Matching the Chaplain to the Need

While Orthodox female chaplains are now serving hospitals on both the East and West Coasts, I’ve often wondered why there are so few of them — especially given that well over 50 percent of many hospitals’ patients and employees are female.

Board-certified chaplains are members of interdisciplinary healthcare teams, providing spiritual care to patients, families and staff in moments of illness, loss, crisis, transition and celebration. To become a Jewish chaplain, advanced post-high school Jewish education and clinical chaplaincy training are required, but rabbinic ordination is not.

When it comes to conferring healing (or suffering) on humanity, God doesn’t discriminate in relation to gender, and in the same vein, chaplains are trained to provide care that is sensitive to all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, faith, or absence of faith.

My chaplaincy training taught me to reflect on the unconscious biases that I bring to my patient encounters by virtue of being a white, Orthodox, heterosexual, Jewish male. For example, do biases influence the way I support a female patient who confides in me about an adulterous husband, or a physically abusive father? I recently offered spiritual support to a male nurse with three children going through a tortuous divorce, and I wondered how that support might have been better, or different, if the care had come from a female professional. Sometimes, when I struggle to get a patient or staff member to open up to me emotionally, I wonder if some aspect of my maleness gets in the way.

And then there are the cases where I think that an Orthodox female chaplain is specifically called for. I remember the Jewish female patient who was distressed over whether to continue a relationship with her non-Jewish partner; the 40-something woman with ovarian cancer who wondered if God was punishing her for having had an abortion decades earlier; the business professional who sought guidance over whether the time had come to freeze her eggs in the hopes that someday she’d find her bashert [soul mate]; the male physician who wanted to know why Jewish women were more interested in him before he became Jewish. Or that Orthodox single patient in her forties who — after years of fertility treatments that she kept secret from friends and family — was now on bed rest before celebrating the joyous birth of her child?

The field of chaplaincy is greatly enriched by women. If you or someone you know is looking to make a lasting difference by embarking on a rewarding career at the intersection of science and spirituality, body and soul, I invite you to make that happen. You will enrich our world.