A Jewish lay chaplain

A female, Jewish, lay chaplain at our local hospital? Who knew?

I’d never given much thought to chaplains one way or the other. Fortunately I’ve spent very little time in hospitals — much less in prisons or the military — and the word chaplain conjured up images of a middle-aged Christian man, someone like Father Mulcahy in MASH.

So I was intrigued when the editor of our temple bulletin approached me during high holiday services and asked if I’d like to interview a young woman in the congregation who is working as a chaplain at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.

Jennifer Mahru

Jennifer Mahru, 33, is one of only seven participants in an intensive, year-long, on-the-job chaplaincy training program at Alta Bates Summit. It turns out that Jewish chaplains are pretty common. But lay chaplains like Mahru — who are not ordained clergy — are very unusual.

Mahru, inspired by her relationship with Temple Sinai‘s recently-retired Rabbi Steven Chester, had initially considered enrolling in rabbinical school. But she didn’t want to leave the Bay Area. And she realized that the parts of rabbinic work that spoke most deeply to her – pastoral work and counseling – could also be done as a hospital chaplain.

“I wanted to be there for people when they most need it, when they are vulnerable or ethically challenged,” she said.

Alta Bates chose Mahru from among 65 applicants for the training program, apparently on the strength of her experience as a hospice volunteer at the Jewish Home of San Francisco and her plans to go to graduate school in theology next year.

Mahru works a 40-hour week, assigned to different hospital units, and is on call for 24 hours every week or two. She gets called in for any death in her unit, even if the family doesn’t specifically request a chaplain. As a trainee, she meets weekly with an experienced chaplain supervisor and takes part in lectures and case study discussions with her fellow trainees.

Barely two months into her chaplaincy, Mahru already has enough stories to fill a book – patients who are furious or terrified about facing the end of life, others who simply want a friendly chat, nurses who need to grieve about a death on their ward. She ministers to people of all religions, whoever is in her assigned unit on a given day.

With non-Jewish patients, Mahru introduces herself as “one of the chaplains” and doesn’t mention her Judaism unless asked. If patients want her to pray with them, she does so in language that doesn’t compromise her own beliefs. If patients ask for clergy from their own faith, she arranges for that.

“Part of the challenge of clinical pastoral education is learning where you draw the line,” she said. “A Catholic patient may want to say the Our Father and Hail Mary, but I won’t say those words if they aren’t real for me.”

“I don’t have the right to tell anyone that their beliefs are wrong,” she continued. “If they say, “I’m going to hell because I sinned,’ I don’t tell them ‘There’s no such thing as hell.’ “I go with what they’re feeling, which is regret. I may ask them, ‘What are you regretful about?’ Or ‘It sounds like you’re in a really tough space right now. Do you want to tell me why you’re so upset?”

Most of the time, Mahru’s non-Jewish patients are delighted to have her there. One day may find her sitting with a bereaved Hindu family as they sing hymns in a language she didn’t understand. Another may find her accompanying a Catholic priest as he baptizes a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. Sometimes, though, there are moments of friction.

Once Mahru was praying together with an evangelical Christian woman who asked, “How come you don’t pray in Jesus’ name?”

“We all pray differently,” Mahru said. “Prayer can be helpful no matter what words you use.”

“Not unless you are praying to the real and true God,” the woman responded.

So far, Mahru’s biggest struggle is not with skeptical patients but with her own self-judgment:

“I struggle with thinking, ‘Was my visit good?’ But I’m learning that, a lot of the time, you don’t know that. And you’re not going to know that. You can have a visit that is not so spectacular, but a patient looks back on it months later and feels like it made a diffeernce. There’s no instant gratification. You have to be secure that what you offered was enough. That’s my biggest challenge, because we want people to praise us.”

Her reward is the opportunity to support people as they confront questions of mortality and vulnerability that are often shunted aside in daily life.

“Being in the hospital brings up a lot of emotions for people,” Mahru said. “They’re scared, they feel feel like they’ve lost control over their body, they’re alone…. We live in a society that likes to fix things. Being with these people means going into scary places we don’t usually want to go.”

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3 Responses to “A Jewish lay chaplain”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    Lovely piece.

  2. Barbara Kluger Says:

    Thank you for sharing this story about Mahru. I’m a member of Temple Sinai too. It’s good to know that our congregation has many good people (menschen). If I see her there, I can say I learned about her from your blog.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I’m sure she’d love it if you introduce yourself! It would be fascinating to see a list of what everyone in the congregation does, both workwise and with their volunteer/creative time…

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