As doctors and nurses scurried past him, Rabbi Jason Kirschner, wearing an N95 respirator mask, stood outside the closed door of a Covid-19 patient at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan last week and recited prayers of healing.
“I offered the prayers without going into the room — just standing outside so I can be as close as possible,” he told The Jewish Week. “I try to provide whatever spiritual support I can give to our Jewish patients. By and large our patients who are on this unit are in flux and shortly after they come in they are sedated. But there have been times when I have been able to make genuine eye contact with Jewish patients who know who I am and know what I am doing and who get solace from my presence.”
Rabbi Kirschner, a Conservative rabbi, who normally works in the surgical ICU and transplant ICU units, is now working exclusively with Covid-19 patients. He said he is there to provide “calming reassurance for our patients and staff.”
There are Jewish chaplains in all of the major hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the New York area. The New York Board of Rabbis is the endorsing body for many of them, according to its executive vice president, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik.
Interviews with a half-dozen Jewish chaplains suggest that their presence is appreciated now more than ever because friends and family members of people who have tested positive, or exhibited symptoms of Covid-19 are often not permitted to enter the same facility as the patient.
“My whole career is being there with the family and patient during difficult times,” said Rabbi David Keehn, a chaplain at NYU Langone Medical Center. “When you speak with chaplains of all faiths, they will tell you theirs is a ministry of presence — of being there. When you can’t, it’s difficult.
“Before the restrictions, families would be there for loved ones,” he said. “It is just as important for the family as it is for the patient. Now I am encouraging family members to say things to me that they might have said to their loved ones.”
Rabbi Keehn, an Orthodox rabbi, said he is able to meet with some families in the hospital lobby and “help them navigate what needs to be done, but 90 percent of my work has been over the phone. It is not the ideal chaplaincy, but we don’t give up the good for the ideal.”
Rabbi Jo Hirschmann, director of spiritual care at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center, agreed that “this is a challenging time for every person on the planet, specifically those in hospitals. And one of the things chaplains can do is make patients feel connected to something beyond themselves.”
Rabbi Hirschmann, a Reform rabbi, said the chaplains call patients in their rooms and sometimes enlist the help of nurses “to hold the phone to the patients’ ear while we speak to them. We are a bridge to family members as well, offering them comfort during a really challenging time. What is heartbreaking is the level of fear and loss across the board. Every single patient in our hospital is a human being with a story and a family that cares about them.”
Rabbi Jonathan Malamy, director of the Department of Meaningful Life (religious life and spiritual care) at the New Jewish Home in Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester, spoke last weekend with the families of three patients who had died in the hospital. They struggled to accept the news.
“They each asked, ‘Are you sure?’” Rabbi Malamy recalled. “Not having seen their loved ones, there is a certain resistance to the reality that he or she died. It’s a denial response, an emotional response. It represents how hard it is to do this remotely. We normally come together for strength. But now we have the opposite poles pulling us apart for safety. How to create togetherness without proximity is the challenge.”
This week, Rabbi Malamy, a Reconstructionist rabbi, was slated to officiate at two funerals for Covid-19 or presumed Covid-19 victims.
“Each cemetery sets its own rules,” he said. “Hebrew Free Burial says the family can drive up but not get out of their cars. The rabbi will be at the grave site and the family will see me and listen to me on their phones. The other funeral is in Mt. Pleasant in Westchester, and the daughter will be allowed to attend.”
For Rabbi Max Reynolds, a chaplain resident at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center, a poignant moment came “when a patient with Covid-19 disclosed he is Jewish and I asked if he wanted healing prayers. He said he did and I was able to offer [one] on his behalf. … That was most meaningful.”
Dvorah Telushkin, a chaplain at The New Jewish Home, wrote in an email that she finds herself “not infrequently having dreams where the residents play a prominent role. It is teaching me how much a part of my life they have become.”
Sometimes it is the hospital chaplain who is asked by the patient about his medical prognosis.
“I don’t say everything happens for the best,” said Rabbi Kirschner. “I just follow their lead and provide comfort in the moment. Sometimes it involves prayer over the phone, which is something I do more and more frequently.”
Chaplains also “provide a lot of support to hospital staff,” Rabbi Hirschmann said. “We go into the units and listen to the staff, giving them a place to share whatever is in their hearts and minds as they do this incredibly difficult work. There is a lot of grief on the unit and chaplains help the staff give voice to that grief.”
One of those staff members on the front line is Ian Sherman, a nurse practitioner who volunteered at NYU Brooklyn Hospital two weeks ago in response to the request for medical help at the city’s overworked hospitals.
“As a nurse practitioner I am not as close to patients as registered nurses who are working with emotional trauma in some cases because of all the people who come in and die,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said it falls on him to keep families posted about their loved one’s physical condition.
“Yesterday evening I called a family and told them that in all likelihood their dad was not going to survive the night,” Sherman recalled. “He did and he was better this morning. I was able to FaceTime with him and the family and they appreciated it. It was beautiful. But when it goes the other way, it is tremendously painful.”
Mt. Sinai’s Rabbi Kirschner said he has encountered “staff members who have a difficult time processing the magnitude of Covid-19. But our staff is trained to the highest degree and is competent and professional. I just try to get them to recharge and be in touch with their feelings. … This is a particularly fatal disease and you are in many ways running towards death as opposed to away from it. It can be draining. I am fortunate to have a good self-care regiment.
“My afternoon prayers,” Rabbi Kirschner continued, “have taken on a new meaning for me. Fortunately, I have a supportive wife who recognizes that the work I am doing is holy work I am meant to be doing.”