The Gate of Healing

By Elizabeth Leiman Kraiem

During Yom Kippur, we will pray for the opening of many gates, including the gate of refuah shelema: the gate of complete healing. This request will carry special urgency this year, as many continue to suffer in both body and spirit from the effects of COVID-19. For decades, the idea of spiritual healing was anathema to many American Jews, and the concept of “Jewish healing” an oxymoron. A small group of rabbis and philanthropists began to change this exactly thirty years ago when they launched the contemporary Jewish healing movement. The pandemic has shown how valuable their work has been to Jewish life while also uncovering areas of new communal need.

The founders of the contemporary Jewish healing movement had experienced illness themselves or in their families and wanted to give more American Jews access to resources rooted in Jewish tradition for support in times of sickness and loss. Many communal practices we now take for granted were reintroduced to liberal Judaism under the auspices of Jewish healing, most notably the misheberakh prayer, whose recitation during worship has become an anticipated and meaningful moment due in large measure to Debbie Friedman, who was active in Jewish healing.

The legacy of Jewish healing has been evident in recent months through resources that have helped communities respond to isolation, anxiety, and loss. They include Jewish mindfulness meditation and practices like the bedtime shema, adapted for communal recitation on Zoom particularly for families with young children. At its height, the Jewish healing movement had a footprint that included 35 regional healing centers, a national office, annual conferences, and a library of literature with contributions from prominent rabbis, academics, medical professionals, patients, and others. Now, at most eight regional centers remain.

Many factors contributed to the movement’s contraction, most notably the recession of 2008 and a shift in philanthropic priorities as the economy recovered, as well as integration of many resources into liberal Jewish life. Another significant factor may be the movement away from organized religion and the start of the so-called “nones” phenomenon, which also begins in 1990. That year, the number of Americans choosing not to affiliate with an established religion starts a clear and steady climb into the present with barely a dip. With an accompanying increase in multi-faith families, in addition to a higher percentage of older adults than the general American population, the Jewish community needs to find new ways to provide these and other groups with spiritual care and counseling.

One answer is to turn to Jewish chaplains. In a national survey conducted last year, 21 percent of Americans reported having contact with a chaplain in the previous two years, mostly through healthcare organizations. We do not know what that percentage is in the Jewish community, but we should care. Chaplains are trained to meet people “where they are” spiritually and geographically and are accustomed to multi-faith settings. Jewish chaplains have received national attention for their work during the pandemic. They include Alison Kestenbaum, whose work with some of the first coronavirus patients was noted in the Atlantic, and Rabbi Kara Tav, whom the New York Times called one of the men and women “who run toward the dying.”

There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that Jewish chaplains are beginning to work outside of typical settings (e.g. hospitals, higher education) and are connected directly to the Jewish community through positions like that of “Jewish community chaplain” and participation in spiritual care collaboratives. However, we do not know how many community chaplains there are or what needs they fill. To learn more, the Charles H. Revson Foundation has made a grant to the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University to map the field of Jewish chaplaincy. We believe that the Jewish community needs chaplains to help meet our changing demographics and that Jewish chaplains need our community to help fortify the Judaism at the foundation of their work.

Thirty years ago, philanthropy helped to bring Jewish healing to American Jews. This contribution has become so much a part of Jewish life that we no longer consider it noteworthy. The converse may be true for Jewish chaplains. However noteworthy, we do not yet consider them part of Jewish life. There is so much need now for refuah shelemah. As we acknowledge and thank clergy, educators, and other professionals who guide us to this gate, we can begin to count Jewish chaplains in their company.

Elizabeth Leiman Kraiem directs the Jewish Life Program at the Charles H. Revson Foundation.