I am currently in rabbinical school. I spend my time with other Jewish students, studying Jewish texts and participating in Jewish ritual. But I believe there is something about being a rabbi to be learned outside of class, and I have something to give to others, including non-Jews. To me, Judaism is not just about doing Jewish things with Jewish people. Through my Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship at Cedar Village Retirement Community offering pastoral care to the non-Jewish patients of the physical rehabilitation program, this belief has been reinforced.
The bulk of my experience was with the patients who largely come from Mason, Ohio’s general population. Although many of the physical therapy patients have Jewish backgrounds, the majority of patients typically draw from Christian backgrounds. When I learned that I would be working with Christian patients I initially felt apprehensive, as I was unsure as to whether or not I would be able to fulfill their spiritual needs. In my professional development opportunities at rabbinical school I had learned a great deal about crafting meaningful religious experiences for Jews; I asked myself, could I translate these skills into my work with Christians? Through my work I saw that instead of carefully composed communal worship, my patients required individual prayer sessions. Instead of filling the role of prayer leader, my patients needed me to be a quieter presence.
The focus of the individual prayer sessions with patients, first and foremost, was the opportunity for personal expression. I never uttered a word of prayer during these sessions. Instead, I took the role of a facilitator, inviting the patients to provide their own words as I held their hands or sang niggunim (wordless melodies). More often than not, the patients’ words flowed freely as they thanked God for the blessings they had in their lives and voiced their fears and their hopes for their situations and for their loved ones’ situations.
It was strange to not actively participate in those sessions by adding my own words of prayer, but doing so felt like it would be a disservice to my patients, as the sessions were about their emotional and spiritual needs. My role of witness gave them the chance for open and judgment-free expression. I found that my patients did not need a stand-in for their pastor or priest, but rather a confidant or support figure engaged in the process of prayer with them. My presence to their prayers added a sense of validation and comfort to their already established process of personal prayer and reflection.
In times of uncertainty, worry or tragedy, we turn to those things that bring us comfort. Both prayer and friendship are powerful tools to cultivate emotional wellbeing. Pastoral caregivers can offer support by making themselves available to patients during the times that they have the drive to pray. The prayer sessions I held with my Christian patients affected me deeply because I was able to fulfill a spiritual need despite religious differences. I am ill-equipped to provide the religious guidance a Christian clergyperson could to Christians. However, through taking a facilitator role in the prayer session, I open up the opportunity for patients to show me exactly what they need spiritually, bypassing the religious divide and affording them the care or assistance they required. In turn, the patients almost always included me in their prayers, asking God to bestow blessings on me, a sentiment stemming from a sense of gratefulness for my presence and emotional support.
This experience validated my belief that a rabbi’s role extends far beyond the bima, beyond religious institutions and faiths. I see my role as a rabbi as someone seeking to do right by others and enhancing the spiritual in all of our lives. My work at Cedar Village was not only rewarding, but work I hope to continue well after my ordination.
Leslee Estrada served this summer as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Cedar Village Retirement Community in Mason, Ohio.