Connections Across Spiritual Lines

There may be more questions per capita among the populace of Montclair, NJ than most anywhere. I did not have to say much about hospice and about my career memoir at the public library before their questions gained release after who knows how long a painful incubation. Someone finally said, himself fully sated from hearing so many, “It’s time to move on.” By then the program was almost finished. One of the more challenging questions was, “Isn’t there a disconnect for you as a rabbi to be mostly serving Catholic patients now?”  I had told the group that one reason my current employer hired me was because I could speak Spanish, and that most of my Spanish-speaking clients are Catholics.

A disconnect. In other words, alienation of some kind. I have never thought of my work with non-Jewish patients in that way, including atheists. Connection is fundamentally what a healing spirituality is all about. It is also what drives me to continue trying to reach patients and their families and build trust no matter how great our superficial differences. Impending death has a way of often getting people to dive beneath the surface and see the essences we can bring to each other. We all suffer. We all seek meaning and answers and love. We all traverse the path from birth to death in the same Universe.

I am very moved when someone with a markedly different background welcomes me into their home and into their most private thoughts. Some time ago, the lesbian partner of a patient described the intimacies of their relationship such as calling out the name of their loved one when she was in another room because she wanted to know exactly where she was. I felt a common bond as I thought about how my husband and I do the very same thing! Recently in this blog I wrote about the way a Nigerian nun and I have connected through our mutual fascination with each other as women of the cloth.

It is true that when I am with a Jewish patient, it takes less guesswork to find things in common. Jewish patients can take comfort from knowing that we are both “members of the tribe” and that there will be no awkward jockeying between us about how to  give and receive care without elements that may seem foreign, i.e., not Jewish. It also is so much easier to pray when asked, because there are many prayers I know by heart, and many sacred melodies too.

On the other hand, there are some elements at play that can make spiritual support harder to provide the more similar the patient is to me. A Jewish patient may feel guilty in the presence of a rabbi because of their self-evaluation of not having been a good Jew. But when I am with a lapsed Catholic for example, they may feel free to unburden themselves regarding why they have come to feel a disconnect with the Catholic Church or with priests. They can talk freely without worrying that I will judge them for not regularly attending Mass.

Any questions?

Offbeat Compassionate Very Short fiction

(Editor’s note: I have decided to experiment with very short fiction stories on this blog whose theme will tie in with compassion (offbeat or otherwise) but not necessarily with loss. (Also known as “flash fiction.” Your feedback would be invaluable. Please comment below or email me at  or Tweet me at @chaplainkkaplan.This particular story is largely a true accounting of one of my lunch breaks at work.)

The bashful customer was at Ricky’s luncheonette for the very first time. Margaret tried to balance her need to order what she really wanted with scanning the menu quickly enough to avoid the impression that she did not belong there. She figured a safe choice for fitting in would be to order the roast turkey sub. But the food server’s question nearly put that objective into jeopardy: “What kinda bread you want?”  She could have said the usual, but she figured she could push the envelope just a wee bit and ventured to request whole wheat. Not only was she still safe from charges of being odd, the server encouraged her with the information that they  had  multigrain as well. Relieved, she settled on the latter.

But his next question threatened to make Margaret conspicuous after all: “Whaddya want on it? Peppers? Raw onions?” She really disliked both, and did not see much else in the trays of toppings sitting within view. Too rattled to think of what would sound natural, she came out with, “Could you top it with shredded carrots and some cucumbers?” As nonchalant as could be, the server carefully noted the details of her order.

As Margaret proceeded to a booth to wait for her sub, she overheard the cook raise his voice, “This order here says ‘carrots’? Am I reading this right?” Once that was confirmed by the server, he said, “I’ve worked here for forty years, and I’ve never had an order like that! Forty years!”

Margaret failed to escape publicity after all, which she did not care to court even within the confines of an anonymous lunch place. Not only that, she threatened the thread-bare foundations of the cook’s worldview. She had made it tough for both of them. What was it like for the cook, she pondered, for an exception to his 40-year routine to spring out on him on a day that carried no portents of what was to transpire. Poor unsuspecting soul!

His world premiere sub appeared on the counter. She abashedly moved the suspect preparation from the counter to her seat, and marveled at how tasty it was. She consoled herself with the thought that maybe forcing him to at least tap at the sides of the box if not think outside  it would give him that first crucial taste of adventure that would lead to so many more. Would he dare claim the carrot-topped roast turkey as his own invention and post it as an option on the menu? Maybe she would come back and see, in say, one month, after the discomfiting genesis of this knowledge had faded and the idea had resided in his brain long enough to feel innocuous.

When the cook got home from work, he told his tale around the dinner table as his wife got ready to bring the food in from the kitchen: “You’ll never guess what happened at Ricky’s. Some strange gal ordered a roast turkey sub with carrots. Never hearda that.” His wife quickly retreated with the platter in time to avert its appearance. She was serving roast turkey, which had been accompanied with buttered carrots. She figured he’d never notice the absence of a vegetable on this particular evening with buttered rolls in their stead.

A Meeting of Two Exotics

Imagine I was visiting you and from your curiosity you found out that that I am a Spanish-speaking female rabbi that has lived in Japan. You might think I was rather exotic. Earlier this year I met my match.  I went to see a small community of Nigerian nuns, whose convent was a modest apartment on a modest street. They were all wearing royal blue habits, except the patient, who was wearing a native dress as varied in hue as Joseph’s coat of many colors. One of the nuns, as if eager to exhibit to me how she was the exotic one, said to me, “Do you find it threatening to be visiting us? We are nuns, and we are from Nigeria. Were you nervous about what you might find?”

“Threatened? No not threatened. But I must admit I’m fascinated and very curious.” As I answered, I wondered why she thought they might seem threatening. If anything, it felt like a very safe, sacred and peaceful place to be. I went on to say, “And besides, we’re colleagues.” She nodded happily and I continued, “Also, I have met many kinds of people from many cultures and ways of life; I have traveled to over 20 countries and lived in a few. I’ve been around the block, and am not young.”

Usually as a chaplain I tend not to talk much, so I must ask myself why I went on like that. I think because I did not want the nuns to think I was uncomfortable, which would result in their discomfort. But more than that, I yearned to communicate how feeling threatened was so much the opposite of what I felt. Here is a group of women whose spirituality is at the top of their list, and who are in pursuit of meaningful lives. As white married, financially secure, Jewish and as American as I am, I too try to put spirituality at the top of my list and pursue meaningful moments. See that? We have plenty in common.

I was darn curious, though. I could not resist asking why they were here. Doesn’t Nigeria need the services of nuns? She gave me a startling answer: “We are here to help American blacks.”  Help Americans? She went on to say something like, black people are not trusting of whites and they need Africans to look up to.

All those years ago slave traders forced Africans to leave their homes and come to the U.S. Here we have Africans voluntarily braving our culture, including our freezing weather, to offer redemptive routes to those slaves’ descendants. I am honored to have met those engaged in such a sacred task. I am humbled that they are the ones doing it, as we whites have failed to repair the damage we have inflicted on African Americans since slavery through the present. Much less have we enhanced their spiritual well being.

An Answer That Stopped Me Short

A good way to trash one’s assumptions on a regular basis is to work for hospice. I asked the brother of a new patient recently how many brothers and sisters he had. He paused and said,

“I’m not sure….about 19.”

Me: “’About 19?’” [I thought to myself. How could he not be sure? How could it be that many? I then paused, which made him realize his answer needed some elaboration. Or to put it differently, I needed some education.]

The brother: “I mean that’s how many are from my father.” [He also mentioned a small country they are from.]

I gave a long “ohhh,” laden with an I-get-it-now intonation. But I was not sure I fully did. Not wanting to burden him with more questions and my ignorance, I went on to my usual offer to provide spiritual care. Afterwards, I fell to musing what it would be like to be in a family that had give-or-take 19 sibs. Keeping track of birthday celebrations could get complicated. (Just kidding.)

Despite my extensive exposure to many cultures throughout my life through teaching English as a Second Language and having lived in foreign countries including Japan, Colombia and El Salvador, my assumptions about such basic things as family persist, such as knowing all of one’s siblings fairly well even if estranged, and fitting all of one’s family members into neat categories. This conversation reminded me that I continue to have an image of a white, middle class American-born family in my mind when I meet new people.

At least I do not assume an individual is straight. In fact I was delighted to see a new symbol in our documentation drop-down menu, “PAR,” that indicates when the primary caregiver of the patient is their partner. Like laws, documentation regulations eventually catch up to reality.

As a chaplain, I encounter people from so many countries and socio-economic backgrounds and races, so it is not possible to keep in mind all the differences there might be between them and me. What to do? We in the helping professions can’t continually keep every variation in mind. All we need is one assumption: assume that at any time we will have to revise our assumptions in the heat of the moment. Through being alert to our own instant sensitivity training, we will become more and more a part of the human family.

The Zen of a Chaplain’s Sacrilegious Remarks

Shutterstock image.


Being a chaplain is a great career for people who like to skip the small talk and get straight to what is on a person’s mind. I was meeting Kenneth for the first time last week, one of the newly admitted patients in the hospice residence. He was in bed, a thin white beard vainly trying to obscure his gaunt face. After I explained who I was, he said, “I’m pretty old. But my buddies did not get to be old. Why would God let my buddies in the Second World War die and then let me live so many years?” He could not dismiss this theological quandary easily, because, “Anyhow me and God are on the same page.” The unfairness of some people dying young while others like him do not troubled him greatly, because he kept turning this over and over in his mind. Then he talked about the senselessness of war, and pondered why God would let that go on. Finally, as I listened to his litany of complaints, I asked,

“Do you think God should be fired?”

I did not say that to be cute or contrary. I asked that unlikely question to jostle him into being more aware of the religious conflict that was haunting him, and to help him articulate his unresolved spiritual issues. For the moment, he came up with saying he felt God’s care despite the Supreme Commander’s inscrutable behavior. He could live with ambiguity, as we all must to some extent.

Even curse words can have a curative effect. Some years ago, I recall helping a patient express his anger. I validated it by chiming in with some strong language about the Lord our God. This made him feel that I was not making excuses for God, and so he felt free to continue venting his spiritual pain.

Resisting the temptation to put oneself squarely in God’s corner may be especially challenging to volunteers helping mourners, because  such volunteers are drawn to it in the main for deeply spiritual reasons. They may be primed to see religion as a great comfort and as a source of wisdom. They may feel passionately that it is a resource they must let mourners know about. That may be the best path for some mourners, but there will be times when it is what the mourners themselves know about and want to impress upon the volunteer that will lay the groundwork for a truly spiritual encounter

This article was adapted and reprinted with permission from the blog,”Expired and Inspired,” published in the Jewish Journal on February 10th, 2016. The link is here:

Death of the Hospice Chaplain Profession?

Off the record, a colleague of mine with decades of hospice experience predicted to me that the government would eventually get rid of the requirement that hospices hire chaplains. This particularly caught me off guard because I had just procured such a position with Center for Hope Hospice in Elizabeth, NJ. He elaborated that “the government wants to save money. They say America is becoming more secularized anyway, and so chaplains aren’t needed all that much.”

Not that my shiny new job offer was about to vanish and “go gentle into that good night,” but I was nettled by the government’s alleged viewpoint. We are the lonely profession, wanting to weep with frustration that “nobody understands us!” Picture yourself as a patient. When a health professional comes to you, it is usually centered around some task to perform, some agenda on their part. To give you meds. To ask you about family dynamics. To find out your food preferences. When a chaplain appears, if they are doing their job well, they are doing no particular job. As agendaless as possible, they wait to see whatever it is you care to bring to the fore, anything from “I don’t want to see a chaplain” to “This is what my life has been about” to “Why am I still here?” to “I’m ready to let go but my daughter isn’t” to simply sharing some spiritually-charged quiet as rain pelts the bedroom window and a heater clangs out its protest.

The government, with plenty of agendas to go around, shies away from moments that elude definition….and people that elude definition, well, you know, such as chaplains.

Meanwhile chaplain organizations exhort chaplains to perform research that proves that having us as part of the healthcare team makes for better health care “outcomes.” This is a fear reaction, that yes, chaplains might very well be dispensed with. We better prove that our encounters have a quantifiable effect. Too bad that society cannot take it on faith that some ineffable good arises out of an “I-Thou” relationship between the patient and the chaplain.

And secularization? That is beside the point. It is a rare offer when someone is willing to cede some of their comfortable space to you and dwell in your land of suffering no matter how brief the sojourn.

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?