Lay chaplains bring compassion, counseling to hospitalized Jews

When Renee Bauer walked into the hospital room of a Russian emigre dying of cancer, she couldn't rely on words. The family didn't want an interpreter, and the emigre was far too sick to speak.

The emigre's husband was emotionally distant and stood across the room. Bauer sat down near the patient and began to sing "Eli, Eli." As she continued to sing, the husband started to cry and came over to his dying wife.

"I just left the room in this whole other space. I helped her husband connect to her…It was a transcendent moment," said Bauer, a 25-year-old San Francisco resident.

The woman died that night.

Such stories remain with Bauer, one of three Bay Area Jews who recently completed a 400-hour training program in hospital chaplaincy for lay persons.

The program was organized through a national group called the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education and through Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. It marks the first time that ACPE's lay chaplaincy training has been geared specifically to Jews.

Two of the three students, Bauer and Sabena Stark, trained at UCSF Medical Center. The third, Pam Stuart, was assigned to Berkeley's Alta Bates Medical Center and has since moved to Oregon.

Starting last October, the trio spent eight months visiting Jewish patients. They blessed newborns, counseled the sick and dying, offered healing prayers, marked Shabbat, decorated for Jewish holidays and comforted families.

They advocated for patients who needed kosher food. And they met for six hours every week to study and analyze their efforts with their supervisor, Rabbi Eric Weiss of Ruach Ami.

The program cost only $450, but it required a time commitment of 15 to 20 hours per week.

For Stark, the training was exactly what she had been seeking.

"I was looking forward to having conversations with people that were completely honest," said Stark, a 44-year-old Oakland resident who works as a composer, musician and accountant.

There was no pretending, particularly in the cancer ward, she discovered.

"It didn't matter how fancy your hair had been or how many degrees you had or how much money you had or didn't have, basically it was you and God at that point," said Stark, a member of Berkeley's Kehillah Community Synagogue.

Like Bauer, Stark spent a good deal of time singing with patients, sometimes "Shalom Aleichem" or the Jewish healing chant "El Na Refa Na La."

On one visit with an elderly Russian emigre in the intensive care unit, Stark began to chant a healing prayer. Weiss was there that day, too. Stark couldn't tell if the woman appreciated the singing, but Weiss realized the patient was relaxing when he noticed her heart rate and blood pressure dropping a bit on the monitors.

"It not only felt to me that God was in the room, but that there was a healing happening for her as she took in the music," Stark said.

From then on, Weiss told Stark, she needed to sing with patients as much as possible.

Bauer, who works as program director at San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, said the visits weren't all sad.

She recalls one elderly woman with stomach cancer.

The woman had still been going to aerobics every week and volunteering. She invited Bauer into her room like a proper hostess. Bauer wondered if the woman was in denial about her illness. But Weiss later suggested that maybe the woman just wanted to celebrate her life and share what's been good for her.

Bauer said, "that was hard for me to get."

Bauer also loved to visit newborns and offer a Shehechianu or the priestly blessing.

Stark, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, particularly valued talking about God with hospital patients and letting them know that God "isn't the big, angry dude in the sky who is judging them," she said.

"The whole concept of God — it's even more private than their sex lives…No one talks about it." But when people are facing illness and death, Stark asserted, they need to talk about God and their spiritual lives.

Many Jews have learned about an angry, judgmental God and about death as nothingness, she said.

"How do you prepare to die if there is nothing there, if no one has given you the image that the arms of Shechinah [the Divine Presence] will surround you with love?…If you can't imagine that there is a loving entity that will hold you, death is terrifying."

The trainees actually had little preparation — just a few sessions with Weiss — before they started their hospital work. The focus was on experiential learning.

"For months," Bauer said, "every room I went in I was nervous. I'm not a rabbi. I'm not a counselor. I'm not anything."

Stark found it a bit easier. Most of the skills simply come from the heart, she said, like listening and validating a person's rightful place in the Jewish community.

Weiss complimented the women's work. "They made a tremendous effort and contribution," he said.

Still, he isn't sure when the training will happen again because of Ruach Ami's limited resources.

Even with 400 hours under their belts, the women have only completed one-quarter of the training needed for ACPE's full certification. And because they are no longer part of an official program, they cannot continue formally as hospital chaplains.

But Bauer and Stark will make their impact on the Bay Area in other ways.

Bauer may begin volunteering through Ruach Ami to visit Jews with mental-health problems, and she is considering a future as a rabbi.

Stark is planning to start a singing and prayer group for cancer survivors that will meet at her home.

Both of them are convinced that the Jewish community should put more resources into reaching out to Jews in hospitals.

Stark met patients who were long-term synagogue members but never received a visit from their rabbis. She considers it "absolutely shameful" that there aren't rabbis assigned to every hospital.

Hospital patients are so vulnerable, Bauer added.

"This isn't a fun population to visit," she said. The work "is not glamorous. But it's important."