Notes from a Chaplain

I serve as chaplain in a private, prestigious and fast paced school for seventh through twelfth graders. My work has a wide range and includes some activities that seem rabbinate-y and others that are less obvious. These include:

  • designing and teaching a required eighth-grade course on health;
  • designing and coordinating a cutting-edge substance education program for our community;
  • sponsoring a social club for Jewish students; and
  • designing and leading a program to foster leadership, mentorship and warmer relationships among seventh, eighth, and ninth graders.

Ten years ago, I launched Sacred Spaces to convey what was then a very new idea: We don’t have to leave our religious identities at the door in order to become one school community. With the contributions and help of a few people, I create exhibits that focus on a specific religious tradition or practice. These exhibits are popups and can include music, food, and print explanations. Minority students are signaled that they are honored and respected; all students learn that exchanging information about our different cultures and religious traditions is simply part of what we do here. Over time, the Sacred Spaces program has impacted the school’s culture and helped us become a more embracing community.

As chaplain in a multicultural setting, I have been guided by the wisdom of my own Jewish tradition regarding how we respond to illness or death. This has been a bit tricky, as the overall context is American: Jewish values and customs at times clash with other cultural values of privacy during illness as well as during sorrow. For instance, how public shall we be regarding a staff person undergoing chemotherapy? How do we allow for children and adults to learn new attitudes toward illness? New ways of supporting an ill colleague or teacher or child? My rabbinate has been one of weighing many considerations and then attempting to move forward with actions that are supportive of individuals while espousing those humanist (and often rabbinic) insights that make sense to me. Some questions arise that are the same as those faced in congregational rabbinates: Do I, as the rabbi, do this task? And so become the designated visitor or consoler? Or do I invite others to participate in this way, which is much more labor intensive for me? And dissipates the supposed glory/kudos for handling these things solo?

The opportunity to save a life — as well as a lifetime of sorrow for a family — presents itself in my project on substance education. Here, I’ve come to understand the current level of science regarding teen use in order to design a multimodal approach to supporting teen sobriety. This includes a social norms approach (letting kids who make good decisions know they are in the majority so that they feel inclined to remain there), parent education about the key tools to support sobriety, and creating a culture in which we feel caring concern (rather than envy) for teens who use substances. In this endeavor, I am frequently facing the same challenges as those I faced in the congregational rabbinate: Asking others to care about something that I am more passionate about than they, as well as offering up a worldview that is different than the cultural norm.

Rabbi Emily Feigenson is Chaplain at Harvard-Westlake School

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