When I was 8 years old, I knew I was going to join the Peace Corps as soon as I could.  My life was focused on this – I selected my university and classes for this purpose.  And after spending a year living in Nepal and volunteering with various health agencies, especially Save the Children U.S. – Nepal, I decided that I would become a Registered Nurse.  I was also being pragmatic – I figured that there would always be a need for nurses and while I might not be paid in money, if I were working for a community I would at least have a roof over my head and food.  And, I figured that while Physician Assistant was not a field well-known in other countries, everyone understood what a nurse was.

Many life events intervened from the time I returned to the U.S. to complete my BSN and the beginning of my professional life….and I never did join the Peace Corps.  I did, though, spend quite a few years working as a nurse in Wisconsin with a wide variety of cultural groups, including refugees from many different countries.  At one point, I had days at work during which I communicated with patients using Nepali, Hindi, Spanish, French, Hebrew and a smattering of Vietnamese.  These were, actually, very exciting times and I felt I was making a significant contribution to my community.

Over time as I continued to work as a nurse, I felt called to move into hospice work.  What turned out to be my final years working as a nurse were in hospice.  There, I was confronted daily by patients and families who were distressed by what I called at that time, theological questions.  But as I came to better understand the questions later on – these patients and families were expressing the symptoms of classical spiritual distress.

Somewhere in my second year of hospice work I realized two shifts were occurring.  The first:  As a hands-on healthcare provider (RN, MD, OT, RT, etc) you have to be able to keep a wall between yourself and your patient.  If you do not, you will feel distress every time you do something that – while it will bring the patient back to health – causes pain in the short term (think of giving shots, aggressively cleaning a deep wound, suctioning a patient’s tracheostomy).  I lost that wall and was unable to reconstruct it.  The second:  I found myself increasingly drawn to the questions and spiritual/religious struggles the patients and families were experiencing, and less interested in the medications and medical management of the patient’s symptoms.  Not a good combination if I was going to keep practicing as an RN.

So, I started to delve more deeply into the questions posed by my families.  And, while there were certainly other influencing factors at play, it was these questions and my fascination with them that were leading reasons I entered rabbinical school.

Once at seminary, most people I met immediately assumed I would become a healthcare chaplain.  Well, hah! I thought.  I was through with hospitals and healthcare…..And, well, they were right.  I am now in my eighth year as a full time healthcare chaplain and I love the work with a passion.  Moreover, everything I have done and learned is called upon in this work:  My training in anthropology; living in multiple countries and learning a half-dozen different languages; living in different religious communities and studying their sacred texts and liturgies; developing a flexibility and curiosity fed by my understanding that no two situations are ever going to be the same, and that the single most important skill I can bring to every encounter in life is listening and observing.  These days, every day feels like a mini-United Nations to me.

I will be blogging more about how I do my work as a Rabbi who is responsible for the religious/spiritual nurturing of patients, families, and staff who come from around the world, represent most of the world’s religions, and who are wrestling with the realities of the U.S. healthcare system, as well as the realities of daily suffering.

But for now, I would like to thank the Showtime TV show Weeds for the most eloquent and compact demonstration I have ever seen of one aspect of what a healthcare chaplain does.  You can watch the clip on Youtube.  And honestly, while the show’s writer certainly crafted a dialogue meant to shock, this is not far from the reality of what we healthcare chaplains often hear.  To become a healthcare chaplain we have to undergo a rigorous 12 – 18 month training program, a postgraduate fellowship, called Clinical Pastoral Education.  It is during this time that we learn the basics of how to sit with people – day after day – and be present and non-judging as they express distress, fear, anger, shame, loss, anger at God/loss of faith, finding the sacred.…every possible emotion and every possible personal history.  Add to this all the different religions that people practice, and then the individual person’s interpretation of their religion….it can get complicated and oh so messy.  Yet, extraordinary.  It is in this work that the barriers come down and people present in their fullness and in their most vulnerable state.

What a privilege it is to be with people at these times.  Here, my wall is just right – constructed enough that I do not take on others’ issues or over-identify with them – but osmotic and flexible enough that my empathy can be shared.

16. May 2012 · Comments Off on Evolution of My Tallis · Categories: Uncategorized

I have been musing on a presentation I attended at the American Academy of Religion. Associate Dean Donna Bowman, Ph.D. of the University of Central Arkansas spoke on the prayer shawl ministry. Traditionally, the prayer shawl (tallis gadol, in Hebrew) is worn by men, based on the commandment to tie fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments (Numbers 15:38-40). Also traditionally, a man would have one tallis for every day use and a special one for the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement (Rosh Hashanaha and Yom Kippur). While there is no prohibition in Jewish law against women wearing a tallis there has typically been the understanding that it is a man’s obligation to wear the fringes, so women have not (that whole separation of gender roles thing). But over time, as women have found entrée into Jewish leadership, the tallis started to be worn by us. Some Jewish women now have the most delicate talleisim – pink, gold, lace, dancing women, butterflies, ribbons, etc., while others create stories about Jewish text (midrash) on their talleisim, using symbols, pictures, text phrases, and the like.

Bowman’s paper has led me to reflect on the evolution of my own tallis use. I had never considered wearing one when I was a youth, and I certainly did not see any woman wearing one. Having gone through a difficult period of feeling disconnected from Judaism in my late teens and early twenties, my first foray back into Jewish community was attendance at a branch of Judaism I had only recently learned about – Reconstructionism. The first time I walked into a Reconstructionist Jewish worship service, I opened the door to the worship hall and saw a sea of multicolored and painted talleisim, on a cloth store’s worth of different materials. I knew in that moment I had finally found a way back into Jewish life. Shortly after this, I purchased my first tallis — what I later learned was a traditional Chasidic tallis. Years later, looking back at this, I was bemused by the foreshadowing: I had not heard of Chasidism and when first introduced to it was not only disinterested in it but was also a little hostile to it (more about this in the future). And yet ultimately, my ordination was through Jewish Renewal, a neo-Chasidic Jewish movement.

I wrapped myself in this tallis for years. Then I began to design or purchase new talleisim for milestone events, each tallis representing something particular to that event. So I now have talleisim that have travelled with me through the ritual of receiving my Hebrew name, of being ordained, of marrying; a smaller one for when I lead lifecycle events; an interfaith one for all of the multi-religious work I do; and finally a tallis that is fair trade and made from sustainable materials.

Each tallis has been imbued with something special. My naming tallis, for instance, needed to have the tzitzit tied on to each corner. So three close friends sat with me and as we each tied the special knots to make the tzitzit, we made prayers. I feel those prayers with me each time I wear that tallis. And my smicha tallis – well, long story there – but the one I had designed has yet to be made. This tallis will incorporate Buddhist symbols since I have a Buddhist practice alongside my Jewish practice. So for smicha, I tied on ribbons representing each Buddha family. While this was not the tallis I had hoped to wear for smicha, I appreciated the full-circle experience — the tallis I did wear was in fact the first tallis I had ever owned and had travelled with me so far.

This blog first appeared on the Feminism and Religion website.


I used a little bit of shorthand in my blog, “Evolution of My Tallis,” and I would like to provide some more background:


A woman wearing the tzitzit and tallis is not prohibited in the Hebrew Bible (Torah), and there is no universally agreed upon prohibition or obligation within the Jewish law that developed after the writing of the Torah.  However, over the generations as Jewish law became more complex, some rabbis in some communities did begin to argue for prohibition, while others supported women wearing the tallis and tzitzit.  This disagreement continues. There are complicated arguments both for and against the practice. Here is good link for more detail  http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/PersonalNotes/Article.aspx?id=191382

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