Festival of Lights – A Holiday for All: Marpeh and Spiritual Care at Schechter


Chanukah, the Festival of Lights – when those colorful little candles illuminate the great darkness imposed by nature, when the days are short and the moon has waned – provides us with a good opportunity to recount the story of the growing, multifaceted Spiritual Care movement in Israel, which is bringing light and gladness to those in darkness and despondency.

It is hard to define the starting point of this movement, which has developed a professional approach to the encounter between philosophical-spiritual thought and people in distress. The Jewish role of spiritual caregiver began in Biblical times: when Joseph attended his dying father Jacob and brought his two sons to him to receive his blessing (Genesis 48:1-22).; when Moses prays on behalf of his sister Miriam, crying, “Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee” (Numbers 12:13).; when Elkana comforts Hana in her barrenness ( Samuel I 1:1-9).; when young David plays for King Saul in his distress (Samuel I 18:10).; when Elisha and the Shunamite woman resuscitate her son through prayer and faith (Kings II Chapter 4). These are just a few examples of the legacy of spiritual caregiving bequeathed us by the Bible, which teach us how to cope with the pain of loss of meaning and direction in our lives in times of spiritual angst. Illness, the loss of a loved one, an unexpected physical handicap, loss of livelihood, economic difficulties or personal troubles drive one to seek spiritual guidance. At these times we move through a maze of confused wonderings about the meaning of our lives. These points of crisis afford us a chance to think creatively about that meaning (J. Levin (PHD, MPH), “Religion and Physical Health among Older Israeli Jews: Findings from SHARE- Israel Study,” IMAJ, Vol. 14, October 2012, 14: 595- 601; M. Atzil, Health Intelligence: A New Perspective on Illness and Healing, Tel Aviv: Modan Publishing, 2012, pp. 151-52.(Hebrew)).

Spiritual caregivers dismiss the distinction between body and soul as artificial, and believe that a positive worldview is an integral part of healthy living. Thus, recovering from illness or coping with health issues is not restricted to a mechanical process of medication or medical procedures or proper nutrition – it also involves a conscious awareness of life as a gift from God (P. Krauss and M. Goldfisher, Why Me? Coping with Grief, Loss and Change, translated from the English by Dr. Rachel Tokatly, Tel Aviv: Achiasaf Publishing Ltd., 1995, pp. 23-25).

Spiritual caring is essentially pluralistic, stressing the multiple meanings inherent in the phrase “a gift from God,” which reflects a variety of beliefs, from traditional religious to atheist. Each caregiver subscribes to a particular set of beliefs or faith, but must not engage in persuasion of the person receiving the care to adopt those beliefs. Rather, the caregiver accepts that person as they are and respects their beliefs, however different or opposing those may be. The caregiver offers an attentive ear, warmth, a sense of understanding, and a channel for expression through study, reading, meditating and personal prayer. This last can take the form of song, poetry reading or quiet meditation, (A.  Brenner,” Prayer and Presence,” in:  Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman (ed.), Jewish Spiritual Care,Woodstock,Vermont, 2001, pp. 125- 149). whatever suits the wishes of the person receiving care.

While in the U.S.the field of Spiritual Care has been developing over the last 110 years, (D. A. Steere, The Supervision of Pastoral Care, Eugene, OR.:  Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1989, pp. 16- 17). in Israel the profession is new. Only seven years ago, the Israeli office of the Jewish Federation of New York embarked on an ambitious undertaking to develop the field in Israel, through funding and organizational guidance (http://www.ujafedny.org).  Both secular and religious, Orthodox and non-Orthodox organizations responded to this call, interested in developing the capability for providing spiritual care to all sectors of the Israeli population: Jews and non-Jews, old and young, ill and healthy, male and female, individuals and families.  Within this framework, the Schechter Institute took upon itself the mission of building a training program for spiritual caregivers along the lines of the American program of Clinical Pastoral Education, adapted to Israeli society. To this end Schechter connected with the National Association for Jewish Chaplains (NAJC), opening a direct channel to senior professionals in the field in the U.S (

Association for Pastoral Clinical Education

http://www.acpe.edu/

College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy,

http://www.pastoralreport.com/about.html).

We began by developing a model for training rabbis to use spiritual caring tools in their community work, and we established the summer program at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary that is still in place. Subsequently, after having accumulated knowledge and experience, we established the Marpeh program that has been operating for the last two years. This program prepares men and women from all sectors and professions to serve as spiritual caregivers in Israel. There are currently about 20 students in the program, most of them M.A. degree students at the Schechter Institute. They study Jewish medical ethics, midrashim on pain and suffering in the world, Jewish law and custom concerning visiting the sick and consoling the grieving, and the concept of the life-cycle in psychology, Jewish Thought and Hasidism. In addition, they acquire professional tools in a special seminar on spiritual caring and Jewish tradition, and learn to apply those tools in a guided practicum.

As stated, the Marpeh students come from a variety of backgrounds. There are Israeli-born and immigrants, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Jewish-born and converts. Many are from rural areas, from religious or secular kibbutzim; others are from a variety of community towns. In their practical work, or as volunteers outside the program, they give of themselves and of their time to people recovering from serious illness, people in mourning, people struggling with disabilities, old age, or a disabled family member, and the dying. Their work is community-based, revolving around a school, hospital, home for the aged, or another type of religious or secular institution. The fertile encounter between our students never ceases to be a moving experience.

The Marpeh program at Schechter has been a creative workshop for formulation of professional criteria for training, making us a leader in the field in Israel. Together with various network organizations, we also have led the process of drafting an ethical code, vital to future recognition of the profession in this country. In writing the ethical code we have taken upon ourselves the task of defining the profession of spiritual care in Israel as a non-religious profession, unlike in the U.S. and Europe. Spiritual language in Israel is accessible to all – religious and secular, believers and atheists, alike. We therefore do not present ourselves as rabbis or academics, though we have invested greatly to earn these degrees and titles. When providing care to a person in distress, we do not wish to supersede that person’s spiritual or cultural world. Through the contraction of our egos, we expand the light that is given to all, just as the Chanukah candles shed their light on all; a light of mutual aid, not of contention. This is an important message for all, teaching us that we increase the light by sharing it. Just as we take a flame from one candle to another without lessening the light, we take light from our soul to give to others, and by this act we increase our national and universal lights.


Dr. Einat Ramon is Founding Director and Counselor of the Marpeh Program for Spiritual Care and a Senior Lecturer in Jewish Thought and Women’s Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.

Image by: Yaakov Rozner, KKL’s Photos Archive.

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