Sunday, February 28, 2010

A path to Jewish identity and a more healed world -- hearing the call of ethnography

One of the most painful questions for me to hear from fellow rabbinic students when I was working as a teaching assistant in the Ziegler School's Beit Midrash (study hall) was the one about, "why are we doing this anyway?!?! Why do we have to study Talmud? I'm never going to use this as a congregational rabbi, anyway!"

It was a painful question because, while I was passionately convinced it was important for future rabbis to immerse themselves in Talmud study, I had trouble articulating (to myself and others) why I thought it was so important.

In time, through my journeys after ordination of teaching rabbinics at a Jewish high school and then becoming a chaplain and a chaplaincy educator, I've come to understand it as being about something I call pastoral, or spiritual, formation -- it's about developing a particular, a rabbinic, way of thinking, or of understanding the world.

This kind of purpose for a way of education -- even of a text-centered way of education -- is not unique to rabbinic or clergy education. Lawyers, too, engage in a kind of study that very often does not have direct practical application to what they will do when they get out in the field (and, many law students complain, is of little help to them in passing the bar exam they must take in order to enter legal practice). But the educational method of being forced to answer the professor's difficult questions about a case they are studying helps the students develop a particular way of seeing the world, a lawyer's way. Similarly, other professional training methods -- like that of engineering school -- do more than teach content or technique; they shape (form!) a particular kind of person with a particular kind of values and a particular kind of way of understanding the world.

As I am learning from my studies at NYU (I am in the first year of a doctoral programin Education and Jewish Studies), the language of "a way of understanding the world" is one well-known in the social sciences. There is one research method -- ethnography -- that is particularly well-suited to getting at how people understand their world. Ethnography is very different from what people generally think research looks like. We, for example, all the time hear news reports about what people think, usually in the form of polls based on questionnaires administered through random phone calls.

The problem with polling is that it doesn't really get at what is happening in an in-depth way and, therefore, is especially weak in discovering something new that is developing or that has not been identified before by researchers. The strength of ethnography, on the other hand, is in its ability to get at depth. It involves a researcher, often for a year or more, immersing his or herself full-time in an institution like a school or a hospital and trying to watch what happens both with an open mind -- a mind open to discovering new things -- and a skilled mind -- one trained to look for how the people in the setting are making meaning of what is happening to them. Although sometimes this means just observing, it often means becoming a "participant-observer."

This became very clear to me the other night when I did some observation as part of a assignment for my qualitative methods class. I tried to sit quietly with my notepad in the corner of an ICU waiting room. Mere seconds passed before a distressed family member approached me and asked me to pray for her child. I spent 20 minutes talking with this person, and in the course of that learned a great deal about how she was understanding what was happening for her, what her relationship to God and her faith was, and what the most important tasks were for her and her family while their loved one struggled for life. I realized that while -- I could not claim to be some objective observer while I was talking to her -- that I could never have learned so much about how she was understanding her world if I had not been participating while observing.

One ethnography I am reading right now is helping me think about how this works. In My freshman year, the author -- a 50-something college professor -- spent a year "undercover" as an older student doing her first year of undergraduate work, including living in the dorms amid the 18 and 19-year olds. She admits that her experience could not be the same thing as a "real" student's. But "[a]t the same time, it is the experience of living [college] life that offers the insight and vantage point need to ask relevant questions and understand the context of the answers given. It is this that I hoped to accomplish by becoming a freshman." (15; emphasis, mine)

Indeed it is the art of knowing the right questions and understanding the context that affects people's answers that makes the difference between insightful research and unhelpful research, and it is here where the Gallup poll kind of method -- for all its "objective" science and methods -- falls short.

I am interested in adding to our understanding of things that are new -- things in flux, but terribly important. The Jewish world is changing. Our young people have more choices than ever; there is nothing making them be, or identify as, Jewish. How, amid this, can we ensure not just the future existence of the Jewish people, but that Judaism and Jewishness will be something that will deeply enrich the lives of those who choose to be Jewish and that those "choosers" will be able to add their own stamp to the millennium-long story of a faith and peoplehood that has been vibrant and ever changing in each generation? We certainly can't do it if we don't deeply understand how people are making meaning of their world and their choices, especially the choices about identity.

On my own path to finding the meaning of Judaism and Jewishness in my life, a most important stop was the illness and death of my Father, of Blessed Memory, as well as my own experience of illness and hospitalization. Amid my pain -- and the rupture in my way of making meaning of my world that illness and death constituted -- certain people of faith, as well as the wisdom of my faith tradition, touched me in special ways and helped transform how I understood my world. I was cemented on my path to seeking Torah and God's ways.

I am hardly unique in this. Many people, for example, have found the experience of "saying Kaddish" for loved one to be transformative in a way that pushed them to greater Jewish identification, observance and commitment. Recently, Yossi Prager, the North American executive director of a foundation that as been part of some of the most creative projects in the Jewish world in recent years, came to talk to one of my classes. He told us how a "saying Kaddish" experience had transformed the foundation's founder from a non-involved Jew to one who became observant and dedicated his fortune to the future of the Jewish people.

At these "saying Kaddish" times -- these border spaces, or liminal moments, in a person's life -- the rabbi, or other person of deep faith, can play a particularly important role. But it is hardly guaranteed that this role will be a positive one. Harm -- painful words and actions -- can also be done at this time. And there are important -- but subtle -- ethical issues involved in working with vulnerable people, with people who are at liminal spaces in their spiritual lives.

What kind of person is the one more likely to be the "good rabbi" at these moments? How does a rabbinic education -- including Talmud study -- function to make it more likely that this person will be the good rabbi, the one who can be "interrupted" from his or her agenda enough to recognize real pastoral or spiritual needs? The one who will be able -- in the words of the first Psalm -- to encourage the hurting person to seek to become one who seeks to occupy his or herself with God's Torah day and night?

Our rabbinic schools are in flux in a way that reflects the flux happening in the Jewish world in general -- there is a greater emphasis on spirituality and mysticism (even the great center of a "scientific" approach to rabbinic education now labels itself as being about "spirituality and scholarship"), as well as on charismatic models of leadership. Alongside this trend to spirituality is a related trend to put more of an emphasis on pastoral care. The new Orthodox rabbinical school (Yeshivat Chochevei Torah), for example, considers its emphasis on pastoral care training to be one of its greatest distinguishing factors from other programs and one of its greatest reasons for being.

There is a great connection between these two new emphases -- spirituality and pastoral care. I know from my own learning journey that pastoral care training (clinical pastoral education) has brought greater and deeper spirituality into my life -- especially in terms of an ability and comfort around talking about the role of God and faith in my life -- than I ever would have expected. But I can only say so much from my own journey. How do others make the link between these two trends? Are they mostly manifestations of the same thing or are they two separate, but parallel, trends? How are these trends affecting the formation of the rabbis being trained amid them? Are they more likely to become the "good rabbi" I talked about above than the students of a previous generation? And what about questions of admissions? How do administrators understand how they are assessing whether a candidate will be a successful rabbi or a successful rabbinical student (not necessarily the same thing)? [Wendy Rosov's dissertation on pastoral formation at an American rabbinical school suggests that rabbinical schools had traditionally expected candidates to be fully formed before rabbinical school, but that this may be changing.] And what are the ethical issues around teaching students who are themselves at such a liminal moment in their lives?

Ethnography is one way I could get at these questions, and I am starting to dream about spending a year at a rabbinical school studying this kind of formation. Another thing from the My freshman year book is helping me with these "dreams." The author talks about how she focused her work. She could have gone out in search of the kind of "sexy dirt" of college life -- the "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll," if you will. But that's not what interested her. Rather, she writes:

I highlight topics that engage the classic notions we have of "the university" as a world of ideas, as a residential place where diversity and community and integrity are nurtured. I wanted to see how student culture articulates with the institution of the American university, including the vision we have of it, its mission and its future. (5; bolding, mine)

This contrasts with the way of thinking I learned in my first career (as a journalist). There, we were taught to identify what was "sexy" (although, I have to admit I never was able to completely adopt this way of thinking, which probably partially explains why I didn't go farther in that field). But the way of thinking of a social science approach, in terms of approaching a study of rabbinic education, would free me to ignore the "sexy" and instead focus on the rabbinical school as a world of ideas where community and learning are harnessed in service of nurturing or forming rabbis. I could focus on understanding the processes of how this happens and how both students and faculty understand these processes. That's exciting!


I'm nowhere near the place yet where I will be able to do an ethnography. The next step for me, I think, will be to engage in an analysis of some of the publicly available materials from some schools -- like what they post on their web sites -- to get some idea of how they are thinking of themselves and the work they do with students. What messages are these promotional/informational materials meant to send to students? What do these materials say about what their creators think will be attractive to qualified candidates? What do they say about what they think the role of the rabbi is in the Jewish world and how that is changing?

I am dedicating this blog post to בבתא (Babatah), an אשת מלחמה (women of war) of the time before and during the last great revolt against the Romans in ancient times, the end of substantial Jewish settlement in the Holy Land until modern times. I have been studying her as part of a class I am taking with the great Dead Seas Scrolls scholar Lawrence Schiffman.

All we know of her is from the fragments of the 30-some-odd legal documents we found of hers in the cave near the Dead Sea where she likely died as the Romans starved out the last of the Jewish rebels. At first these documents meant little to me, but I have grown to feel something of her spirit as I imagine her standing up to the non-Jewish authorities who appointed a non-Jew as one of the guardians of her son after she was widowed. The documents tells us she even traveled to stand before the provincial governor to protest this injustice. In the end, she lost this small battle, just as all the Jews of the Holy Land would lose the larger battle against the Roman oppressors. Maybe it was a hopeless effort on her part from the beginning -- our knowledge of ancient law suggest that perhaps it was. But she stood up for her rights, anyway. She was determined.

Babatah, as I stand before the huge mass of forces that stand against the future of the Jewish people and seek my own place in the battle for that future, I take courage from your example and dedication. You were truly one of the עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף -- one of the stiff-necked people!

Why we are sad and depressed (and how we can become "happy")

This fascinating New York Times magazine article -- Depression's Upside -- reminds me of a scene from Annie Hall The depressed Woody Allen character stops a good-looking couple on the street:

  • Allen: Here, you look like a happy couple, um, are you?
  • Woman: Yeah.
  • Allen: So, so, how do you account for it?
  • Woman: Um, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
  • Man: And I'm exactly the same way.

In other words (according to Woody Allen, at least), chronic happiness -- as attractive as it might look from afar -- comes at too great a price, the price of being incapable of having interesting thoughts and doing interesting things.

The main psychologists profiled in the Times article say more or less the same thing, but from the opposite perspective: They claim that depression has a function -- the function of allowing people to do the kind of thinking required to come up with creative and effective responses to really tough (and interesting) challenges and questions, including challenges that lead to grief. Evolutionary psychologist Paul Andrews, for example, is quoted as saying about the person who has experienced a divorce or a tough breakup:

“I started thinking about how, even if you are depressed for a few months, the depression might be worth it if it helps you better understand social relationships,” Andrews says. “Maybe you realize you need to be less rigid or more loving. Those are insights that can come out of depression, and they can be very valuable.”

This idea that depression (maybe it's better to just say, sadness) actually has a function that should not be routinely medicated out of existence with Prozac and alike reminds me of some books I have encountered over the last few years that have influenced me, including Healing the soul in the age of the brain and Thomas Moore's Care of the soul. I was also reminded of the New Yorker's recent article on grieving around death, which asks the question of what the function of grief might be.


I am also reminded of some thoughts I've recently had about the first Psalm (for which I have the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem to thank for the inspiration; check out their new blog on the Psalms). Psalm One starts out:

אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ-- אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ, בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים;
וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים, לֹא עָמָד, וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים, לֹא יָשָׁב.

Which is typically translated something like this:
Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the path of the sinners,
nor sits in the seat of the insolent.
But I don't think happy is a very good rendering of what the Psalmist meant here (with the word אשרי/ashrei). The results of following God's ways -- the ways of Torah, as the next verse says -- are not simple happiness; rather, they are a deeper kind of fulfilment and satisfaction -- perhaps, blessed, is a better word, as the King James and some other translations use (even though it is impossible to literally translate ashrei as blessed).

Similarly, the Schechter blog's commentary on this psalm says of translating ashrei as happy:

[C]learly the term is more profound than that, i.e., deeper than our contemporary use of the word “happy.” Ashrei implies peace, satisfaction, fulfillment and tranquility of worldview. (Martin Cohen, noting the term’s centrality, points out that it appears a total of twenty-five times in nineteen different psalms!) Thus the speaker opens with the only “reward” he acknowledges, but that is less reward than description, and the image of the fruitful tree expands upon it. His claim is that the person of faith is“ashrei,” having a deep conviction of the rightness of his ways, of their long-range influence and permanence, and of their benefit to the world.
This kind of deep conviction in the rightness of one's ways -- in the path one is taking through the challenges of life -- is something I value much more than simple happiness. And as tough as the times of depression I've experienced in my life have been, I believe they have played a role in my finding my way towards my true convictions and towards my being able to make my walk through life to be in line with those (challenging!) convictions. In this sense I feel very much to be ashrei at this point in my life. And I have HaShem to thank for that -- especially for the beautiful Torah, including the Psalms, that HaShem has given to us.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Jews, chaplains and Clinical Pastoral Education -- why we need each other

People often come up to veteran chaplain John DeVelder and tell him that he doesn't know "how much good" he does. But DeVelder thinks that's not good enough for a professional chaplain to know he or she is doing a good job. "I never know how much harm I do unless I have clinical training," he told a group of rabbis and chaplains who gathered today for a Yom Iyun -- a day of learning -- under the auspices of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.

DeVelder -- one of a handful of Protestant ministers who, as chaplaincy education/supervisors, have played a prominent role in introducing professional chaplaincy training to Jews --- is a passionate advocate for professional chaplaincy training, especially in a multicultural and multifaith age. Chaplains -- who in many cases may be the sole spiritual caregiver in a facility -- are being called on to minister to people outside their own faith, and therefore need the professional training to be able to offer "generic" spiritual care that does not involve imposing their own beliefs on vulnerable people, intentionally or unintentionally. But DeVelder says that does not mean the caregiver must leave his or her faith behind. "I bring my religiosity with me, but my practice," he said, "might be called a generic spirituality."

The push towards professionalism and inclusivity is undoubtedly a good thing, said DeVelder, but he also believes it is important to be aware it comes at a cost. "What seems to be lost [in adopting the language of spirituality] is the flesh and blood work of the chaplain . . . what might be described as particularity," including prayer.

I was thrilled to have a chance to hear DeVelder in this setting as I -- along with so many Jewish chaplains -- are struggling with these very same issues. I have been witness in my life to the unethical and harmful acts of untrained (although often well-intentioned and caring) educators and caregivers, and I have devoted myself to becoming a Clinical Pastoral Education professional largely to be a part of working against that. But I also know professionalism is not enough. There has to be genuine heart and caring, too. And I can't get there without my Jewish faith -- my own way of relating to the Blessed Holy One and the holy mission to care for each other that the Blessed One has commanded us with and shown us the way to with Torah. My journey is to find a way of walking the line that preserves that link with my faith tradition and faith community while leaving me also open to intimate encounters with my patients and my students.

The Jewish speakers at the conference who spoke after DeVelder shared some of their own journeys on this kind of challenging path. Rabbi Gary Lavit, director of pastoral care at the Hebrew Home and Hospital in West Hartford, CT, spoke passionately about how he uses spontaneous prayer in his work. And Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski -- author of the very best volume on traditional Jewish textual sources for pastoral care, To walk in God's ways -- and Rabbi Charles Sheer, director of Jewish studies at the Healthcare Chaplaincy -- both talked about how traditional Jewish legal sources relate to crucial end-of-life questions. Both rabbis were seeking paths that allow compassionate end-of-life decision-making that is in accord with the challenges of Jewish law.

Along with DeVelder, I believe that we cannot have an effective practice of pastoral care that does not involve our having engaged in an intensive examination of how our own beliefs and values affect how we minister to others -- including how we might unintentionally do them harm by not striving to come to an understanding of their needs and desires. That's what the clinical training that is called Clinical Pastoral Education is all about. But we also should not become so "generic" that we lose who we are as Jews, especially the ability to use the tools of our own spiritual care and textual traditions -- the great stories of our tradition! -- when the time comes.

Ozarowski, for example, reminded us of the power of the final chapters of the book of בראשית/brereishit (Genesis) as Jacob approaches his death and offers blessings and charges to his sons -- including instructions for his burial many miles away from the place of his dying. Read these words from the perspective of a person facing the end of his life, Ozarowski urged us. It's a powerful lesson, he said.

I agree!

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Being there, being ready -- the chaplain in the face of grief

One really rewarding kind of moment as a teacher is when your students get to where you want them to go before you even prompt them to get there. Today, with my chaplaincy education students, I reviewed models for "stages of grief," including Kubler-Ross' famous five stages. The main thing I hoped they would take away from it is that -- while these kind of stage models (a number of which we had on the board above) can help you understand what a person might be going through -- one should never try and force a person into one of the stages in a misguided attempt to help them complete their journey through grief. And they really seemed to get that. I was so proud of them!

One student said that it is important to just "be there," while another talked about being "ready" to recognize when a person might be ready to talk about a painful event, or their grief around an experience. I put that together in the headline of this blog post -- the best way to minister to people around grief is to just "be there and be ready." Theoretical knowledge like these grief stage frameworks can help us have the awareness needed to recognize when a person in "ready" for a particular kind of care.

One thing we read for today's class was the New Yorker's recent article on grieving by Meghan O’Rourke. It's a really good overview of American attitudes towards death and grief in the 20th and 21st centuries. I recommend it!
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Clinical Pastoral Education not good enough for Wikipedia?

I am a fierce advocate for Clinical Pastoral Education, but sometimes I think our field is in serious danger because we don't, as whole, seem to understand very well how to talk to the rest of the world about the importance of what we do. Nonetheless, I was stunned, today, when I saw that the Wikipedia entry for "Clinical Pastoral Education" had not only been much shortened since I last saw it, but is in danger of being disappeared altogether because it is not "notable" enough.

Here's what I found at the top of the page, today:

This article has multiple issues. Please help improve the article or discuss these issues on the talk page.
Now, admittedly, I could get up off of my own butt and write a new article, myself (although, in my defense, the first two sentences of the article --"Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is education to teach pastoral care to clergy and others. CPE is the primary way of training hospital and hospice chaplains in the United States" -- were written by yours truly a year or two ago). But, I'm hoping someone else (maybe at the ACPE, itself) will step up. . . . It could be you!

West Coast spiritual care institute hires new assistant director

Back in January I heard a rumor that the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health had fallen on hard times. So, I was glad, today, to get an email from them announcing a new hire and listing a series of programs they remain committed to.

Below is the text of the letter from institute director Michelle Prince. [I'm a little disappointed to see no explicit connection to Clinical Pastoral Education, which I would hope would be a main focus for any group interested in education around spiritual care. . . . It may be a result of the fact that much of the pastoral care in the Jewish world traditionally has been done by social workers rather than clergy. But new movements to focus on pastoral care education at rabbinical schools -- especially at the Jewish Theological Seminary and at YCT seem to be changing that, and making pastoral care a part of what rabbis are expected to do (and be well-trained to do during their seminary education).]

February 11, 2010

Dear Friends,

It is my great pleasure to introduce you to the new Kalsman Institute Assistant Director,Adi Bodenstein. Having recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a masters degree in Social Work, Adi returned to her hometown of Los Angeles with expertise in areas such as leadership, communication, community building, research, and fundraising.

Prior to joining Kalsman, Adi worked with several well known social service organizations whose focus is also on health and healing, including the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, the March of Dimes, and Take Back the Night.

With a passion for growing non-profit organizations and creating new ways to strengthen them, Adi (pronounced add-ee, like Annie) will be of great assistance in the growth of the Institute. Please welcome her at 213-765-2131 or I am extremely grateful to Rachel Sisk, MSW, MAJCS, who worked as interim project manager for Kalsman through January. Rachel skillfully helped with our ever-growing list of projects, while bringing a strategic eye to our long-term planning.

Kalsman’s efforts are currently focused on:

  1. ASSAF
  2. Research Roundtable (Templeton)
  3. Consulting Projects
  4. 2010 Events


A new group of healthcare clinicians began the ASSAF program earlier this month with an opening retreat in Phoenix, and are now engaged in chevruta study on texts and materials related to Judaism, health and healing. The ten-week program is designed to help these practitioners learn more about Jewish sources, and learn how to use this experience to strengthen the connection between their personal and professional lives. They hope to fight burnout and reconnect to the meaning of their work and commitments. It is a privilege for me and my partner Howard Silverman, M.D. to watch the immediate bonding and camaraderie of this second ASSAF group. Many thanks to Kalsman intern, Courtney Jacobson, from HUC’s School of Jewish Communal Service, for her work on this project, with Phoenix’s Temple Chai staff Sharona Silverman and Rabbi Mari Chernow.


Growing and professionalizing the work of the Jewish healing movement is an increasingly important goal of the Kalsman Institute. We were awarded a grant by the John Templeton Foundation to help develop a scholarly foundation for the field of Judaism, health and healing. Advisors are assisting the development of a Research Roundtable whose members will gather in 2011 to help set priorities and an agenda for this work.

Advisors include:

· Jeff Levin, Director, University Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health
Professor of Medical Humanities, Director, Program on Religion and Population Health (PRPH), Baylor University (Scientific chair of Kalsman’s Research Roundtable)

· Kenneth I. Pargament, Ph.D., Professor of Clinical Psychology, Bowling Green State University

· Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min., D.D., Director, Department of Jewish Family Concerns, Union for Reform Judaism

· Steven M. Cohen, Ph.D., Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy, HUC-JIR

The advisors met last weekend in Southern California. In addition to identifying research priorities and creating a professional community of scholars, scientists, and practitioners who will research the interconnections of Judaism and health, four outcomes are in the works as a result of this project:

1. A national program assessment, providing an overview of projects and offerings from congregations, healthcare settings, and other institutions

2. A literature review of the field, resulting in a searchable online archive

3. An initial survey on health and the Jewish population

4. Ongoing publication of journal articles and other scholarly writing projects.


The Kalsman Institute continues our work as a matchmaker, convener, and consultant for others in the field of Judaism, health and healing. Several congregations are strengthening bikur cholim efforts, engaging healthcare professionals, or creating healing centers, and we have been privileged to provide resources and networks for assistance. The Institute is also working with Cedars Sinai Medical Center to provide a complete assessment of the hospital’s Chaplaincy Program.


The Academic Coalition of Jewish Bioethics (ACJB) completed a strategic decision to become a Working Group of the Society of Jewish Ethics (SJE), which meets annually in January. Highlights of the most recent gathering, Jan. 7-10, in San Jose, CA, included papers on empathy, shame, and gender roles. More information is available


We have very exciting news: Jewish Lights Publishing will publish Midrash and Medicine:Healing Body and Soul in the Jewish Interpretive Tradition, due out in Spring, 2011. Bill Cutter is the editor and he is crafting the contents, which include materials from the Midrash & Medicine conference in Monterrey in May 2009.


I invite your collaboration while the Kalsman Institute is in the process of planning programs and events for 2011 - 2013.

  1. Regional Kalsman one-day gatherings – we will explore partnering with institutions such as the NAJC, NCJH, congregations, and the URJ
  2. A major conferences, following on the successes of “Mining the Jewish Tradition” and “Midrash & Medicine”
  3. Maintaining and building our international health & healing connections, including those in Israel and South America


Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikveh and Education Center is hosting the international Mikveh Conference, “Gathering the Waters International Mikveh” conference to be held in Boston, October 10-12, 2010. The conference will provide an in-depth exploration of the contemporary mikveh in theory and practice. Internationally renowned scholars, clergy, and educators will teach about immersion as a powerful tool for spiritual renewal, marking life transitions, and observing mitzvot.

8th North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference
Atlanta, GA - Marriott Perimeter Center - June 6-8, 2010

Advance registration deadline extended until February 15, 2010. Co-sponsored by Kavod v’Nichum and the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America (JCANA).


Addressing the Spiritual Journey of Jews Beyond Midlife was held on November 19, 2009, in New York City. Click to listen to clips of the presentations and link to a conference

Current Research: Gratitude, Religion and Health among Jews and Christians
A new study investigates the relevance of religious and non-religious gratitude to mental and physical well-being and distress among Jews and Christians. Researchers are looking for non-Orthodox Jewish individuals, 18 years of age and older, to complete a 20 minute online survey. Click here: . The JPSYCH website is an online laboratory to investigate the role of Jewish religiousness in psychological wellbeing.


In these times when we continue to hone our ability to live with good and evil in the world – I send you blessings of health and community. A Kalsman colleague is recovering from recent surgery, and as I return to agility, strength and balance (after my broken ankle, cast, and crutches for two months), I hope this creative English interpretation of the asher yatzerprayer from Rabbi Ruth Adar resonates with you.

Asher Yatzar (“Who brought forth”)

Thank God it all works!


Thank God enough works.

For all our science, and all our technology,

These bodies You have made in Your wisdom are wrapped in mystery:

Rooms within rooms, openings and closings,

All work so wonderfully

That we only notice when they don’t.

We are able to stand or sit before You, our Creator,

Because enough works today.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God,

Ruler of Time and Space,

Who heals our flesh and continues doing wonders.

Interpretation by Rabbi Ruth Adar

My warmest regards,



Michele F. Prince, LCSW, MAJCS

Director, Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health

Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion

3077 University Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90007

213-765-2149 - telephone

213-749-1192 - facsimile

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

New York prepares for snow -- in its own way

Despite the blizzard predications that has the public schools already deciding to be closed tomorrow, the skies were blue on Washington Square Park when I was taking a break from class this afternoon. . . . It was nonetheless still pretty cold to be stripping off your shirts like these two guys on the left playing hacky-sack!

A little bit ago, I was trying to decide whether to declare my own snow day (and head home for Pennsylvania now instead of tomorrow evening) when NYU's vp of public safety sent out an email that said in part:

The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning for the New York
City area; snow and high winds are expected to begin late tonight.

I have been at NYU for 13 years; because of how many members of our community
live nearby and because our transit system seldom fails us, we have rarely had
to close.

Accordingly, at this point, NYU expects to be open tomorrow, Wednesday, February
10; all classes and activities are to proceed as scheduled, all personnel are to
report as scheduled.
And, so, I've decided to risk staying!


I've heard a lot on the news about supermarkets having long lines of people trying to stock up amid all the storm predictions, but I was still surprised this afternoon to see a line of people lined up _outside_ a supermarket waiting to get in! (And with a security guard policing the line.)

It was the Trader Joe's on 14th Street, and, for all I know, they have such lines even when there is no snow -- it's such an amazing thing to have such a wonderful, and cheap, food store like Trader Joe's in Manhattan, something that was all but unimaginable in most of my New York years of the 80s and 90s.

I went past some of my old haunts in the East Village during a short break I took this afternoon. Some of the places I loved the most are gone, especially the Kosher meat restaurants like the 2nd Avenue Deli, Rectangles and the Village Crown. There's a lot more Japanese restaurants and even a well-stocked, but cramped, Japanese food market that can only be accessed via an elevator (it's on the second floor above the St. Mark's Bookshop).

Overall, it's a much more hospitable Manhattan than the one of my young adulthood. . . . If only you could get into Trader Joe's without having to wait in line!

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Listening to different voices -- in pursuit of multi-cultural competency

In my first semester at Grinnell College -- a small Liberal Arts college amid the cornfields of Iowa -- there were only two African-Americans on my dorm floor, one (my roommate) grew up in a middle-class, mixed-race neighborhood outside Chicago and the other who came from an inner-city neighborhood. I remember how angry I got at the second guy when he characterized Grinnell as being a place lacking diversity. "We have students from all over the country," I exclaimed! "We have foreign students!"

It was only after college, when I had lived in New York City for a bit, that I came to realize how right he was. We might have been from all over the country, but almost all of us were white, middle class kids who had come to college straight out of high school and who would finish college in four straight years, without having to drop out to work for a bit, as so many people do today. No wonder -- to borrow the title of the book I am reading, today, for my Adolescent Development class at NYU -- all the black kids sat together in the cafeteria.

The little story I just told about myself is part of the tale of my own development of what we sometimes call multi-cultural competency. It is, significantly, not a story so much about what I learned about another culture. It is more a story about myself -- how I came to grow in my self-awareness about how I am different than others. This kind of approach to multi-cultural competency is counter-intuitive for many -- "isn't ending prejudice about learning about how we are all the same?!?!" they might say.

But as this power point presentation on multi-cultural competency that I used in the Clinical Pastoral Education unit I supervised last summer maintains (I adopted it from something I found on UCLA's web site), the most important step in cultural competency is to start to come to an awareness of difference. Only then, can you really listen to the truth of who the person is who you are interacting with.
I came to realize today that some of the books I am reading for my classes this week and last are part of my journey of growth in multi-cultural competency, and will hopefully help me to do a better job of facilitating my students' growth in this area in future.

Last week, for the same class I am now reading Why are all the black kids sitting together, I read Carol Gilligan's Meeting at the crossroads, a book about the development of girls as they approach adolescence. I really like how Gilligan uses the concept of voice, and how listening to voices forms a central place in how she understands her work. For Gilligan, understanding the development of girls starts, not with some gathering of theoretical knowledge, but with listening to girls and trying to come to some understanding of how they construct -- how they understand -- the world that they inhabit.
Similarly, I believe that coming to an advanced level of cultural competency does not come from reading about other people and their cultures in books. It comes from listening deeply to the person in front of you, and coming to an understanding of how they understand the culture(s) they inhabit.

Another book I'm reading this week is C.J. Pascoe's study of how teenagers understand -- and develop -- masculinity. The book -- with the provocative title, Dude, you're a fag -- may be the best book I am reading right now. In her appendix, Pascoe talks in detail of how she approached the challenge of being both a participant and an observer in her time in the West Coast high school she was studying. Pascoe makes a convincing case that she never could have gotten her teenage subjects to trust her as they did if she had tried to set herself apart as some kind of objective adult observer who would treat a student with harsh judgment and scolding if he, for example, tried to hit on her sexually.

But that hardly means that Pascoe did not have a framework of boundaries that helped guide her in negotiating such a challenging interaction with her subjects. Instead, following what she learned from Nancy Mandell, Pascoe took a "least-adult" and "least-gendered" approach where she would more likely react to such sexualized behavior with humor -- humor meant to desexualize the interaction -- than with shock; in this way, she was able
to maintain rapport without submitting to the student's attempt to sexualize the relationship.

It strikes me that there is some application to chaplaincy here, especially about how we think about setting and maintaining boundaries with our patients. Our patients often try and test us with the boundaries we try and maintain. Can we take "least-gendered" or "least-social" attitudes with our patients in ways that would be helpful?

For Pascoe, maintaining these "leasts" was a matter of negotiation with her subjects. She shared with them that the purpose of her research was to study masculinity and they eventually took to have pride that they were being studied by this liminal figure who not only wasn't a boy, but also wasn't really a girl (she was an outsider who took notes, not a fellow student) nor an adult (she wouldn't "tell on" them or punish them if she witnessed them breaking school rules). This negotiation became itself a source of data. As my professor said in class last week, "you turn the way people react to you into data."
Consent is another issue where there are strong parallels between the issues in research and in chaplaincy. Even though I really liked Pascoe's book, I was a bit disturbed when I read (her excellently written) introduction describing the yearly assembly in the high school she studied. It occurred to me that the students might feel like she was making fun of them if they were to read what she wrote. They also might feel betrayed: my guess is that she did not share with them during her research that she was forming these kinds of conclusions -- conclusions that labeled some of their behavior as sexist and racist.

The question it raised for me is whether you can -- or should -- share the results of your research with your subjects as you go. Gilligan describes, in a way I found convincing, how she did so in her book. And I know that I try and share my "results" with my students as we go through a unit (although I admit this is a very challenging part of my theory to consistently put into practice).
Multicultural competency is one of the hardest things we try and do in our work as chaplains and chaplaincy educators, but it is one that I find most rewarding. There is so much to learn from our students and the others around us. I love it!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Another view of life at NYU

Yesterday, I happened to notice that the young (and non-Jewish, I believe) man sitting next to me in my "Texts of the Judean Desert" class with the venerable (and _very_ fast talking) Lawrence Schiffman appeared to be blogging _while_ taking his class notes on his computer. So, later, I went web surfing to try and find what he was writing.

Here is what he posted. Most of what he posted fits with my recollection (although I don't think he exactly understood what Prof. Schiffman was saying about the Cohen). But it comes from a _very_ different point of view than my own! (Which gives it a bit of a refreshing feel . . . . and shows a bit of just how entertaining Schiffman can be . . . he's very funny! . . and smart.)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Is there any place left for the mission? (What's really wrong with health care)

“There’s a sense we’re here for the mission, and it truly permeates."
That's what the head of the emergency department at New York City's St. Vincent's Hospital was quoted as saying in today's New York Times article about how the Greenwich Village hospital may be about to go under.
Just last week I was telling some of my classmates at NYU about my own hospitalization over a decade ago at St. Vincent's. It left a deep impact on me and helped drive me towards the rabbinate and a career in chaplaincy education.
The St. Vincent's I encountered was a special place. I admit that I can't say anything about the quality of medical care -- I have no way of judging that (I'm not a doctor). But what I can say is something about the quality of compassion I encountered. I remember St. Vincent's as a place where a doctor who had nothing to do with my case took a moment out of his day to talk to me when he saw me sitting by myself, consumed with fear, in a hallway. St. Vincent's was a place where a chaplain of great skill -- likely a Catholic -- came to see me in the middle of the night when I was finally taken up to a floor from the emergency room; she left me feeling comforted amid my pain and terror (and helped inspire me to become a chaplain, myself). St. Vincent's was a place so committed to spiritual care that a chaplain from my own faith was also sent to see me the next day. St. Vincent's was a place, most importantly, where I saw the staff universally treating each other, and their patients, with honor and regard; it was a place where it was possible to be human amid all the machinery of the modern hospital, a great goal to aspire to, but that most hospitals do not reach. It was a place that clearly had a mission, something far beyond making some money off their patients.
I am sad to see St. Vincent's fall on such hard times. It, indeed, is a sign that the health care system in this country is profoundly broken that amid all the insurance companies and the rules and the Medicare that there's no room left for a place with such a mission.