What is a chaplain exactly? One usually thinks of someone roaming the halls of a hospital or prison wearing a clerical collar. But what about if you’re Jewish and want a chaplain that serves you? What about the Jews who are hospital patients or prison inmates or merely isolated and looking for a Jewish connection?
Enter the Jewish Chaplaincy Program serving Jews in the Twin Cities area. Jewish Family Service of St. Paul (JFS) introduced this program in June 2015 at its annual meeting. Rabbi Lynn Liberman is the program’s first community chaplain. Raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, Liberman received her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her master’s degree and rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She completed a clinical pastoral education residency at Abbott Northwestern hospital, and has served as volunteer police chaplain for more than 16 years.
The Jewish Chaplaincy Program is already serving more than 20 clients from a range of backgrounds. Some are in hospice care, others have recently re-entered the community after serving time in prison. Several clients who are benefiting from this service are new to the area and don’t have a connection to a local rabbi or the organized Jewish community. What they all have in common is a desire to make a connection.
In her position as community chaplain, Rabbi Liberman offers spiritual support to unaffiliated Jews as they encounter life’s challenges. “I meet people where they are, both spiritually and literally,” Liberman says. “I visit with people in their homes, in hospitals and in all kinds of living situations, including prisons. I also work with people by phone and email.”
The Minnesota Rabbinical Association began discussing the need for a community chaplain about 15 years ago, recognizing that though many Jews do affiliate with a synagogue, they periodically still require spiritual support. However, due to a lack of funding, the concept did not move forward. A request from JFS to the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul to increase its annual allocation yielded an additional $25,000 that resulted in the creation of the Jewish Chaplaincy Program.
Rabbi Liberman has been working with a group of Jewish women at Shakopee’s women’s prison for several years and has been able to fold that work and additional outreach to incarcerated Jews into her community chaplaincy work. She also helps provide experiences and celebrations around various Jewish holidays to Jewish residents of non-Jewish nursing homes (Sholom has its own chaplains) and to those in need. She shared that in her chaplaincy work, she has been part of amazing moments of connection.
Examples of her work so far have included:
- Working with members of a Jewish pregnancy loss group,
- Supporting a widower without a Jewish support community after his wife passed
- Talking with a woman at the beginning stages of dementia
- Sitting with a client who had lost the ability to speak, but took strength from having another simply being present with her.
As Liberman noted in her remarks at the JFS annual meeting last June, “”Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh B’azeh, all of Israel is responsible for each other. The Jewish Chaplaincy Program truly embodies these words and is an important addition to the local Jewish community.”