A woman recounted the painful loss of her husband and snippets of her childhood in New York, including fancy dinners and theater outings with her father, who was a food critic. These outings, she shared, led to her career as a clinical nutritionist. She spoke with pride about her two children. Unfortunately, there are few with whom she can talk. She is a quiet woman with a profound sense of loneliness. I spent time this summer with many other people who expressed loneliness, too. For a variety of reasons—not having visitors, feeling insecure about opening up to neighbors, and not feeling like they fit in because they are transplants from other areas of the country or world—they felt isolated. This particular woman receives calls from her children but has few friends in her retirement community. The time we spent together on Fridays meant the world to both of us. She shared some of her precious memories, and I learned from her extraordinary life.
This summer I worked with six colleagues and our educator, supervisor, and associate dean, Rabbi Julie Schwartz, in a Clinical Pastoral Education program. The seven students had individual hospital and retirement community placements in which we visited patients. Each week we devoted time to processing those visits as a group. For years I have been passionate about pastoral care. Cultivating relationships to be with people in their grief, anger, and joy is the place where I feel God the strongest. I have looked forward to the Clinical Pastoral Education program for many years. It exceeded my wildest dreams. I learned so much about myself, especially my rabbinic presence as a form of comfort. In my hospital placements, I stewarded people through difficult stays involving illness and death, as well as joyous occasions like the births of their children. We talked about their families, hobbies, and passions they wanted to return to after they left the hospital, their fears, and God. Often, at the end of a visit, we prayed together, or I said a prayer for them. At first, I was uncomfortable praying in this way. It was not something I had experience doing, and the words stuck awkwardly in my throat. As the summer went on, though, these moments became some of the most meaningful of my experience.
There is a certain vulnerability in prayer. A person can open up to the idea that life and health are not within their control, but maybe they can appeal to Divine power. They can acknowledge the fragility of human life and ask for strength, patience, or healing. Prayer can draw people closer to one another. If a chaplain is listening carefully, the patient will feel heard when the chaplain offers a prayer on their behalf at the end of a visit.
When people become patients in the hospital their voices are frequently silenced. It may not be intentional, but doctors talk with nurses, families speak with medical professionals, and sometimes, even when the patient is speaking, they do not feel heard by the people with whom they interact. My greatest joy in chaplaincy was that my role was to listen. Patients in the hospital and residents of the retirement community revealed their stories.
Listening to people’s stories is one way to amplify unheard voices. I am passionate about creating space in which people can share about their lives, emotions, and Jewish experiences. I think it is essential work. In moments when I am fully present with other people, I sense God’s presence enveloping us. Establishing these connections opens the door to deep, reciprocal Jewish engagement. Cultivating these meaningful relationships will be the foundation of my future rabbinate.
Taylor Poslosky is a fourth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR. She serves as the rabbinic intern at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas. She loves to read and is currently captivated by Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher.