Kashouvot: Pioneering Hospital Chaplaincy in Israel

by Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz and Rabbi Valérie Stessin

If only there had been a chaplain …

You might think that with all the religious figures and holy sites in Israel, patients in hospitals and residents in nursing homes would have access to a chaplain to talk, pray, cry and be with at times of crisis and transition. In the U.S. and Canada, Australia and parts of Europe, chaplains are integral parts of hospital services. Yet surprisingly, chaplaincy (also called pastoral care, in Hebrew tmihka ruhanit) is not one of the services offered by healthcare institutions in Israel. Most people have never even heard of pastoral care. Yet Israelis need pastoral care as much as anyone during life-cycles challenges, and perhaps even more due to the traumas of migration, terror and war. If Israelis do happen to have the fortune to meet one of the few Israeli chaplains, they are open, deeply grateful, and often strengthened.

Kashouvot is a nonprofit organization founded in Jerusalem in 2010 by Rabbis Miriam Berkowitz and Valérie Stessin to answer this pressing need. Kashouvot provides quality professional pastoral care for patients, staff and families in hospital, hospice and public retirement home frameworks in Israel. Kashouvot’s chaplains blend academic credentials with practical training in internationally recognized Clinical Pastoral Education (C.P.E.). Over the past few years, a small number of people have been starting to learn and practice spiritual support, and the budding initiatives are raising awareness of the field. Palliative care is also just developing in Israel and will be a natural place for chaplains to complement the medical team. We are proud to be on the cutting edge of these new developments.

How Pastoral Care Helps

What is the essence of pastoral care? Jane Mathers explains, “As chaplains we walk into some dark places and help bring in light. We are not afraid of [the patient’s] darkness, we don’t care who they are or where they have been, we want to be with them where they are. We try to find common ground and a common language, speaking about hope, love, faith, relationships, family, regrets.” The role of the chaplain is to be a calm and understanding presence who provides support to people in their wrestling and suffering, using various tools including empathetic listening, music, poetry, prayer and journaling. The unique feature of pastoral care is the mutual human connection. Pastoral care can raise spirits, refocus energies, and increase patient’s sense of personal worth. We see changes in patients’ mood and coping skills, as well as greater willingness to discuss difficult, content-rich topics with family.

These stories illustrate various ways we care for people:

Sasha – name changed – (65) is an immigrant from Russia who made aliyah with his elderly mother and cared for her devotedly until her death. He struggles with Multiple Sclerosis and has been hospitalized in the French Hospital for four years. During the process of pastoral conversations with Rabbi Miriam, one theme that arose was Sasha’s frustration and regret at not having seen Israel since he is confined to a wheelchair. He loves nature and expressed a dream to see beautiful landscapes outside of Jerusalem. Kashouvot made his dream come true with a full day excursion to the Dead Sea. He displays the photographs on his bedside table as a daily reminder of this magical day.

Sima (80) made Aliyah from Morroco in the 1960’s. She had a difficult life, worked hard as a cleaner in schools and did her best to care for her four sons. She was widowed in her forties and eventually moved to a nursing home. She is fluent in Hebrew, Arabic and French but is illiterate. During her pastoral meetings with Rabbi Valérie, she recounted the Moroccan folktales she remembered from her childhood. Rabbi Valérie listened to the stories and compiled them in a booklet, enabling Sima to find a sense of pride in her heritage and create a written legacy for her grand-children.

What makes Kashouvot Unique

A meaningful encounter can happen between a chaplain and a patient of different faiths, cultures and backgrounds. We work with the entire spectrum of Israeli society: all religions, ethnic groups and socio economic levels. Kashouvot’s chaplains provide pastoral care in Hebrew, English, French and Russian. Kashouvot meets patients where they are and provides a safe, supportive address for unburdening the heart.

Kashouvot’s founders combine pastoral skills with a passion for innovation. They believe that Pastoral Care has the potential to impact Israeli society by building bridges between different faiths, helping Israelis discover relevance and meaning in their own heritage, and encouraging people to cultivate their own language of spirituality throughout their lives.

Let Your ears be attentive (Kashouvot) to the voice of my supplications” (Psalms 130)

Currently we work in several health care frameworks, with the elderly, ill, terminally ill and their families. Other nursing homes and hospital departments wish to engage us and we have identified a pool of capable caregivers. Hospitals are unlikely to finance spiritual support in this first stage of implementation. Our work is currently funded by individuals and foundations in the United States, Canada and Israel. We must widen our base of support in order to make pastoral care accessible to more patients. One of the exciting things about Israel as a young country is that there are still opportunities to be pioneers.

Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz earned a BA from Harvard University and an MA and rabbinic ordination from the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. She served as Assistant Rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan and authored the book Taking the Plunge: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to the Mikveh. Her chaplaincy experience began at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York in 1997 and continued with C.P.E. courses and internships in Oncology and Chronic Care at the French Hospital in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Valérie Stessin, a native of France, earned M.A. degrees in Judaic Studies and rabbinic ordination from the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. She completed several units of C.P.E. including internships in Assaf Harofe Hospital and Idan Hazahav nursing home in Israel as well as Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey. She has work experience in Hadassah Hospital, home hospice and the French Hospital in Israel.

We invite you to read more about Kashouvot’s projects here.
Contact us at: kashouvotmiriam@gmail.com or kashouvotvalerie@gmail.com