Jewish chaplaincy provides new settings and roles for Judaism

Just as Christian chaplains are filling in for the roles that traditional congregations and clergy used to play, a new breed of Jewish chaplains is meeting spiritual needs that synagogues once catered to, write Bethamie Horowitz, Wendy Cadge, and Joseph Weisberg in Contemporary Jewry (online in September). The researchers also find that Jewish chaplains are shifting the concept of chaplaincy and the training for these positions away from the Protestant norms and expectations that once shaped the chaplaincy. Horowitz, Cadge, and Weisberg note that Jewish chaplains were already on the scene as American Jews entered such domains as the military, prisons, and hospitals, where Christian norms predominated. Constituting what they call the “first field-wide treatment of American Jewish chaplains,” their research is based on 31 in-depth interviews with Jewish chaplains, as well as a survey. Horowitz, Cadge, and Weisberg estimate that there are approximately 1,000 Jewish chaplains in the U.S., working in healthcare, the military, elder care, prisons, universities, and as community chaplains. In a convenience (rather than random sample) survey that the researchers conducted among 140 chaplains, they found that the majority of respondents worked in healthcare, followed by elder care, the community, prisons, and the military. The longer history of Jewish chaplains working in elder care (mainly among fellow Jews) and the longer existence of Jewish nursing homes make them leaders in this field among other chaplains. The survey also found that about half of the respondents worked full-time as chaplains, with three-quarters of them being ordained. It is particularly the younger Jewish chaplains who receive credentials from clinical pastoral education (CPE) and board certification (BCC).

Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter leads Jewish Services, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawl (tallit), at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq (source: Senior Airman Elisabeth Rissmiller, Wikipedia).

Jewish chaplains have helped transform the “chaplaincy to include not only serving their co-religionists but also attending to the spiritual-religious-existential needs of all individuals.” In the last two decades, the Jewish chaplaincy has moved toward professionalizing; nearly all of the 11 major Jewish seminaries require some form of grounding in the chaplaincy for their rabbinical students. Yet, as for all chaplains, there exists a gap between what future chaplains learn in school and what they will be required to do on the ground. The challenges for Jewish chaplains are many, mostly centering around reaching increasingly disaffiliated American Jews and negotiating the differences between the Jewish denominations (particularly with regard to the more exclusive Orthodox groups). The arrangements and services of Jewish chaplains seem to be moving in an orthodox direction; the Jewish Welfare Board in cooperation with its denominational partners require Jewish chaplains to serve kosher food at all events and to refrain from conducting interfaith marriages and same-sex marriages—a point of contention for Conservative and Reform branches, which allow the latter. Horowitz, Cadge, and Weisberg conclude that increasing Jewish involvement in the chaplaincy with its concern for well-being has already contributed an emotional component to rabbinic work “that has not typically been included in framing Jewish leadership. Where do chaplains and spiritual caregivers fit within conceptions of religious life and the nature of rabbinical and other leadership? One can see echoes between today’s chaplains and Hasidic models of…rabbinic caring.”

(Contemporary Jewry,