Rabbi Norm Auerback, VA chaplain, is dead at age 53

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During his daily counsel of the ill and dying, Rabbi Norm Auerback never fully realized his own human vulnerability. But then he wound up on the other side of the chaplain-patient relationship.

"There were patients, and there were those who visited them on a professional basis, and I belonged in the latter category," Auerback wrote in a recent article that appeared in a chaplain's trade journal.

When he penned those words, he was confined to the very hospital beds he used to visit. After years of battling a rare auto-immune disorder called myasthenia gravis, Auerback died of a related heart attack Wednesday, Sept. 2 at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto. He was 53.

"He lived well with the illness," said his sister, Sandra Auerback of San Francisco. She described her brother as a devoted chaplain who worked full time at the VA hospital until about a week before he died.

Auerback's condition, which attacked his nervous system, affected his ability to walk and swallow. He also had been battling cancer.

The VA's Protestant chaplain, Edward Bastille, recalled that while his colleague was responsible only for Jewish activities, "he pitched in everywhere" by counseling non-Jewish patients as well.

"He was a person that cared about people. It wasn't just a sermon he preached," Bastille said.

While recovering from cancer surgery and receiving ongoing cancer treatments at the hospital, Auerback developed a new appreciation for the hardship of medical patients, affording new insights into his work as a chaplain.

"I had often wondered what it would be like to lie around all day, without any responsibility other than to `get well.' After my surgery, I became acutely aware that lying around was not part of the program," he wrote in his article.

No sooner did Auerback get out of intensive care following surgery than medical staff had him on his feet "walking throughout the unit hugging my `teddy,' a pillow that, pressed against the chest, [permitted me] to cough without suffering unbearable agony."

In addition to performing rehabilitation regimens, Auerback examined the counseling he received during his stay.

In a checklist, he outlined some keenly observed do's and don'ts of hospital counseling for both professionals and lay visitors. His tips include:

*When making a quick "stick-your-nose-into-the-room-to-make-sure-the-patient-is-still-with-us" visit, linger long enough to make sure the patient doesn't really need something. Most patients, he said, are so startled by the unexpected drop-in-and-out that they think of things to ask for after the person has left.

*Don't unload personal problems on the patient while relating the current events of your life. The patient has enough problems and probably doesn't care as much about yours.

*Be sensitive to the condition of the patient, but don't harp about their condition when what they really need is someone to help them with their feelings and frustrations and questions.

*Don't overstay the visit.

Despite his condition, Auerback infused his article with humor and objective observations.

In his personal life, the Reform rabbi was an avid football fan and found no cause too small to champion, according to Sandra Auerback. When talk show host Bernie Ward was fired from KGO-Radio, Auerback went to San Francisco to protest in demonstrations.

Earlier in his career, he was the first Jewish chaplain appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland. He also was spiritual leader of a congregation in Virginia and a Hillel rabbi at Southern Illinois University. He received a master's degree in psychological counseling from the University of Maryland and was a graduate of Hebrew Union College, which last year conferred on him an honorary doctorate.

He is survived by two sons, Micah Auerback of New Jersey and Benjamin Auerbach of Ohio; his mother, Molly Auerback of San Francisco; another sister, Diana Gleave of San Diego; and three aunts, Esther Lessin of Menlo Park, Roma Auerback of San Mateo, and Gilda Auerback of Canada.

He was preceded in death last year by his father, Alfred Auerback of San Francisco.

Family services were held, but another memorial service will be conducted at the VA's chapel, 3801 Miranda Ave., Palo Alto, 94304. The services will be at 10 a.m. Thursday. Donations can be made to the VA hospital at the above address, or to a favorite charity.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.