Pastoral Education Edges Into Mainstream


Rabbi Mychal Springer, director of the Center for Pastoral Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, recalls the days 20 years ago when she first began studying the field. Her first two clinical supervisors were both nuns, she says, reflecting the field’s roots in Christian theology.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan, a pioneer in the Jewish healing movement, recalls that when she and others founded the National Center for Jewish Healing in the mid-1990s, “the spiritual needs of those who were ill or those who cared for them didn’t exist in the Jewish world.” Their movement, she says, was very much on the “fringe” of the communal agenda.

Michele Prince, director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, says she expected “an uphill battle” with other faculty members when she was hired five years ago with the goal of expanding the institute’s reach.

Such comments came up repeatedly last week at the Pastoral Educator Conference, a two-day event hosted by UJA-Federation of New York. Sponsored by the federation and the Kalsman Institute, the conference was billed as the first such event to bring together spiritual-care professionals from across the Jewish denominational world.

“Most of us knew each other, but we’ve never all been together,” said Rabbi Naomi Kalish, a participant in the conference and the newly elected president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains.

Last week’s conference took place shortly after the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to make clinical pastoral education, or CPE, mandatory for all incoming rabbinic students.

The move is considered by many to be a huge advance in the field, as is a similar action in the past year by the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. JTS is the rabbinic seminary for Conservative Judaism, while HUC-JIR ordains Reform rabbis.

Although CPE is one of several approaches to learning about pastoral care, it places each student face to face with those who are suffering, while providing intensive supervision. It’s also the only formalized teaching method with its own accrediting organization, its own curriculum and its own body of practitioners — an approach requiring 400 hours, or one unit, of fieldwork.

As such, CPE is “the clearest way to know that a certain set of standards has been achieved by the students under supervisors who’ve received the same sort of training,” said Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, director of HUC-JIR’s Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling.

In addition to the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR, home of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health, the college’s Cincinnati campus has required 400 hours of CPE for all rabbinic students since 2005. Those who’ve experienced 1,600 hours of CPE, or four units, receive accreditation.

One of the major themes of last week’s conference involved how Judaism can help shape a field that has been so rooted in Christian theology. HUC’s Rabbi Wiener told The Jewish Week that many Jews in hospitals and other health care settings still seem surprised to receive a visit from a Jewish chaplain. “They know there are priests and ministers who function as chaplains,” she said, “but they don’t anticipate seeing a Jewish cleric in that capacity.”

Rabbi Springer explored the subject in a panel discussion that opened the event, saying that Jewish professionals in the field can develop their own theories of helping others, their own language and their own ideas on how best to educate future practitioners. But she added that the Jewish contribution to the field must be grounded in Jewish texts, sources and traditions. What makes pastoral care and education “organically Jewish,” she said, are the elements of “Jewish neshama,” or Jewish soul, from which practitioners can draw.

Another member of the panel, Rabbi Simkha Weintraub of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, distributed a list of passages from Jewish sources concerning the rabbi’s role as a pastoral, or spiritual, counselor. One, from the Babylonian Talmud, asks, “Who are the ministering angels?” The two-word answer: “The rabbis.”

While the Jewish community still has a long way to go, in the eyes of many participants, more than a few commented on how far the field has advanced in the past few years, not to mention the past 15 or 20 years.

Rabbi Springer, for instance, told participants that she felt as if she were “on the margins” as she began her training in 1991. But in an interview with The Jewish Week, she said, “The story for me is less about feeling on the margins [20 years ago] and more about how, as people understood the work I was doing, they realized the necessity of developing those skills through professional training. As the Jewish community began to realize that everyone needed care and attention,” she added, “then those who cared for them found more of a voice at the table.”

Rabbi Cowan, now a senior fellow at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, believes today that pastoral care has “moved from the fringe to the mainstream,” with each of Judaism’s major seminaries incorporating the subject into its core curriculum. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the 10-year-old “open Orthodox” seminary requires second-year students to do 40 hours of fieldwork in pastoral counseling and requires an additional 40 hours in students’ third or fourth year. Yeshiva University requires courses in pastoral care, but not clinical pastoral education.

The battle Prince was expecting at HUC never materialized, as faculty members realized the importance of pastoral fieldwork.

Prince, one of the conference’s two organizers, told The Jewish Week that there’s always “a tension between professional development and more academic pursuits,” such as Talmud, Midrash and Jewish history. “There are only so many hours in the week and only so many years in the program,” she said, so the tension is over the ratio.

But the more academically oriented professors “recognized the benefits [of pastoral fieldwork] from students who already went through it,” said Prince. “And some of them are rabbis who did those internships, provided pastoral counseling and learned about themselves. Word of mouth and personal experience” are what brought them around.

The single biggest factor in pushing the field is the changing demographics of the Jewish community, which has a growing population of elderly Jews. Both the elderly and those caring for them — members of the so-called “sandwich generation” — often require spiritual care.

Partly as a result, the role of rabbis is also changing. “Unlike those in a lot of fields, the rabbi is now a generalist, expected to be the CEO, the educator [and] the spiritual counselor,” Prince said. The Jewish seminaries, she added, are trying to adapt to the change, teaching pastoral care through “a much more integrated combination of coursework, fieldwork and reflection. The fieldwork is a crucial piece of it, where students are getting to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and are literally by the bedside of Jewish patients.”

Others at the conference pointed out that pastoral care is hardly limited to working with those in hospitals and nursing homes or with the seriously ill and their families. Pastoral care also involves working with members of the community affected by divorce, substance abuse, mental illness, infertility or a myriad of other issues, said Rabbi Weintraub, rabbinic director of JBFCS and the National Center for Jewish Healing.

UJA-Federation has also taken notice, said Sally Kaplan, the organization’s planning executive for spiritual and end-of-life care. Kaplan, who organized the conference with Prince, said the event is a partial outgrowth of the federation’s Spiritual Care Professional Advisory Task Force, a body of rabbis, chaplains, healing professionals and medical providers created six years ago. The conference, she said, represents an even deeper engagement on the topic.

“I’d hope that we’re creating an enduring community of people who are significant leaders and thinkers in this field,” Kaplan told The Jewish Week. “More specifically, I’d like to follow up with an online forum where they can share articles, insights, things they learned at the conference and things that inspire them — whatever they need to teach pastoral skills effectively.”

As heralded as Clinical Pastoral Education is, one leader of the Jewish healing movement says the approach has limitations and should only be a first step.

“We need to go way beyond it for a few reasons,” said Rabbi Weintraub. CPE has been overwhelmingly based in hospitals and nursing homes, which limits who students meet, the rabbi said. Rabbis also need to understand the non-hospital issues like divorce and substance abuse — “anything and everything that community members bring to their rabbis” — and they need to respond “with basic Jewish spiritual resources.”

Rabbi Weintraub has proposed the creation of a new entity, the New York Institute for Jewish Spirituality, to teach precisely those skills. It’s “little more than a dream” at the moment, said Sally Kaplan, the planning executive at UJA-Federation who works with Rabbi Weintraub and other healing professionals, but “it would certainly be a boon to the field.”