When he was a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in New York, Steven Moss received a call from the New York Board of Rabbis asking if he would visit a 19-year-old man dying from leukemia. Moss was 23.
“I went to the hospital and the family was in the room. I took his hand and he looked up at me and said, ‘Rabbi, where is the justice in what is happening to me?’ I had no training in chaplain care, but I looked at him and said, ‘I would be a fool to give you an answer.’ A little while later I said a prayer and left.
“The next day, before I went to school, I went to visit him and stayed with him the next eight hours until he died. The family asked me to officiate at his funeral. When I visited the family during the shiva, I asked why their son wanted me there the last eight hours of his life. They said it was because of the answer I gave to his question. I had shown him that I wasn’t there to expound some theology but I was simply there in my humanity of care.”
“It was one of the most important moments of my life,” Rabbi Moss, now 59, recalled “I learned that what people want is for someone to treat them as a human being and not to hide behind a robe or a tallit or the title rabbi. Be a mensch to a mensch. It is my theology that when we do that we uncover the Divine presence of God.”
This week, Rabbi Moss will receive the Maria and Joel Finkle Prize as the New York Board of Rabbis’ Rabbi of the Year. The award will be presented by Maria Finkle at B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, L.I., where Rabbi Moss has served as spiritual leader since 1972.
“He is truly a rabbi’s rabbi,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “Rabbi Moss combines greatness as a professional and as a person. He has brought remarkable achievements and much wisdom to both his community and his congregation.”
Richard Dormer, commissioner of the Suffolk County Police Department where Rabbi Moss has served as chaplain since 1986, said that by “acting as both healer and educator, [Rabbi Moss] has time and again helped to keep our diverse community working together.”
Before coming to B’nai Israel as a third-year rabbinical student and a few months before his encounter with the dying 19-year-old, Rabbi Moss was asked by the New York Board of Rabbis to visit a woman at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center who was urgently in need of a rabbi.
“I went over and sat with the woman,” Rabbi Moss said. “I really felt I was bringing comfort to someone at a difficult time — while she was at the end of her life [after a battle with cancer]. I sat with her for over an hour. She was in her 30s and she had to make decisions about who would care for her young daughter. It was my first experience with a dying patient. … I felt peaceful inside when I left her room after listening to her fears and concerns. It’s not what you say as much as it is just being there.”
Those two experiences with dying patients helped to shape Rabbi Moss’ outlook on life and the rabbinate. He decided to take a clinical pastoral education course at Sloan-Kettering, and then served as a part-time chaplain there from 1971 through 2000. For nearly 30 years he has served as chaplain of South Side Hospital in Bay Shore, L.I., and in more recent years at two other hospitals.
It was a 180-degree course change for the rabbi, who as a child couldn’t even watch medical programs on television.
“Whenever there was something gory on TV, I would run from the room” he recalled with a laugh.
“As part of my chaplain training [at Sloan-Kettering] I had to witness an operation from beginning to end. The operation I saw involved the removal of the pancreas. It proved to be a wonderful way to understand why a person is in pain after an operation, because you see what they do to you when you are knocked out.”
Although his hospital work could not have been foretold, Rabbi Moss said he knew as a child that the rabbinate was his calling. In fact, he first applied to Hebrew Union College when he was 12.
“I told them I had a deep abiding feeling for God and spirituality, and a desire to … make it a part of my life in the way I reach out to people,” he said.