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Providing Spiritual Care During Corona

By Carol Novis

Judith with members of the Mumbai Jewish community, for whom she led High Holiday services

Patients suffering from the Covid-19 (corona) virus in Israel receive first class medical care, but because the disease is so frightening and isolating, they also need emotional and spiritual help. Hospital pastoral care counselors help provide that aid. Pastoral counseling (ליבוי רוחני) is a form of therapy which uses spiritual resources as well as psychological understanding for healing. Certified pastoral counselors are not only mental health professionals but have also had in-depth religious and/or theological training. The field is not new; it started when chaplains, including Jewish chaplains were assigned to help the troops in World War II. Among professionals who work in the field is Judith Edelman-Green from Kfar Saba, a Reform rabbi. Judith has had an exceptionally varied career. After earning degrees in social work, Jewish studies and the rabbinate, she studied pastoral care for three years, including spending part of a term in Boston. She has been employed as a Jewish youth worker in Manchester and in Israel, a lecturer in Jewish Identity at Beit Hatefusoth, a facilitator of bar and bat mitzvoth for special education students and a pastoral care giver at Beth Protea and at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. For 10 years, she served as rabbi of the Mumbai Jewish community in India over the High Holidays.

Judith (in blue and white) dressed for work in the Corona Care Unit at Tel Hashomer Hospital.

In October last year, at a time when the hospital was inundated with patients, she offered to work in the corona wards. Nothing had prepared her for what she found. The corona outbreak has been a difficult time for hospitals and staff as well as for patients. Such a situation had never been experienced before. In the beginning, care was makeshift. Departments were set up and then closed, depending on the number of patients. It was a time of great stress, as Judith soon discovered. She was assigned to work with patients who were not in the Emergency Care section or on ventilators, but were isolated on special corona wards. Many had other conditions as well as corona, such as for instance, a broken hip. Some were dying. They were allowed no visitors other than a restricted number wearing special suits and only for a short time. There was no occupational therapy and so patients had nothing to do in isolation, a frightening experience in itself. A visit from the pastoral counselor was a break in their aloneness. "I was determined to do it because I felt so much for their loneliness," she says.

Not all patients want such counselling, because they might be too tired, too sick or not in a mood to talk. "I respect that," says Judith. But many do, and Judith sees her role as listening, rather than talking. It can be emotionally demanding work. Sometimes patients ask difficult and challenging questions: Why am I suffering? Did I do anything wrong? She tries to reassure them. Corona affects people from all walks of life, and that is one of the things that Judith found uplifting. "I met Jews, Arabs, medical tourists – people from all over the world. One man, a Haredi rabbi from Bnei Brak, had no trouble talking to me. His wife was sick and he told me how he found religious strength when she was hanging between life and death. It was a lovely connection. I heard about his son who got married while his wife was so ill. He said, 'I danced for both of us'."

Another patient had just given birth by C-section, and woke up to find herself on a corona ward, without her baby. "The first time I saw her, she was weak but happy and optimistic. A week later, unable to attend the britmilah, with her husband in isolation, she was suffering from a post-partum let down. It was tough for her. She revealed the name of the baby boy to me, because she couldn't do it at the brit. I tried to give her some sense of celebration and meaning."

One of the most challenging aspects of her work was the need to wear a protective "space suit". "It's hard to breathe and I don't know how the medical staff manages to wear them for hours at a time. You just can't be seen in them. I remember one patient telling me 'I don't know if you're young or old, religious or secular, but I feel I can talk to you'. A Holocaust survivor without relatives, who lived in a retirement home, told me that she would talk about anything except the Holocaust. I listened to her stories and her worries. Another woman came to the hospital from a refuge for battered woman and also wanted someone to talk to about her problems."

Being a pastoral counselor doesn't necessary mean providing religious counseling, though it can. "I will read prayers, when it is appropriate; when a patient wants them. Staff members need help too, particularly when they are connected to a patient who dies. I talk to them and make sure they take the space to mourn. I arranged a staff support meeting at which they talked about what they were going through. People were crying."

These days, with corona hopefully on the decline, Judith has returned to regular pastoral counselling and is no longer on a corona ward. She has more time to spend with her family – her husband Bernie, a GP in Kfar Saba, her three children and two grandchildren. Her latest project is a book which she is writing about pastoral care, blending biblical text with stories based on that text, on subjects such as aging, death, dementia and spirituality. These are subjects she experienced personally during her work with corona patients.

The Torah Study Group at Beth Protea



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Rabbi Judith Edelman-Green is a Spiritual Caregiver at Tel HaShomer hospital.

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