-fiancé, Marty Marcus, had not set a date for the wedding.

So someone floated an idea: Get married. Right now. 



Gillibrand presses Army on beard policy

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand urged the Army to modify a regulation banning facial hair in order to allow rabbis to serve as chaplains.

“It is my understanding that a review of this policy is currently under way at the Department of Defense,” Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote recently to Army Secretary John McHugh. “I write to strongly urge that while this review is ongoing, the Army grant waivers of this policy to prospective chaplains who are otherwise fully qualified to serve.”

In December, Rabbi Menachem Stern sued the U.S. Army, saying it refused his services as a chaplain because he would not shave his beard. Gillibrand and other senators had taken up Stern’s case last August.

“Since writing to you last August about the case of Rabbi Menachem M. Stern, I have become aware of other instances where qualified chaplains have been told by their superiors that they cannot display facial hair while serving in the Army,” Gillibrand said in her letter. “This discriminatory practice forces rabbis and other members of the clergy to choose between their deeply held religious beliefs and their desire to serve their country in the Armed Forces.”

Top Gun Rabbi

While you won’t find Sarah Schecter soaring through the skies like Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," the Los Angeles resident has the honor of becoming the Air Force’s first female rabbi.

Schecter, who was ordained in May at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, is currently a chaplain candidate.

Rather than flying F-16s, Schecter will serve as a spiritual leader and counselor for Jews in the Air Force. To prepare for her new career, she will go to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia later this summer to train with the rabbi there.

"It’s an unexpected and wonderful surprise to be making history," said the 35-year-old second lieutenant. "On the other hand, I feel really sad, because of the lack of female rabbis that have pursued serving this community."

While Schecter’s father was also an Air Force rabbi, she never had the intention of following in his footsteps. After spending time in Israel and serving the Jewish community in Japan during her college years, Schecter knew she wanted Judaism to be a central part of her life. Even so, she remembers her hesitancy when her mother suggested she explore the rabbinate.

"I said, ‘You mean be a rabbi?’" Schecter recalled with a laugh.

Soon afterward, she decided that becoming a rabbi was indeed the right path. Her interest in the Air Force developed after Sept. 11.

"When I listened to the horrific stories of the World Trade Center coming down," she recalled, "I said to my husband, ‘I’m going to join the military. I want to serve this community now.’"

At the end of the summer, Schecter expects to be promoted to first lieutenant. At that time, she will become a reservist awaiting active duty.

In the meantime, Schecter, who wears her "Tablets and Star" rabbinical pin on her fatigues and Air Force blues uniform, said she is thrilled to help boost morale among Jewish officers.

"It’s an important part of social action," she said. "Here are Jews doing difficult work, and like anyone else, they need someone there for them so they don’t have to be there alone."

The Circuit

Keepin’ it Real Estate

Becker General Contractors’ Sandy Becker was happy to be at what is known in the real estate and construction business as a “sunriser” — an early morning get-together. With a 4-month-old baby at home, Becker has, in recent weeks, been out of the loop regarding the regularly held sunrisers staged by The Jewish Federation’s Real Estate and Construction Division.

But Becker was one of many real estate-related entrepreneurs packing the 6505 Wilshire Blvd. boardroom for a special dor v’dor panel focused on relatives working together in real estate, which Victor Coleman, president/COO of Arden Realty, moderated.

Robert Gluckstein, owner of Robert I. Gluckstein Investments, shared with the in-the-know industry intelligentsia his highs and lows in the business, as well as some insights into the cyclical nature of Los Angeles’ real estate world. He also traced the career trajectory of his son, Brad Gluckstein, who went from Frisbee-flinging frat boy at Berkeley to becoming the self-made owner of Apex Realty and, more recently, CEO/managing partner of the Conga Room nightclub.

“I’m very proud of my son, because most of what he has accomplished, he’s done on his own,” Robert Gluckstein said.

Brad Gluckstein confirmed that autonomy in a parent-sibling relationship is critical to their healthy working relationship, and that keeping offices and dealings separate has helped achieve those ends.

Melissa Bordy talked about coming aboard as CFO of Held Properties Inc., founded in 1952 by her father, Harold Held, only after working her way up the field of finance at other companies. Unlike the Glucksteins, the Held family works together in the same office.

“Give them the authority to accomplish that responsibility and don’t stand in their way” was Held’s sage advice on how to foster a successful second-generation real estate kin.

Mark Lainer of Lainer Investments spoke of working with son-in-law Brian Fagan. Like the Glucksteins, whose real estate roots go back to 1918, the Lainers are third-generation real estate businessmen who still turn to to 99-year-old patriarch Louis Lainer for Solomonesque advice. Fagan spoke of the savvy and experience he has gleaned working alongside Mark, who in turn spoke about the hands-on nature of their business, which includes investing in properties and managing them.

“As my father liked to say,” Mark Lainer said, “‘I’m the president and I’m the janitor.'”

Raising Bar on Closets

While some Hollywood Jews are coming out of the closet to support Israel, others are going into the closet — but with good reason.

Doorset Closet Mobel prides itself on premium closet spaces manufactured in Israel, where the company has been based since 1986.

LA Architect magazine recently spotlighted Doorset with a special reception at Doorset’s Beverly Hills showroom. Playing hostess that evening was Netaly Bar, the showroom’s sales and marketing manager and the daughter of Doorset founder Amos Ayzenberg, who, with wife Lily Ayzenberg, attended the Beverly Hills reception.

Also in attendance, noshing on hors d’oeuvres courtesy of The Grill: Michael Kienzl and Aaron Alfi, partners in Bradco Kitchens and Baths, another L.A.-based importer of Israeli home design products; Yariv Ben-Yehuda, an Israel Defense Forces Radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles; Ashley Lowengrub, representing products designed by his mother, Israeli sculptor Ilana Goor, and clothing designer James Perse, creator of the Los Angeles-based IAMGE T’s casual clothing line, which LA Architect invited to take part in the evening.

Saluting Kraus

Some 150 members and friends of the Shomrim Society of Southern California, the fraternal society for Jewish law enforcement personnel, gathered at Sinai Temple on April 29 to honor Rabbi Henry E. Kraus for his long service as chaplain to the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Among those on hand to honor the rabbi were Police Chief William Bratton; Sheriff Lee Baca; Rabbi David Wolpe; Shomrim President Marvin Goldsmith; Sinai President Abner Goldstine; Dr. Alfred Pasternak, Kraus’s brother-in-law; and his grandsons, Jerry and Dr. Daniel Janoff. Kraus, 88, a survivor of Auschwitz, once served as chief rabbi of the western region of Hungary. — Staff Report