Spiritual first responders
Jewish chaplains: Leading where life happens
The post-pandemic rise of loneliness and anxiety in the Jewish community has been well documented, as has the decline in institutional affiliation. For many Americans, especially under 30, chaplains may be the only religious professionals they will see in times of need.
The pandemic put chaplains before the public eye as the country’s “spiritual first responders.” Media reports shined light on their important work, more typically unseen, and on chaplaincy’s evolution into a vocation that is increasingly more religiously and racially diverse. Jewish chaplains were featured in many of these reports, as well as in articles following Tree of Life and Colleyville, yet the work of Jewish chaplains remains poorly understood in the Jewish community according to Leading Where Life Happens, a recent report by Drs. Wendy Cadge and Bethamie Horowitz of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University. Part of a larger project to map Jewish chaplaincy in the United States, the report finds that Jewish chaplains are an undervalued communal resource, hiding in plain sight.
The post-pandemic rise of loneliness and anxiety in the Jewish community has been well-documented, as has the decline in institutional affiliation. For many Americans, especially under 30, chaplains may be the only religious professionals they will see in times of need. In addition, the Jewish community has a higher percentage of people over 65 than the general population and families that do affiliate are increasingly multifaith. Chaplains, trained to meet people where and as they are, have skills and training that can contribute to meeting these and other critical communal needs. Their work is to accompany people during periods of personal transition and during times of social change, like those we find ourselves in now. They often work with people on the margins of a community or of life: religiously, spiritually, geographically and demographically. “Wherever there is human vulnerability,” writes chaplain Allison Kestenbaum, “we are there to support.”
Seeking to understand what Jewish chaplains might contribute to the Jewish community and how the community might better support Jewish chaplains, the Charles H. Revson Foundation turned to the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab to conduct a mapping process. In addition to research, the process included the first convening of Jewish chaplains across denominations representing different sectors where Jewish chaplains work, including the military, healthcare, prisons, elder care, higher education and in social service agencies and nonprofits.
The process identified these four opportunities for philanthropic and communal investment:
- Integrate Jewish chaplains into the Jewish communal leadership structure. Many chaplains hold positions of leadership in the sector where they work, but they are not represented in communal leadership and are absent from programs that feed the leadership pipeline. Partnering with some of the community’s prestigious fellowship programs, for example, would bring the perspective of Jewish chaplains to bear on communal issues.
- Build the work of Jewish Community Chaplaincy. “Community chaplaincy” is a model that reaches people on the margins of the community. Community chaplains have served Holocaust survivors, immigrants, individuals struggling with substance abuse and people who feel isolated from the Jewish community, including young adults. It is a promising form of service that has suffered from inconsistent funding.
- Invest in research and development. Jewish chaplains are eager to innovate. In interviews and convenings, some spoke about how their training can be helpful to growing populations, like people with dementia and their families. Others expressed interest in putting their skills to work in new areas like social justice movements or Jewish summer camps. Demonstration and micro grant programs can help pilot some of these ideas while research can identify service gaps chaplains might fill in areas like aging, where models of care and financing are changing rapidly.
- Support the development of Jewish chaplaincy as a field. There is interest among some chaplains in continuing to use the network developed during this project, nationally and locally, for professional support and development, e.g., learning communities, mentorship, skills-building.
While public focus on chaplains receded with the pandemic’s most acute moments, chaplains have not stopped doing work that is brave, creative, and important. Jewish philanthropy has an opportunity to bring this work more directly into the Jewish community and also to support Jewish chaplains wherever they work.
Elizabeth Leiman Kraiem is senior program officer, Jewish Life North America, at the Charles H. Revson Foundation.