The first time I stepped into a hospital room as a chaplain, I lasted about 90 seconds. The conversation was kind but awkward—I offered my well-wishes for a speedy recovery and invited myself out the door. I was convinced that this was going to be one of the most difficult summers of my life.
But Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) surprised me by becoming a defining moment of my journey as a rabbi in formation. Over time, I grew more confident in my ability to walk into a room and get to know a patient. I gained the patience to sit with someone and listen for ways I could be with them in their moment of joy or sorrow or pain. I learned what it means to be present with someone in such a way that I wasn’t there to doanything but just to be with.
One of the central elements of the CPE process is learning to ask oneself a pair of questions when engaging in pastoral care: Who am I? What is my role in this conversation? Without an awareness of what I bring into the room with me, I cannot be an effective chaplain in the way I hope to be to someone. If I am not authentic in my care for another person, it becomes instantly noticeable, and those interactions fall short of the power and impact I hope they might have. Next, I have to ask myself: What are we about in this interaction? What is our goal? Am I here to talk through a struggle someone is facing? Am I here to make pleasant conversation in order to distract someone from the pain they are experiencing? Am I here to try to help someone reframe a situation or engage with the world in a different, more healthy way?
My summer experience taught me not only that relationships were at the heart of my work this summer as a chaplain, but also that they are and will be at the very center of my rabbinate. Without intimate connections between people, the work I do to use Judaism as a language for making the world a more whole, more beautiful place would be for naught. When I am able to understand who I am in an interaction, to know with whom I’m interacting, and to be fully aware of what we are about in that moment, I am better able to cultivate an atmosphere in which people show support and kindness for one another, and to offer opportunities that would never have been possible before.
Over a ten-week period of CPE, I interacted with dozens and dozens of people—some only once, others over and over again. I remember so many names, so many faces. Some have receded back into the blur of conversations, kind words, quirky anecdotes, and charted visits. Each of them made an impact on me, and I hope I offered the same gift to them in return. That is, after all, the beauty of a relationship. Along the way, I could feel a change in the answer to the very first question. I could feel a shift in who I was in the room, a shift in the impact I could have in crafting those relationships. I could feel myself moving further away from the Austin who doesn’t know how to harness his compassion, and toward Austin the (soon-to-be) rabbi.
Austin Zoot is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College.