Jewish Leaders Hopeful of Restoring Jewish Chaplains to Hospital System

Jewish leaders of California are hopeful of restoring the only three Jewish chaplains in the service of this state’s huge mental hospital system. However, indications from Sacramento, the state capital, are that the chaplains will be dropped on July 1–as ordered by Governor Ronald Reagan. He has ordered millions of dollars in health cutbacks. A tremendous campaign has been mounted–including Protestant and Catholic groups–to retain the three Jewish chaplains. They travel from one hospital to another, up and down California, to minister to the 900 Jewish mental patients. By comparison, Protestant and Catholic chaplains are based on the hospital premises. A spokesman for the California Human Relations Agency, which administers the state’s mental hospital program said it “can’t be said at this time” whether the chaplains would be retained. He said several alternative proposals were being studied. But other sources in the state capital were agreed that Governor Reagan would stop in, if necessary, and repeat his order to cut the chaplains–so intent is he on reducing the state’s health costs. The charge of anti-Semitism has been made against Reagan. However, most responsible Jewish leaders in this state regard his action as “un thinking,” not discriminatory.

Rabbi Harry Levenberg, who is Jewish chaplain for five northern California state mental hospitals, put it this way: “We’re not accusing anyone of anti-Semitism, but we do feel it is unfair to take away a professional chaplaincy from one faith group.” Under one alternative proposal being studied by the Reagan administration, each mental hospital would contract with a rabbis in its area for chaplain services as needed. However, interestingly, administration detail men have so far been unable to find any rabbis willing to accept such a contract. It appears that the rabbis have effectively banded to gether as a boycott group. Recently, a subcommitte of the California State Assembly held a standing-room-only hearing on the issue in Sacramento and recommended restoration of the three chaplains. At that session, support was voiced by such groups as the Northern and Southern California Boards of Rabbis, by the Council of Churches, by a bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and by mental health associations from many of California’s 58 counties. A petition asking restoration came from patients from the Napa State Hospital. Jewish chaplains, who are specially trained for their work and serve brief residencies in mental hospitals, receive $13,000 a year in salary plus travel expenses. They are generally acknowledged to be a “special breed” in the rabbinate.

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