Jonathan Furst, a Jewish chaplain working for the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, seen here at his wife’s office in Berkeley on Monday, Dec. 18. 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Jonathan Furst, a Jewish chaplain working for the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, seen here at his wife’s office in Berkeley on Monday, Dec. 18. 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

New Jewish community chaplain helps fill service gap at S.F. hospitals

When the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center closed its doors in mid-2022, local hospitals and nursing homes didn’t know where to turn when Jewish patients needed spiritual comfort.

If a patient belonged to a synagogue, their pulpit rabbi would visit. But many Bay Area Jews are not affiliated with a synagogue. For more than 30 years, the Healing Center was the go-to resource and would send one of its three staff rabbis to spend time with those patients.

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman
Rabbi Jill Zimmerman

“People didn’t know who to call when the Healing Center closed,” said Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, the umbrella organization for more than 300 local rabbis.

“We’d get calls from nursing homes. They’d say we used to get a rabbi from the Healing Center every Friday. We got calls from hospitals: Can we send a rabbi?” Zimmerman said. “And we were thrown — the Board of Rabbis is not set up to be a referral center. It was a mess.”

That now has changed, with the board’s recent hiring of a hospital chaplain to serve unaffiliated Jews.

Since October, Kensington resident Jonathan Furst has been working with San Francisco hospitals, making initial contact and getting to know their spiritual care departments. Since November, he has been visiting patients who request his care.

Furst has more than 20 years of experience in Jewish chaplaincy and spiritual care, including working in adult and pediatric hospice chaplaincy. He completed his Clinical Pastoral Education training at Sutter Health-California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. He has also served for 20 years as the spiritual director for Keneset HaLev, a post-denominational Jewish spiritual community in San Francisco.

For now he’s part time in his new position and serving hospitals only in San Francisco. He’s on call and can generally respond within 24 hours, he told J.

These hospital visits are just a “sliver” of all the services that were performed by the Jewish Healing Center, said Zimmerman, who added that she hopes to expand to East Bay hospitals next. The Healing Center also ran bereavement groups, a volunteer program for hospice visits and weekend retreats for individuals and families touched by grief. The center shut its doors last year due to “insurmountable financial difficulties.”

Early this year, Zimmerman turned to the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund to find funding for the chaplain position.

“They really got it,” she said. “They saw the Board of Rabbis as the logical place to put a new chaplain.”

Amy Spade, the Federation’s director of community impact, helped secure a three-year anchor grant from the Mount Zion Health Fund, which had also helped finance the Healing Center. In addition, Spade said, the Federation made a fiscal year grant of $27,000 using endowed, restricted funding. That was enough to get the position up and running.

“This is a first attempt. In no way are we trying to replace the Healing Center,” said Furst.

Jonathan Furst in Berkeley, Dec. 18, 2023 (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Jonathan Furst in Berkeley, Dec. 18, 2023 (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“It’s still something, and it’s a lot to us,” said Susan Conrad, director of spiritual care services and chaplaincy education for the UCSF Health medical center, which serves about 900 patients on three campuses in San Francisco.

Conrad was on the committee to help envision the new chaplain position.

“We were so sad when the Healing Center closed. We had loved partnering with them for decades,” she said. “It’s an incredible blessing getting to know Rabbi Jill and Jonathan.”

Not only does UCSF Health typically have many Jewish patients, it is a teaching hospital for future chaplains. Part of their training is how to serve patients of all faith backgrounds. The Healing Center used to provide such instruction, Conrad said.

Now Furst is offering that instruction. In early December, for example, he came for the first time to a morning meeting of UCSF Health chaplains and residents to give Hanukkah blessings and leave behind materials for them to learn more and to distribute to Jewish patients for the holiday.

Furst is excited about his new job and the patients he is asked to visit.

“The most rewarding piece of this is that they want to see me,” he said. “They may have an idea of why. And once that need is fulfilled, it may open up other opportunities for connection.”

Furst enjoys working with unaffiliated Jews, he told J.

“I come in. I say I’m a Jewish chaplain. They might not know what that is, but they know a fellow Jew is there to care for them. It’s about being present, being with them wherever they are on their journey.”

One of the challenges in a hospital, he noted, is the requirement to wear a mask. “It’s harder to make a human connection,” he said. “I look like any other medical staff when I walk in.”

He bends his head during an interview over Zoom to display his kippah.

“This helps!” he said.

Sometimes he visits people who are dying. He has held hands, sat quietly with patients, prayed with them and heard their fears about death.

Their needs can be quite different from those of a patient who is recovering from surgery and looking forward to going home. For those recovering patients, he said, his visit might offer them a “portal,” a way to connect with the Jewish community when they are well. That might be via a film festival or a dating service — it doesn’t matter, it’s all about community, he said.

“I meet patients where they’re at and affirm they are part of am Yisrael,” the people of Israel.

“Most people who go to the hospital don’t know they can ask to see a chaplain. Every time I’ve said, I’m a Jewish chaplain, would you like a visit, I hear yes or come back later please, or I’m not really religious, but…. No one has yet said: No, go away,” he said.

“There’s a need to be filled.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].