Rabbi reshapes traditional mold of chaplains and healers

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Think of a military chaplain and the image that probably springs to mind is male and Christian.

Julie Schwartz is neither.

Assigned to Oakland's now-closed naval hospital, Schwartz in 1986 became the first female rabbi to serve as a U.S. military chaplain.

Now a civilian living in Atlanta, she didn't exactly set out to break new ground when she started that three-year tour of duty. At the time, though, her appointment touched off a skirmish of sorts among rabbis on the Jewish Welfare Board, who were considering her endorsement.

"I can remember a few awkward experiences for me," she recalls. But overall, "I learned incredibly."

While working in Oakland, Schwartz said she "really fell in love with pastoral care and the chance to be with people at that point in their lives." Her husband, Rabbi Steven Ballaban, served at the time as a chaplain on an Oakland-based logistics ship.

Though both she and Ballaban have since left the military, pastoral care has evolved into a career-long passion for Schwartz.

From Friday, Feb. 28 to Sunday, March 2, she will share some of that knowledge at a weekend program focusing on "Judaism & Healing." The three-day seminar will be held at Santa Rosa's Reform Congregation Shomrei Torah.

Now an associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, an 800-family congregation in Atlanta, Schwartz was invited back to Northern California by Rabbi George Gittleman.

Gittleman, the spiritual leader of Shomrei Torah since 1996, was a student of Schwartz's when she was another pioneer of sorts — the first professor of pastoral care and counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.

"She really opened up a whole window about what healing is in a Jewish context," said Gittleman, noting that the field of pastoral care previously was associated with Christian clergy.

Schwartz received pastoral training at an interfaith program in Louisville, Ky., after discovering her affinity for being a spiritual caregiver during her military experience. She realized that she "loved it and was really good at it but never had the structured training [she] needed."

Her appointment as a military rabbi didn't come without some hurdles from within her own faith.

Orthodox rabbis at the Jewish Welfare Board, the agency that oversees the needs of Jewish military personnel, opposed her endorsement while Reform rabbis rallied to her cause, Schwartz recalled. The end result was a restructuring of the council's makeup and Schwartz's ultimate appointment as a military chaplain.

Though Schwartz said she was out of town "while they were discussing my future," the episode "felt pretty offensive.

"I was able to remember it had nothing to do with me; it had to do with my gender."

She said she and Ballaban were motivated to enter the military by a simple desire to serve their country "other than paying taxes."

In addition, they were "very moved by the connection Israeli citizens have with their government and their country. I understood there was a real need for rabbis in the military."

After her military duty and then her teaching stint at the seminary, Schwartz moved to Atlanta in 1999. There, she became the rabbi at a newly created Jewish hospice and the spiritual leader of a small congregation. Her husband, meanwhile, became the headmaster of a Reform day school in Atlanta.

She joined her current congregation about a year and a half ago.

During her talks in Santa Rosa, she plans to teach participants "how to be really good family members," so they can reach out to others in times of illness, a family death or another difficult period.

In a phone interview, Schwartz said she views the Jewish community as an "extended family, particularly at times of crisis.

"Judaism has always commanded us to care for those who are hurt, either in body or spirit," she said, adding that Jews often are better "about talking about Judaism and not as good about doing Judaism."

She hopes to give tools, including forms of prayer, so participants can "appropriately and gently support one another, especially in an age when that's not so typical."