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The Case For Orthodox Female Chaplains

I often wonder what it would take to encourage women in our community to become chaplains?

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I often wonder what it would take to encourage women in our community to become chaplains? What if just one percent of frum women considering careers in healthcare or avodas hakodesh, opted to pursue a chaplaincy career?

Board-certified chaplains are members of interdisciplinary healthcare teams, providing spiritual care to patients, families, and staff in moments of illness, loss, crisis, transition, and celebration. To become a chaplain, advanced post-high school Jewish education and clinical chaplaincy training are required; semicha is not.

When it comes to visiting suffering or healing on humanity, God doesn’t discriminate. In the same vein, chaplains are trained to bring healing by providing care that is sensitive to all people regardless of gender, race, faith (or lack of it), etc. That said, the lack of Orthodox female chaplains in the country leaves the profession poorer. Their voice, which among many other qualities can help educate and sensitize healthcare professionals to the unique concerns of observant women, is missing.

Recently I was referred by a physician to see his patient who had been admitted with severe emphysema. Though she had trouble breathing, she began telling me her story: A former alcoholic and still a heavy smoker, she said she felt guilty about killing herself through smoking and not having had children to leave her mark on the world. “I’m dying for a cigarette,” she admitted bitterly. I invited her to review some key aspects of her life and her initial response was to tell me that she had been estranged from her family for a long time and had only one friend. Only in her 50’s, she told me she had been an elementary school teacher for decades, and I reflected back to her that she must have touched many people’s lives over the years. She went silent for a minute or two, biting back some tears – unsuccessfully.

Soon she reverted to talking about her family, regretting that she couldn’t be there for them when she was drinking. I wondered aloud what forgiveness might look like for her? She felt it was too late for reconciliation, but wished they could know that she had tried her best to straighten out her life and was sorry she had let them down. Before the end of my visit that Wednesday, she asked me to bring her a set of electric Shabbat candles before Shabbos. Though our conversation hadn’t touched on religion, I readily agreed.

Unfortunately, the next time I saw this patient on Friday afternoon she was in intensive care. Comatose, she was likely unaware that members of her family, including her mother and two brothers, were at her bedside. They were in shock because they hadn’t known how seriously ill she was, and felt somewhat cheated that she had hidden this from them. I helped them express their disappointment and anger over her having abandoned them. As we talked further, the family also voiced their appreciation for the time I had spent with her. “She was never able to tell us what she was going through. Thank you for being there for her.” They were even more surprised that she had asked for Sabbath candles since she hadn’t been religious, but they gladly accepted them from me before I left.

The following Monday, I learnt from the medical team that the patient’s family had lit the candles for her later that Friday, and that she had taken her last breath shortly afterward. I was comforted that she had light to accompany her on her journey, and hoped her family had found comfort in that too. Perhaps that’s the promise in Tehillim (18): “For You will light my candle: the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness.”

Would the dynamics of these visits have been different with a female chaplain? I don’t know for sure. But it’s likely the themes of children (or lack of them) and the metaphors inherent in Shabbos candles and light would have had additional potency.

What gender-based biases might I (consciously or unconsciously) bring to the conversation as a patient confides in me about an adulterous husband or abusive boyfriend? And how would the spiritual support provided to a nurse with three children going through a tortuous divorce be different if the chaplaincy care came from a female professional?

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About the Author: Chaplain Daniel Coleman provides non-judgmental religious and spiritual care to patients at North Shore University Hospital. He is a board member of NAJC and a member of APC (professionalchaplains.org).


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