A Chaplain in Training

This year as a part of my fourth-year rabbinical training, I participated in a Clinical Pastoral Education program—CPE for short. The goal of this program was to train me in pastoral care and give me experiences that would let me put my ongoing training to use.

I had three field placements in addition to three full weeks of being on call for The Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati. My placements were at assisted living facilities for residents with memory issues. I would also lead Kabbalat Shabbat services and meet with residents on Friday rotation. The rotation meant that I could increase the number of people I provided with pastoral care.

Being on call was a very new experience for me, and not just because I had a pager— although the learning curve on the pager threw me for a loop. Having a pager on my bedside table during the weeks I was on call created more anxiety than I initially expected. The idea that at any moment, even in the middle of the night, I could be called in to perform pastoral care weighed heavily on me. I wanted to ensure that I was always prepared, yet I needed sleep. I did not sleep much the first few nights. Soon, though, I found a balance between my anxiety that I would oversleep a page and my need for a good night’s sleep.

My time in CPE has been precious to my education as a rabbi. I have learned skills such as how to listen actively, pray spontaneously, and provide pastoral care for those whose faiths are not completely aligned with my own. I was exposed to these skills in the field during my CPE pulpit work, but we dug deeper into them in our CPE class and worked to more finely hone them.

I found it difficult at first to do spontaneous prayer, especially when I was on the phone with a patient’s family members who were, say, Catholic or Lutheran. I wanted to make sure my prayers reflected their beliefs as well as my own. I tried to remain authentic in my language while not offending others. I struggled especially with using masculine language in prayer, a practice I have removed from my own worship. Yet I know that many Christian denominations say, “In Jesus’s name we pray” or “Lord.”

As I debated with myself how I would navigate these prayer differences, a classmate brought up the same issue in our weekly class session. I realized that I was not the only person facing this theological question. After having a very open conversation with my classmates about my issues using masculine language, I was reminded that the prayer is for the patient or their family, not for my own religious experience. It is my job to perform pastoral care, and I learned to make the concession and use the language if doing so was a way I could provide them with comfort. I omit the “In Jesus’s name we pray,” but if whomever I am speaking to refers to God in a masculine way, then I will adjust my prayers to reflect their language. This is an example of why studying CPE in a cohort is important.

CPE has been a challenging experience overall, but taking this class during the pandemic has been especially difficult. Under normal circumstance, we would go into the hospitals or assisted living facilities. But I chose to be virtual from the start, and the physical distance proved to be another obstacle I was forced to confront. When I was on call, I never saw my patient’s faces, so I could not pick up on nonverbal cues. I would use Zoom for my visits to the assisted living facility but, for various reasons, the patients could not hold the tablets themselves, so I never had a chance to do private pastoral care. I know that my presence alone meant a lot to these residents, and I held onto that during my visits. Yet I cannot help but wonder how my experience might have been different had I been in person.

This year has been full of unexpected complications, but having the chance to work with my peers and Rabbi Julie Schwartz in the CPE program has undeniably made me a better rabbi. This work is never done, and I am excited to keep learning what it means to be an effective chaplain.

Tzvia Rubens is a fourth-year rabbinical student and the current TJF Fellow for the Clinical Pastoral Education program through HUC-JIR

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