During the long months of the pandemic, I have often reflected on Parashat Hayyei Sarah’s story of Abraham. Old, alone, and estranged from his children, Abraham faced multiple challenges while in a new land. When Sarah, his beloved wife, died, he had to arrange the burial in unfamiliar surroundings, without the support of loved ones or familiar surroundings.
As the director of the Center for Pastoral Education at Jewish Theological Seminary, this story and its relevance to many people’s experiences during the pandemic has impressed me greatly.
After stepping outside the confines of our homes, experiencing Abraham-like loneliness, I have sought to create a special Shabbat experience centered around caring for each other in local communities. Working with JTS lay leaders, we have sought to raise awareness and validate the hardships people have experienced during the pandemic, using Jewish tradition and text as sources of consolation, healing and renewal. We departed intentionally strengthen the relationship between synagogue communities and the vast resources of the JTS in the field of spiritual assistance. Questions we sought to answer included: What words can one offer to another during a particularly sad time? What can we say or do to help a friend or loved one going through a difficult situation? What words from Jewish sources offer comfort and renewal?
As a result, a Shabbat program called “Hayyei Sarah: Finding Comfort and Renewal in Jewish Sources” was created. Using the topics of this specific parasha – death, burial, loss, grief, consolation and reconciliation – the same issues we have struggled with during the pandemic – we have partnered with synagogues to create special programs in which we have explored themes dedicated to spiritual healing, to healing, compassion and resilience.
Thanks to the collaboration of 14 synagogues across North America, Comfort and Renewal’s first Hayyei Sarah Shabbat came to life last November. On behalf of JTS, we have offered congregations a variety of materials and sources curated by the JTS Pastoral Education Center and resources designed to foster compassionate conversations and strategic thinking to strengthen spiritual care within the community. Using these materials and Hayyei Sarah’s concept, the clergy and lay leaders of each synagogue have found beautiful and unique ways to speak to the needs of their community.
Here are some of the things they did:
- Benjy Forester, a JTS fifth-year rabbinical student, spoke at Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City, where he serves as a rabbinical intern. On Shabbat, he shared with the congregation how transformative his hospital chaplaincy internship, called CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), at an acute care hospital was. He said, “I became a rabbi that summer in the hospital, on my 12-hour shifts, day and night, roaming the various intensive care units, oncology wards, women’s health ward, inpatient psychiatric unit and beyond. Nothing could replace the education and life experience I gained from those invaluable encounters with people of all stripes, representing all faith traditions and none, in their moments of hope and despair, suffering and healing.”
- In Hoboken, New Jersey, author and faithful Ken Schept of the United Synagogue of Hoboken shared his new children’s picture book, A Gift of Feathers, which draws on Jewish sources and traditions to address the themes of death and mourning in an age-appropriate way for the children. The service was followed by a lunchtime discussion moderated by the synagogue’s rabbi, Robert Scheinberg, focusing on Jewish teachings on how to support the bereaved.
- At Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, Rabbi Rachel Simmons offered a dvar torah and described her CPE training experience. Chaplain Thomas Chirdo, who is the director of the Department of Mission and Pastoral Care at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and serves as adjunct CPE faculty at JTS, he also participated as a guest speaker. During a lunchtime session, Chaplain Chirdo and Hazzan Ozur Bass taught texts from Jewish and Christian sources about various responses to suffering and demonstrated the multifaith model of pastoral education employed at JTS.
- Rabbi David Glickman, rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Overland Park, Kansas, highlighted the significance of the initiative for local communities after the pandemic. He said, “The Shabbat Hayyei Sarah initiative has been an important way to remind us of the value of our local synagogue community, even as many of us have connected online to synagogues across the country during the pandemic. While it can be invaluable to experience program offerings in synagogues elsewhere, it is the local community who visit us when we are sick and support us by attending a funeral or shiva. Shabbat Hayyei Sarah has helped us reconnect and rebuild our local service initiatives.
The name of the Hayyei Sarah parashah literally means “Sarah’s life”. And although the parashah begins with her death, the Torah reading emphasizes her life and her life. As we exchanged and reflected on the challenges posed by the pandemic and life in general, we made a commitment to Judaism to both affirm life and have a comforting and renewing experience of Torah and Shabbat.
Rabbi Naomi Kalish is Harold and Carole Wolfe director of the Center for Pastoral Education and assistant professor of pastoral education at Jewish Theological Seminary.