They call him an angel — once a doctor, now a Jewish chaplain

Bruce Feldstein believes in angels.

He was on his rounds one day when he stopped to check in on a family from Afghanistan. The 13-year-old son was lingering — in the final stages of leukemia. His grandmother was praying by the bedside.

Feldstein’s aunt had married a Muslim from Syria, and he was familiar with the prayers. After asking for permission, together they prayed to Allah.

“The father said, ‘We can let him go now,’ and the boy died. The grandmother then whispered something, and the father said [to me], ‘She wants you to know you’re an angel sent by God.'”

He has many such stories.

“People come into your life out of nowhere, they enter it, and do or say something in a way that something happens that wouldn’t happen otherwise, and what happens is deeply meaningful and good.”

So it was when the angels came to deliver the news to the matriarch Sarah, that she would deliver a child, he said.

When Feldstein’s on a roll, these kinds of affecting stories or spiritual musings spill out his mouth about once every 15 minutes. And when he shares such an anecdote, he’s likely to smile broadly, close his eyes to relive and feel what he’s just described, or cry. Be in his presence for a few hours, and chances are you will find yourself doing the same.

Feldstein is the director of the Jewish chaplaincy at Stanford University Hospital, which includes Packard Children’s Hospital. But unlike most Jewish chaplains who have rabbinical training, Feldstein is a physician. So when he scans a patient’s chart, he knows exactly what he’s dealing with.

Feldstein worked as an E.R. doctor at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara from 1991 until six years ago, when he tore a disc in his spine while helping a friend move furniture. The injury caused chronic back pain so severe he was unable to stand for more than four hours at a time.

Recently separated and on a spiritual path of sorts, that accident can now be viewed as one of the angels. E.R. doctors usually don’t spend more than 10 to 15 years on the job before they burn out, and Feldstein had already been looking inward, in an attempt to follow his heart. And what he realized was profound.

In his work life, he realized, “My heart had been abandoned or was never inhabited in the first place.”

A series of what seemed like coincidences then led Feldstein on his way. But later, he came to realize they weren’t coincidences at all. Once again, it was the aforementioned angels.

“It was as if there were a group of them saying, ‘You know this guy Feldstein? We’ve been trying to get him to move along.'”

At 49, he is a bespectacled, clean-shaven man who wears a knit kippah most of the time. He is of average height with a receding hairline, and wears a suit and tie on the job. He smiles often. And he is one of those rare interview subjects who doesn’t worry about giving too much of himself away — several times throughout the interview, he broke into tears.

Feldstein somehow knew Stanford would accept him to its clinical pastoral education program. Years earlier, the chaplain had had a vivid dream in which people of all faiths strolled by a waterfall. On the day he turned in his application, he saw the hospital’s interfaith chapel for the first time, where symbols of the world’s religions on one wall face a waterfall rendered in stained glass on the other.

“This room was a mirror image of the dream,” he said. “I had a moment of recognition of being in the right place at the right time. I knew they would accept my application and the rest was about to happen.”

He entered the nationally accredited residency program for hospital chaplains in 1999 and in 2000 began working as director of the newly established Jewish chaplaincy at Stanford.

His first year, he barely earned a salary. But after some fund-raising, the chaplaincy is now on more-solid financial footing, with grants from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Koret Foundation, as well as help from the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

On an average day, Feldstein visits between 10 and 12 patients. When they belong to a synagogue, he serves as a conduit with their own rabbis. But more often, he tends to the spiritual needs of those who have all but lost touch with Judaism. He’s seen it numerous times: There’s nothing like sudden illness to make one turn to God.

Feldstein estimates that 60 percent to 65 percent of the 800 Jewish patients who come to Stanford Hospital annually receive a visit from either a Jewish volunteer or Feldstein himself. Several years ago, that number was only 20 percent.

In addition to visiting patients, he is often returning phone calls — always at the mercy of his beeper, attending meetings about the care of the longer-term patients and doing paperwork in his cubicle.

But his colleagues say he goes way beyond what the job requires.

“Once I observed him patiently talking on the phone with one mortuary after another in Modesto, helping a family with the details,” said Mary Burge, a social worker who works closely with Feldstein. “Here is Bruce, sitting here calling funeral homes, one after another, trying to find the best deal for this family. There is nothing he is not comfortable or unwilling to do or that’s beneath him.”

Before he enters the room of a patient, he performs a ritual hand-washing, just like the one observant Jews do before a meal. He also takes a few moments to breathe deeply and focus.

“I do that to create a separation between my regular self, and to allow the holiest part of me to be with the patient,” he explained.

He spends anywhere from a few minutes with a patient to an hour. Depending on the patient’s needs, he will serve as a listening ear, or for those who are comfortable with it, he will put his hands on the patient and bless him, as he did recently for Harvey Rosenthal.

A few months ago, the Woodside man found himself in the hospital with a critical leg infection. Feldstein met him for the first time as Rosenthal was being rolled into the emergency room.

The chaplain continued to visit regularly during Rosenthal’s two-week stay, and that “connected me back to where I live,” said Rosenthal. “When you’re in the hospital, you need to be connected. There’s an extra dimension to [the care] that you can’t get anywhere else. You can share your feelings and emotional things right off the bat.”

On what might have been the last visit before Rosenthal was discharged, Feldstein sang a Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing. On an earlier visit, the chaplain had asked Rosenthal to come up with a symbol that he could visualize to give him strength, and Rosenthal had picked Etz Chayim, the tree of life.

Doctors, Feldstein said, are mostly concerned with the vital signs of patients like Rosenthal. “They don’t ask, ‘Who is Harvey, or how is his soul?'”

All this talk about the spirit and soul is fairly new in medicine; until recently, it was considered a taboo subject in most medical schools. A course taught by Feldstein on spirituality and healing is now required at Stanford, which was one of the first medical schools in the country to offer such a class.

Feldstein long ago made the connection, well before he ever thought of becoming a chaplain. When he was still a doctor, he once felt compelled to pray with a Catholic woman, minutes after telling her that her cancer had spread to her brain. By doing so, he was able to see how prayers brought the elderly woman some solace.

His colleague, the Rev. John Hester, recalled that when Feldstein was just learning, he trailed the more experienced chaplain on the job. Hester thought it might be awkward for Feldstein, when he offered his patients a blessing in the form of a cross.

No need to have worried.

Hester was summoned to the room of a woman about to have a double lung transplant.

“Her husband was crying, it was very emotional and tense,” Hester recalled. “I blessed her, and had her husband bless her and then, with tears streaming down his face, Bruce prayed to God, [in the form of] ruach, breath, and he spoke about the God who breathes in us, who breathes in life and passion and movement, and prayed for that God to be with her now and surround her with that sacred breath.”

The transplant was successful, and the two men went together to visit the patient afterward. “Every time I breathe, I think first of the God you prayed to and then I think of you,” Hester recalled the woman telling Feldstein. “I will never take my breathing for granted ever again.”

Hester continued: “I don’t think he realizes the impact that he has, but in those moments, he is a person without borders. I’ve never known anyone who can be as real and gentle, and anchor people when they’re having terrible news. His presence becomes an anchor, a root for people.”

Feldstein has, in fact, been able to transcend religious differences so greatly, that some patients assume he is of their faith. More than once, he has been called “Father Feldstein,” and once, even “Padre.”

“When we get beyond our religious and cultural zip codes, there’s a place where we all meet,” said Feldstein by way of explanation. “It’s a sacred, human place.”

Burge, the social worker, said the creation of a Jewish chaplaincy has definitely filled a need at the hospital. She recalled a case several years ago, when the only chaplain available to a Jewish family from war-torn Yugoslavia was a born-again Christian.

“This family found no guidance or comfort in her at all,” said Burge. “To my way of thinking she was making things worse.”

Though the Detroit-area native was born Jewish and received a nominal Jewish education, it took Feldstein a while to come back. He dabbled in different spiritual paths, studying Buddhism in Thailand and taking courses in the “Mystery School” of Jean Houston, the spiritual psychologist who advised Hilary Clinton. “I was a tree-hugging Buddhist Sufi Jew,” he said.

His ex-wife, Julia, was the one who wanted to raise their sons Jewish, and this turned him back toward his own tradition. Then he had a pivotal experience at a Jewish Medical Ethics Conference, where he suddenly found himself amid a group of Orthodox men who were praying.

“Something extraordinary began to happen, as if the lights had dimmed all around, leaving illuminated before me the group of men davening. I was struck with the unison of prayer of this group of Jews who, three days before, didn’t know each other from Adam, yet were now praying like a chorus that had been performing together for years.”

He later realized that was a “conversion moment,” transforming the way he thought about being Jewish.

“In a certain way I think of myself as a Jew-by-choice,” he said. “I was born into it, but I only came to claim it later.”

Meeting him now, it is impossible to imagine a time when Judaism wasn’t as central in Feldstein’s life.

When asked how he deals with all the pain and illness he sees every day, he shrugged and reflected for a moment.

“Sometimes I need to cry and I can’t. And then when I read something silly in the paper about a dog or something, it sets me off. I’ve gotten more used to it by now.”

Crying for people, he believes, can be a way of praying for them. “A lot of people feel the sadness but can’t cry themselves,” he said.

And at the end of a long day, how does the chaplain feel?

“Drained, but well-used,” he replied. “At the end of the day I say a blessing of gratitude for having been well-used.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."