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.