Dr. Bruce Feldstein, a chaplain at Stanford Medicine, on his way to meet with a newborn's family during Sukkot.
Dr. Bruce Feldstein, a chaplain at Stanford Medicine, on his way to meet with a newborn's family during Sukkot.

Jewish hospital chaplains are on the pandemic’s spiritual front line

In early February, Dr. Bruce Feldstein, a Jewish chaplain at Stanford Medicine, peered into a glass window as a man on a breathing tube, suffering from a severe case of Covid-19, took his last breaths.

A Jewish man in his 90s, he had been a favorite of the nurses, Feldstein said. They had learned to love him. They called him a “spitfire,” a man “full of life.” He had been looking forward to getting out of the hospital to share breakfasts with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren again.

While the family couldn’t be in the room during his final moments, per hospital policy, Feldstein was on the phone with them shortly after, sharing a message from the nurses about how their loved one was such a special patient.

“This is a kind of medicine that doesn’t come in the IV,” said Feldstein, director of Jewish Chaplaincy Services at Stanford Medicine, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

If there was ever some sort of litmus test for “frontline worker” during the pandemic, hospital chaplains would certainly make the cut. Their work — to provide spiritual and emotional support to patients and family members and to hospital staff — is still the same during this pandemic.

But the role they play has become more important than ever in strenuous, onerous circumstances.

Since hospitals currently are not allowing family members to be with their loved ones who are sick with Covid-19, Jewish chaplains have become a crucial link, setting up video calls with brothers, sisters, uncles and grandchildren from New York to Florida to Mexico, so they can at least get a glimpse of their loved one. Furthermore, chaplains have become a much-needed resource for hospital staff, who are facing their 11th month of pandemic strain.

Naomi Saks
Naomi Saks

“It’s been distressing for this community,” said another chaplain, Naomi Saks, who cares for patients in UCSF’s Palliative Care Division. “At the same time, we’ve faced it with creativity and love.”

Last spring, right before the city went into lockdown, Saks said she and her team were concerned about how they were going to be able to provide their services. During non-pandemic times, chaplains usually are hugging relatives in the hospital room or holding onto a patients’ hands as they take their final breaths, all actions that are impossible now due to restrictions.

“But then, very quickly, we got up to speed with telemedicine,” said Saks, referring to the practice of providing medical services, including chaplaincy, over FaceTime or Zoom.

Saks will Zoom in from a designated room and do pretty much anything to make the world a little better for loved ones and their families.

In one case, Saks figured out how to play Yiddish folk music for a patient at the family’s request. In another case, Saks recited the Mishebeirach, a prayer of healing for the sick. Saks even picked up a mezuzah from the daughter of a 96-year-old coronavirus patient who was dying. She got a nurse to tuck it under the man’s pillow.

“I couldn’t recite Shema” to him, Saks said. “But I knew the mezuzah was there. And he did, too.”

In a perfect world, Saks would be side by side with families and patients. But the situation isn’t as awful as one might think, she said.

“We’re connecting people and families in ways we could have never connected across the country,” Saks said. “It’s a skill to learn how to connect with people over videoconferencing.”

For Saks, the telemedicine isn’t always a barrier, but instead offers an opportunity to look at her work in different ways.

“I think I’ve also really gotten in touch with this idea that the material world isn’t all we see,” she said. “Yes, it is important when I sit with a patient and hold their hand. But I can also pray through the door. There is more beyond the physical. Spiritual care goes beyond the physical.”

Rabbi Pam Frydman
Rabbi Pam Frydman

For Rabbi Pam Frydman, small gestures over video can mean a lot. Frydman, who is part of a year-long chaplain residency program at Stanford Medicine and a former president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, said a patient with Covid-19 signaled to her with her arms that she wanted a hug.

“I was able to put my arms in that configuration to hug her back,” Frydman said. “Just being able to provide the support of a look, a headnod, a wave … that connection is still there and very special.”

Nurses and doctors are also turning to chaplains during this time.

Rabbi Lori Klein
Rabbi Lori Klein

Rabbi Lori Klein, director of Spiritual Care Services at Stanford Medicine, said that her team of eight chaplains, Jewish and non-Jewish, has become even more “integrated” with the hospital’s health care workers since the pandemic started, such as helping lead reflection “huddles” where individuals can talk about the challenges or positive moments they’re experiencing while caring for patients.

“There’s a closeness and a readiness for people to turn to us for support,” Klein said. “We’re all struggling with many of the same things. We have become closer.”

Klein said that the chaplains themselves are helping each other out spiritually and mentally. While the chaplaincy staff meetings used to devote five or 10 minutes to reflection, Klein said entire meetings are now allowing chaplains to talk about ways to cope or things they’ve witnessed while on the job.

“We’ve just tried to build in ways to decompress so that we can continue to help take care of others,” said Klein. “We are going through the same health crisis as everyone else.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.