YMCA, HUC, and Spiritual Care in Israel

Y bldg Y sign

Jerusalem YMCA

When those Village People sang WHY-EM-SEE-AY, it’s clear that they had never been to Jerusalem. The YMCA in Jerusalem is pronounced “YIMKA.” It is housed in a massive Byzantine-like building on King David Street across from the famous King David Hotel (where the rich and famous stay). When the Y was dedicated in 1933, Lord Allenby spoke the words above as part of his speech: “Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten, and international unity fostered and developed.” Perhaps he was prescient, because the YMCA in Jerusalem is one of the few places where one can see coexistence in action. It is a significant meeting place for the city’s divided Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations, and it has a joint daycare program for Jewish, Christian and Arab Israeli children.

I have swum there many times in years past, but this time I had a mission. I was asked by the executive director at the Y where I swim in the Northern Berkshires to bring back a lot of pictures because “the Jerusalem Y is such a wonderful and historic part of our movement.” So I have taken a lot of pictures to bring back home.

It’s where I swam today before going to teach first-year students (rabbinical, cantorial, and education) at Hebrew Union College, which is just a few blocks away. My visit with them was very sweet, and my goal was to offer them an alternative model of a rabbinate. I know that in my early years of rabbinical school I thought I “had” to be a pulpit rabbi. However, my rabbinic career has turned out to be a rich and varied tapestry, and I wanted to share my journey with these first-year students, as well as to teach them a bit about spiritual care in the real world.

While I was at HUC, I ran into Anat Hoffman, who is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and chairwoman of Women of the Wall, both of which are now housed at HUC. Anat was much in the news last month after being arrested, along with American Rabbi Elyse Frischman, for wearing a prayershawl/tallit at the Wall. I had the opportunity to remind Anat that I had been at that first prayer service/riot in 1988. She verified that that service had not taken place on a Rosh Hodesh/the new moon, but had been a Thursday morning service (Monday and Thursday morning prayer services include a Torah service). She said that the decision to meet monthly on Rosh Hodesh was a later decision of the Israeli group.


Israel Spiritual Care Network Office

I had the opportunity to teach about spiritual care yesterday, as well, in a session with the “Reshet” that was postponed from the day of the snowstorm last week. The Reshet/Israel’s Spiritual Care Network is a loose coalition of organizations that are funded by UJA Federation of New York (which also funds my position in spiritual care). Spiritual care (and chaplaincy) is still a fledgling movement in Israel since rabbis who work in hospitals or nursing homes in Israel are generally there for legal/halakhic and ritual issues that come up rather than for patient care. Additionally, for secular Israelis, it is still a battle to bring anything “spiritual” to them without them thinking it is Orthodox coercion.

Six years ago UJA sponsored a few of us from three different Healing Centers to come to Israel to teach this group about spiritual care. Tishkofet and Maagan, two separate organizations that deal with serious illness and which make spiritual care central in their counseling work, are housed in the same building as the Reshet office. Yesterday was my return visit, seeing old faces and meeting new ones, offering support, and teaching some of the skills and techniques that I have learned over the years, what I consider the “spiritual tools” that I have in my toolbox when working with clients. It was a fascinating session. I was enriched, as always, by the encounter with colleagues who are interested in what it means to offer spiritual care in a deep and authentic way. Most were social workers/therapists working with populations ranging from parents of special needs children to the elderly to serious illness to bereavement, and one whose bereavement work is specifically with traumatic loss caused by terrorist attacks.

I was quite honored to be part of this Israeli-Diaspora dialogue about spiritual care.

May God heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds. (Psalms 147:3)

3 Shevat/January 14, 2013


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