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Study of 1,000 Jewish chaplains finds a vital resource is overlooked

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Report from Brandeis University’s Chaplaincy Innovation Lab
calls for more prominent role for chaplains

WALTHAM, Mass. — The most comprehensive study of Jewish chaplains to date has found that nearly 1,000 Jewish chaplains are providing essential spiritual and emotional services to Americans of all faiths. Yet the report finds they are underrecognized and excluded from leadership positions and decision-making in major Jewish organizations. 

Mapping Jewish Chaplaincy” by the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University documented the wide-ranging essential care that Jewish chaplains provide in their roles in healthcare, hospice, elder care, the military, on campus, in prison and as Jewish community chaplains in communities across the U.S. The report found that despite the essential work that Jewish chaplains provide, their contributions are largely underappreciated and unrecognized by the Jewish organizational world. The report calls for a greater and more prominent role for Jewish chaplains in Jewish communal leadership.

In addition to providing a look at the importance of Jewish chaplains’ current work,  the report traces the history of Jewish chaplaincy in America starting in the mid-19th century. 

Among the report’s major findings:

  • There are roughly 1,000 Jewish chaplains in America, working in healthcare, prisons, higher education, eldercare, and other organizations. They serve individuals outside the mainstream, such as the sick, incarcerated, and those struggling with substance abuse. 
  • Despite the wide variety of places Jewish chaplains are serving, their work is largely invisible to leaders of Jewish organizations and community settings.
  • Institutions educating Jewish leaders, like rabbinical schools and seminaries, are taking a greater interest in training chaplains.
  • Jewish chaplains largely work only within their own settings, like healthcare or corrections, but want to connect with colleagues across sectors to advance the field.

Among the report’s major recommendations:

  • Jewish chaplains should be better integrated into leadership structures of Jewish institutions and communal organizations.
  • Investments should be made in chaplaincy research and development to bring chaplaincy services into underserved areas and better understand the demand for chaplaincy.
  • Community service organizations should dedicate greater attention to chaplaincy, as chaplains are strongly poised to serve those involved with social service agencies and community federations.

“Our research found Jewish chaplains to be a communal resource hiding in plain sight.  Chaplains are trained to meet people where and as they are. Their work is to accompany people during periods of personal transition and times of social change, like those we find ourselves in now,” said Chaplaincy Innovation Lab founder Wendy Cadge, Barbara Mandel Professor of Humanistic Social Sciences and professor of sociology at Brandeis University.

At a time of declining institutional affiliation, chaplains may be the only religious professionals that many American Jews, especially those under 30, see in times of need. In addition, the Jewish community has a higher percentage of people over 65 than the general population, and families that do affiliate are increasingly multi-faith; Jewish chaplains are poised to support them. Rabbinical schools and seminaries of all denominations are recognizing the importance of chaplaincy and spiritual care.

Jewish chaplains are eager to innovate and bring their skills to new areas, like Jewish summer camps or social justice movements, and to groups currently underserved by spiritual care providers, like people with dementia and their families. Community chaplaincy itself is a model that originated in the Jewish community and involves chaplains funded by the local Jewish federation, often based in a social service agency, to attend to people otherwise out of the community’s reach. This is an area with the potential for great impact and growth.

“Jewish chaplains are a unique resource. This report helps us ​​to think creatively about how chaplains can more fully serve the tremendous needs in the community,” said Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, who contributed to the report.

This two-year project, made possible by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, brought Jewish chaplains together from across sectors and denominations for the first time. Drawing from historical records, interviews, surveys, and the guidance of leading chaplains, the project describes who Jewish chaplains are, where they work and train, and their relationship to the organized Jewish community. There is a clear interest in continuing to use this new network nationally and locally for professional support and development, including learning communities, mentorship, and skill building. There are also opportunities to strengthen existing networks like Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains, to include chaplains in more high-level communal conversations, and in leadership development fellowships.   

“This report has the potential to increase community awareness about the powerful role chaplains are playing currently in the lives of Jewish Americans and to help advance the multi-sector field of Jewish chaplaincy in important ways that will support and further enrich Jewish communal life overall,” explained Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, who also contributed to the report, which is available here.

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Founded in 2018, the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab supports chaplains in all sectors as they recognize and respond to changes in American religious and spiritual life. The Lab brings chaplaincy leaders, theological educators, clinical educators, and social scientists into a research-based conversation about the state of chaplaincy and spiritual care. Driving its work are questions about how spiritual caregivers can do their best work. The Lab aims to improve how chaplains are trained, how they work with diverse individuals (including those with no religious or spiritual backgrounds), and how spiritual care develops as a professional field.

The Charles H. Revson Foundation, established in 1956, operates grant programs in Urban Affairs, Jewish Life, Biomedical Research, and Education. Learn more at RevsonFoundation.org.

For more information, contact the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at [email protected] or (781) 736-4399

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Religion News Service or Religion News Foundation.



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