When Rabbi Mike Schultz met Sharona (alias), she was a young mother of two girls, suffering of terminal cancer, and angry – mostly at God that is not planning to let her see her girls grow up.
Schultz, a Jewish spiritual care provider in profession, helped her understand that she can use the illness to prepare her daughters for life, and leave this world without anger.
After the personal coaching courses and the empowerment trend – it is now the turn of Jewish spiritual care. A relatively new profession, imported from the United States, is becoming an acceptable professional field. It is a complementary profession to mental and health treatments, when the crisis is big.
“I was an occupational therapist, working with chronic and terminal patients,” said Dvora Corn. “I felt that despite everything I can give the patient, there is still something missing.”
Corn founded Tishkofet foundation, and she serves as Chair of the Network of Foundations for Spiritual Care in Israel.
“It is possible to heal some of the people, or help them live with the illness, but there is an entire part left untouched – and that is the patient’s spiritual world,” Corn notes.
“The spiritual world is the purpose a person sees in his life. The therapy world deals with finding solutions for the illness, but there is very little reference to what happens beyond that.
“When a person experiences a crisis, his world changes. Sometimes the illness prevents physical functions. Sometimes he is forced to leave work. His relationships and abilities in the family change, and then he has to reestablish what his purpose is at the current time.
“That is the place of the spiritual counselor. He does not talk about religion, but rather he finds out what is the person’s beliefs, and how can he lead him to a place that has meaning, to a purpose.”
In the US, spiritual care is a well-established and old profession. Its origins are in the Christian world, in the work of priests that accompany terminal patients in their final days.
About a quarter of a century ago, American Jews decided to create a Jewish counterpart, and established a group of rabbis that specialized in spiritually uplifting patients, basing their work on Jewish holy and literary sources.
Some five years ago, UJA-Federation of New York, the largest of its kind in the world, decided to bring the spiritual care to Israel. They initiated a conference of ten foundations that deal with various types of mental assistance for patients, and together they began creating programs that would train Jewish spiritual care providers.
Since the group was established, some 25,000 Israelis received spiritual care in various fields such as: Addiction, old age, victims of terror, and illness. Thanks to the UJA-Federation, some 10,000 Israeli professionals have already been exposed to the new field, encouraging future collaborations between them and spiritual care providers.
“UJA-Federation believed there is room here to bring a knowledge field that does not exist in Israel,” notes Elisheva Flamm-Oren, planning executive for UJA-Federation of New York’s Caring Commission, who works at UJA-Federation’s Israel office.
“The Jewish spiritual care provider expands the boundaries of treatment. He does not deal with the patient’s hurting leg, but rather gives him an embrace that can help the patient heal. The provider is in a place of being, not only doing, bringing the ability of connecting to another human being.”
Flamm-Oren, who is involved in the spiritual care project, reveals, “Since Jews in Israel experience their Jewishness in a different manner, we needed to take the Jewish content world and adjust to Israel. In the US, for instance, chaplains are mostly people who come from the religious world.
“In Israel – because of the sensitivity regarding religious figures – it was important to create a Jewish language coming from a more accessible place, and therefore, most care providers come from the therapeutic field, though they are familiar with the Jewish world.”
“We decided unanimously that spiritual care in Israel cannot be solely based on rabbis,” adds Corn. “The Jewish community in Israel is complex, and we couldn’t have brought the American model to Israel. The belief and needs of a Jew from Brooklyn are different from those of the Israeli Jew. There are people here that have no connection to religion, but they too need to search for meaning.
“There are all sorts of religious sects, and we did not want to be under a certain Rabbinate, so we could convey the message to the broadest circle as possible. That is why we built a unique Israeli model that relies on our culture, nature, and historic origins.”
Currently, there are three institutes in Jerusalem where Jewish spiritual care can be learned: Shechter Institute, Hebrew Union College, and Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Studies are based on standards and programs from the US, combining studies in a clinic and in the hospital, in order to provide the spiritual care with all the necessary tools.
In the first stage, the therapist gets to know his patient. In the second stage, he suggests tools to the patient that would suit him personally, and bring him to a place in which he finds meaning. These tools could be from the world of music and song, Jewish texts, nature, holidays or Jewish history.
“Many people in a crisis feel as though they have no other options, or ability to choose,” notes Corn. “They feel that their world is growing smaller. Our purpose is to find new things that will open them up. We use painting and sculpture to give them power of expression. Others find it more suitable to study a text through which they could raise questions about themselves and find answers.”
“We take Jewish motives that, for instance, Jews in New York are less familiar with – but here in Israel, any child in kindergarten knows,” explains Flamm-Oren. “From that we connect to the illness. Before Rosh Hashana, the care provider finds out with the patient, where can he replenish? How can he recharge himself for the New Year? What will be sweet for him this year?
“On Hanukkah, the care provider checks with the patient on what are his sources of light? How can he banish darkness? How can the patient use his weak power to overcome the big things happening to him? On Passover, we examine what is freedom and what is enslavement. On Tu B’Shvat, we plant hope.”
“On just an ordinary day, we can take motifs from the Weekly Torah Section and check how we can leverage the biblical story into our life. There could also be joint study of Modern Hebrew poetry, guided imagery, or connection to nature.
“The spiritual care provider brings with him an entire content world that a social worker or other therapist does not. He touches a basic place of the spiritual world, and when a person is going through a crisis, he has the ability to reach such places, because even when the body is ill, we sometimes discover the spirit is strong.”
Rabbi Schultz, a Jewish spiritual care provider, tells us, “The first thing is listening to them with an open heart, accepting everything they say. Only after you make a connection with the patient, you start to try to understand what is happening inside, what is going on in their spiritual world. In training, you learn how to reach the major points, and it is done through a lot of listening.”
“The attentiveness of the spiritual care provider demands that he does not escape the difficult things he hears. People don’t always immediately express the difficulty, they rather imply it. Some 70% of my help, I believe, is that the person in front of you accepts your difficulty.
“If someone feels fear, then your job is to enter that place of fear and uncertainty so he is not alone with his fears and then help him connect with his strengths.”
The spiritual care provider meets with patients in unpleasant places, and their purpose – as tour guides in the paths of life is to show them the scenery on the way.
“I received a telephone call from a social worker that one of her patients was diagnosed as a cancer patient, and refused to receive treatment,” says Rabbi Schultz. “The team had a hard time accepting her decision because she had good chances of recovery. This is a woman that has already been sick in the past, and underwent very difficult treatments, and she told me she does not want to go through them again.
“She said she feels like a prisoner that cannot get herself out of the prison, asking me to get her out. Of course I wanted her to do the treatments, but you cannot force her. When we talked about her ability to choose, she felt that her entire body is releasing, and decided to do the treatments. Today, she is in a good state.”
Corn tells us about a 47-year-old woman, suffering of terminal cancer, who wanted to know how she could end her life without destroying her family.
“Except for cancerous cells, her body was packed with guilt that instead of being a mother to her children and take care of them, they are taking care of her. She felt that she is a burden on her family, the spiritual care process was to return her to maternal function.
“During the process we showed her that she has power because of what she went through. We cannot say she passed away happy, because she wanted to live. However, at the end of her life, she taught her children that you couldn’t do everything alone.
“To her eldest daughter, who got engaged during her illness, she wrote: ‘I will not be at your wedding, but when you enter the relationship you will understand that from now on you depend on someone else as well, and it is a good dependency. You will get everything from this dependency. Do not see it as a negative thing.’
“She could write that from the illness of all places. The spiritual care provider taught her and her entire family that dependency can be seen as a system of give and take, and at the end of her life, she taught her children what should be important in life.”