These are basic yet profound gestures: to listen, to sit and, if called upon, to minister. A chaplain understands it’s a delicate dance to make silence comforting and meaningful. Perhaps no one knows this better than Rabbi Judith Kummer, executive director of the Jewish Chaplaincy Council of Massachusetts (JCCM). “We are working with people at some of the most vulnerable moments of life,” Kummer recently told JewishBoston. “It’s a tender moment as we bring Judaism to the bedside.”
JCCM was founded in 1955 with the specific goal of providing Jewish chaplains to Jews who are in non-Jewish facilities. It is the only Jewish organization in the Greater Boston area providing these Jewish chaplaincy services in non-Jewish settings. The organization states in its mission that it is dedicated “to providing spiritual care to Jews of all ages and their families in healthcare and eldercare institutions and at home.”
Kummer pointed out that her organization is also guided by a teaching from Jewish liturgy that directly states: “Do not forsake us when we are old; when our strength wanes, do not abandon us.” She observed that the spirit of those words also extends to life’s celebratory moments, whether it’s the birth of a child or someone using his new prosthetic limb to walk outside the hospital for the first time.
Kummer compared her work to firefighters who head into a building from which other people are fleeing. “Oftentimes,” said Kummer, “there are difficult medical challenges around aging or illness, and it’s hard for people to face that. It’s a normal human reaction to shy away. Chaplains face those issues head-on with people. Spiritual issues can be hard to define. It’s not social work; it’s not medicine. It’s helping someone make meaning out of what is happening to them.”
Attending to a resident or patient’s religious and spiritual needs happens in 10 hospitals and 38 eldercare facilities at the present time in the Greater Boston area. Chaplains undergo a rigorous curriculum of over 1,600 hours of study and on-the-job training. “Not only is the training required in this credentialed field, it’s value added to the work we can do when chaplains have this formal training,” Kummer noted. “Chaplains learn to process their own reactions with a clinical supervisor or with peers; as a result, they can move forward to be present with a whole heart for whatever the patient is experiencing.”
Kummer and her team of 10 chaplains make almost 20,000 professional chaplaincy visits a year. They help people celebrate Shabbat and other holidays, as well as teach Jewish text-study classes. Kummer recalled one visit at a nursing home during Passover. A lone Jewish woman in the group timidly raised her hand when Kummer asked if there were any Jewish residents in the room. As the program proceeded, this isolated Jewish elder alternately beamed and wept at having her tradition acknowledged.
Kummer observed that oftentimes people will lose their connection to a synagogue or stop practicing Judaism altogether as they move through life, especially after their children have become bar or bat mitzvah. When people are in a hospital or when elders move to a long-term care facility, spiritual and religious needs may come up again. Many times a JCCM chaplain will be someone’s only link to the Jewish community and Judaism. In light of the demographics, the need to re-engage these people is a priority. “We’re facing an ‘age-wave’ of baby boomers getting older,” said Kummer. “It’s a demographic tsunami, and we’re positioned to serve this population on what amounts to a shoestring budget.”
Kummer is the second generation in her family to serve as JCCM’s executive director. Her father, Rabbi Howard Kummer, previously led the organization. His daughter, who had been a pulpit rabbi in New York for six years, felt the familial tug of undertaking organizational chaplaincy work. “I feel very blessed to do this work,” she said. “It’s a privilege to meet and care for people in some of their most difficult moments in life.”
Kummer added that there is a wealth of information on the positive effects of caring for a patient’s spiritual needs. According to her, a person’s physical wellbeing is closely intertwined with their spiritual, social and mental health wellbeing. “When we are able to treat someone as a whole human being, that person ends up becoming healthier in every way,” she said.
On the business side, Kummer has doubled the number of eldercare facilities where JCCM chaplains work. She has also increased the number of hospitals on her roster. She noted that the clergy under her supervision are also trained to be interfaith chaplains. Oftentimes a JCCM chaplain will be called upon to tend to non-Jewish members of a Jewish family or to a non-Jew who may have a spiritual crisis. “To meet someone where they are or to have someone by your side as a sacred witness to whatever you’re experiencing can be very profound,” Kummer added.
As of March 2019, the work of the Jewish Chaplaincy Council of Massachusetts (JCCM) is delivered through the Community Chaplaincy Initiative (CCI) at Hebrew SeniorLife. Learn more.