A Chaplain’s-Eye View of Presidential Material

Everyone else is talking about the presidential candidates so why not yours truly, even if this topic does not quite fit what you usually find in this blog? You might inquire what a chaplain could contribute that would add anything more than any random person on the street. I think to speak about this through my filter as a chaplain, and not just as Karen B. Kaplan, random voter, is in fact the point. Chaplains are generally more self-aware than the average person, so I can consider how my own life story causes me to sidle alongside one candidate rather than another. I also may be more sensitive to tracking down the elusive agendas of the aspirants.

I have no proof, but I predict that Trump will self-sabotage before he gets too close to finding himself in the Oval Office, assuming that outside factors don’t derail his efforts to win it. It is one thing to electioneer. It’s another to actually sit down and do the day-to-day work of a president. It’s the difference between talking about being president and actually being president. Would it be his cup of tea? I mean would he really want to give up his stinging words and grind through tedious meetings and painstakingly shepherd change, if there is change at all, through the slow process guaranteed by our balance of powers? I think he would miss the higher flying super-duper charged existence of speech making and grandstanding.

That people are currently gravitating toward candidates with more extreme views is extraordinary, since usually most people want to go with what is more predictable, and therefore emotionally safe. My prediction is that like any attraction to extremes, such behavior cannot be sustained for long and people will scuttle back to the more comfortable haven of moderation.

My life story, full of erratic and unpredictable behavior in my home of origin, makes me wary of any candidate that seems volatile, no matter how attractive their views may be. Above all, I want to feel that a candidate is a stable personality, not one to lurch into one stunner after another. I leave it to you to consider who falls in the former, and who in the latter category. Setting aside your own political views, you can examine whose behavior and personality best suits your own view of the world. Who best fits your own emotional and spiritual make-up?

My Fractured Spanish and Patient Power

Power gets in the way of compassionate care. The very words, “compassionate care,” smack of a power differential between the caregiver and the patient: Me Tarzan: healthy and something to give you. You Jane: weak, vulnerable, dependent. I cast about for ways to make the patient and me more equal, partly because that is what I wish in order to honor them as a sojourner on the path of life, and partly to put them at ease. Bad enough I am ordained clergy, authority figure par excellence and sometimes viewed with suspicion or distaste.

What I tend to do to level the playing field is at least offer choices. Does the patient even want a visit in the first place? If so, do they prefer conversation to prayer, or just quiet? Hold hands or not? I take note of my physical presence and minimize any implied superiority by sitting rather than hover over the bed. Most importantly, I let them set the agenda for our interaction. It is their choice whether to talk about Trump or trauma, stock tips or taking stock.

I recently got hired by Center for Hope Hospice in New Jersey because I can speak Spanish, among other reasons. I do not speak like a native or anywhere close, for sure, but enough to relieve the suffering of those who need to pour out their hearts. So here I am, a Jewish chaplain, hired to speak Spanish with Catholics! During some of these visits, clients sometimes step in and help me with my Spanish skills. I then joke and praise them for being my “profesor de español.” They laugh and are pleased to help, often continuing to offer other tidbits such as a grammatical correction. This is great for both of us: I get a Spanish lesson, and they get to take the lead in at least one respect.

In general, when I speak my fractured Spanish, I am deferring to the client, giving them the home team advantage. Perhaps too, English may have the connotation for them as “impersonal,” “cold,” “official,” “uncaring” or even “threatening.” As I put myself at a linguistic disadvantage, I may be receiving intimate and profound stories clients share that otherwise would have gone unheard and their unexpressed pain left in solitary confinement.


Smartphones and Sweetened Hospice Visits

I think of cellphones as intruders into warm intimate interactions, so I silence mine on the way in to a patient’s home. But it can be a different story if the phone is not my own. Last week I visited with the daughter of a patient, who had lots to say about having to be the caregiver without any help from her own family. “Friends do much more than they do,” she said. I asked how she coped with all this. “If it weren’t for God, I don’t know what I’d do.” That was the cue for me to offer prayer, which I only do if I am reasonably certain that is what a family wants and that they are not agreeing to pray just to follow a script for how to please a clergy person. Based on what the daughter said, I chose a prayer about caring for the caregivers.

She liked it so much she wanted a copy. At first I said I did not have any on hand, but then it struck me: smartphone to the rescue. “You could take a photo of the prayer with your phone,” I suggested, as a consolation prize. She did so and then transferred the photo to her Tablet, and she was delighted with it far more than any measly paper copy, because she could enlarge the print and even share it with others. Duh. I just welcomed myself to the 21st century.

Later that same week I had another entree into our century. The patient was devout but could not speak and could not hear well, so her daughter urged me to sing some hymns to her as loudly as I could at her bedside. As I sang Silent Night, (ecumenical rabbi at your service, comfortable enough when stopping at the end of the first verse) her daughter started videotaping me with her phone. “Now I can share this moment with family, and I can play it to Mom again and again,” she said. I joked about becoming famous, and said I was glad that they liked it that much.

Thus time on hospice is not entirely about pain and fear and grief and anger. Thanks to the smartphone, a visit from the hospice team can be pure pleasure for all concerned. I suppose it won’t be long before I have some endearing moment to share about Skype and the like unless you beat me to it first with an anecdote of your own.





Standing Astonished in the Swirl of Existence

Here’s a paradox, and one that accounts for why any agreeable person would take on such work as preparing a body for burial, or in my case, serving as a hospice chaplain: being present to the dying the dead and the bereaved  has intensified my sense of being alive. Just as a malevolent character in a novel can heighten the goodness of the hero, being near the dying or the dead can serve as a foil to life. Sometimes as I step outdoors after visiting a hospice patient, everything I encounter seems more firmly anchored in the here and now. Birdsong and the patter of rain make of me a rapt audience. A swaying traffic light beams out with more redness; a wind kicking up and vacillating between cool and cold bars my way from any warmer crosswinds. How can all this be happening around me while someone is about to cut loose from the moorings of her life?  I stand astonished in the swirl of existence.

Where does this intensity come from?  The closer I am to reading the end of a piece of fiction, the more weight the sentences bear. Each succeeding word seems to take on a deeper significance. Likewise, as I am talking with someone who is nearing the end, whatever they are saying is more poignant given that backdrop. I think that is why so much is made of hearing a person’s “last words.” We assume they will be loaded with wisdom, or that they will enlighten us regarding something we had never understood about that person or about ourselves.

Those of us who care for the dead and the bereaved, get a continuous sneak preview of our own final crossing over the inscrutable edge between life and death. As with any rehearsal, we reap benefits that could never accrue if we were to simply improvise when the time came.


This is a reprint of my guest post in the blog, Expired and Inspired, in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, November 25, 2015. The precise link is: http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/astonished_in_the_swirl_of_existence


The 99.5 Percent Solution

A short cartoon, just one frame of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, has provoked an awful lot of thought on my part. Snoopy is taking it easy as usual on top of the doghouse and Charlie comes round to vent to his buddy and perhaps imbibe some wisdom. He has some news for his dog: “Someday we’re all gonna die.” Snoopy retorts, “But not on all the other days!”

I told this joke last Wednesday in an unlikely place for a not only Reform but female rabbi: A Chabad Center. At this very Orthodox venue, where the male host would not shake my hands in case I was “unclean” from a feminine characteristic (never mind my postmenopausal age), I was invited to be on a panel alongside an Orthodox rabbi to discuss, “how to make our lives better now.” No sweat, I could handle that question. I was less sure about the venue. I Tweeted, “What was a female Reform rabbi doing in a place like a Chabad Center in Bedford Hills NY? To discuss our mortality but of course.”

The Charlie Brown joke got surprised laughter from the crowd of Boomers and Generation Xers. Whew, I would be alright. But really, the cartoon captured in one sentence one of my main observations that night, which is that contemplating death can tune us in so much more to life, and to what we want to continue and discontinue for our remaining allocation of days. Snoopy the sage also intimates that we should appreciate and savor all those other days that are left.

Savoring life by staring at death may be a commonplace. But how about this? I told the group that sometimes my work in hospice intensifies some of those days that I get to live. On such an occasion, objects seem more present, more “there.” Sounds are richer, reflections off of water brighter, overheard talk more poignant, smells more pungent. I stand in the inscrutable swirl of existence.

During the question and answer period, many questions hinted at fear of death. They asked if people tend to accept it near the end, or whether everything falls into place for them at that point. I sensed the yearning for ultimate answers, which of course no honest human can provide. I gave the consolation prize of explaining how chaplains at least strive to clear away inhibiting agendas and provide a safe sacred space with open-ended questions. This and abundant time to listen lets persons articulate their thoughts without censoring them for family and friends. This way they can then clarify to themselves what their life story has been about.

But you know? Maybe humans don’t have the answers, but Snoopy makes a good point: Around 99.5% of the time that we are alive we are not going to die. Why worry about that less than 1% exception?

Not Officiating At My Own Funeral But Close Enough

When I officiate at a funeral, I quickly become absorbed in the drama of the event. I feel like an actress who seeks to faithfully bring to life the heightened emotions of confusion, disorientation, grief, longing and gratitude that lie behind the prayers and other readings. I notice as well that my tone varies depending on the circumstances of the death and the mood of the family. When the grief is intense, I read the words with sadness in my voice. When the mood is of relief (admitted or not) for the end of prolonged suffering, I try to impart the gentleness and calm that reflect this relief.

I remember one time officiating at a funeral for a relatively young woman who championed animal rescue and who was extraordinarily sensitive to human needs. I sensed the anger of the mourners as well as myself at the premature ending of such a giving and loving person. So as I delivered the eulogy, I felt myself singing out her beautiful life story in a defiant tone, as if to say, despite her cruel disease inflicting such an end, this person managed to contribute more to the Universe than many of us ever would in a life twice as long.

Officiating at a funeral entails a big responsibility as I try to be true to what will be most meaningful to the family  with my choice of readings, transitions between each part of the service, silent prayer, songs and sometimes through a eulogy. I try to discern what will be of most comfort depending on the kind of grieving and expectations there are.

Imagine now my doing this for a relative. “No pressure,” one of the relatives assured me about an hour beforehand. I sighed and said “Right.” At least they were aware of the ticklish position I was in. And gosh what did I get myself into now? The funeral home was even going to videotape the whole business and put it on a CD for the family. This is definitely not what I have in mind when it comes to publicity.What about all the stuff I had read in psychology books about role confusion and crossing boundaries? True enough, but somehow in this case since they wanted the comfort of a familiar figure rather than a “cold” stranger, I gambled on making an exception to role confusion (i.e. “authoritative rabbi” and “plain old member of the extended family.”)

I decided the way to go about this was to respectfully convey the simplicity that matched the family’s other decisions, such as a plain pine casket and a modest number of short eulogies. To be honest, I also avoided anything elaborate so as to minimize the risk of having something go wrong! But like all other funerals I have done, I soon got lost in the drama of what I was doing, invoking the comfort of Jewish ritual, of taking on the honor of leading this sacred event, and signaling the end of months of suffering and the beginning of eternal rest for the deceased. I can only hope that rather than create more wear and tear on us all, that I managed to set the scene for the healing powers of grieving.

“You’re a Member of a What?!”

“Somebody’s got to do it,” we muse when we hear about someone pursuing a career or activity we cannot fathom doing ourselves. Funeral directors, hospice workers, members of burial societies and others in contact with death get this sort of reaction on occasion. Or keeping our thoughts to ourselves if we come across such folks, we may fantasize asking them, “How on earth can you be doing this kind of work? Yeesh! Not me.”

In a recent talk, Dr. Michael Slater, president of the Kavod V’Nichum Board, which is a group that advocates for Jewish burial societies, reveals all the prior steps in his own journey to becoming a member of such a society. By following his logic from step to step, we come to understand how on earth he could voluntarily do things like wash a body. As we hear each step, the final outcome becomes something we can draw nearer to rather than cautiously back away from as if escaping a bear.

His first step was when he heard a family member at a funeral gently but honestly explain to his young children what was going on. Then at the house of mourning, Doctor Slater was surprised to run into people he had not seen for a long time, and even more surprised to see how comforting that was to him. As he subsequently thought more about the Jewish (and by extension “spiritual”) value of being present in the moment, he concluded that being present even in difficult moments like visiting with friends and family in the days after the funeral has lasting value and a poignancy and vividness all of its own.

Later on, Dr. Slater’s medical career necessitated dissecting and later washing bodies. This was another step to becoming comfortable with the idea of contact with the dead. Finally, with the death of a close friend in the Jewish community, he realized that he had been present for happy occasions in that community as well as funerals. But then he made the leap to another kind of being present: Why not be present between the death and the funeral? Why not comfort the family in that manner as well?

If you are a “death professional,” (how any human stops being an amateur and becomes a professional at this sort of thing is something else to ponder) or volunteer, you may want to review to yourself what hidden steps you traversed before it “made perfect sense” to become one. Not only will you become more secure in your understanding of what brought you to this way of being present. But if you share your insights, you will also model for others (O Reader, is that you?) that what seems outlandish at first to others is admirable and perhaps even doable after all.


I adapted this article from my September 2015 guest post in the Jewish Journal. The article was published at http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/youre_a_member_of_a_what