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NJ hospital hosts pastoral program for Israelis
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NJ hospital hosts pastoral program for Israelis

Jewish chaplains and Robert Wood Johnson cosponsor fellowship

The first Rabbi Zahara Davidowitz Fellowship recipient, Adira Ben-Aharon, far right, with, from left, Tina Nummela, clinical pastoral educator, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital; Cecille Asekoff, executive director, National Association of Jewish Ch
The first Rabbi Zahara Davidowitz Fellowship recipient, Adira Ben-Aharon, far right, with, from left, Tina Nummela, clinical pastoral educator, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital; Cecille Asekoff, executive director, National Association of Jewish Ch

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick has partnered with the Whippany-based National Association of Jewish Chaplains to train hospital pastoral counselors and chaplains in Israel.

The two will collaborate in offering the Rabbi Zahara Davidowitz Fellowship, training chaplains to bring formal pastoral care programs back to Israeli hospitals, long-term care facilities, and hospices.

While hospital chaplaincy has been common in the United States for almost 100 years, it is a relatively new concept in Israel, where it has been mostly limited to the military, said Cecille Asekoff, executive director of the chaplains’ association and director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of MetroWest. Asekoff said while every Israeli hospital has chaplains on staff, their duties focus on religious rituals and burials.

The residency program, she said, “has been a dream of mine for many years.”

The fellowship will bring one Israeli trainee each summer to the United States for further training. It is named in honor of Rabbi Zahara Davidowitz-Farkas, who for six years has led a chaplaincy education program accredited by RWJ and run through the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.

This year’s recipient is Adira Ben-Aharon of the Hospice of the Upper Galilee, a music “thanatologist” who uses her skills as a harpist to soothe terminally ill patients. She was at the hospital from the end of May through Aug. 12.

“I wanted to broaden my ways of intervening in hospice care, and this allows me to provide a wider spectrum of spiritual care,” Ben-Aharon, 56, told NJJN on the last day of her fellowship. “I want to bring this notion of pastoral and spiritual care especially to the North where I work and include it in all departments of the hospital.”

The Rev. John DeVelder, director of pastoral care at RWJ, believes the fellowship is the only one of its kind in the United States.

“Israel has been doing a great job of indigenizing this and is developing its own program that will not be just a carbon copy of the American program,” said DeVelder. “They’ll have their own accreditation in about a year.”

He added that the hospital established the partnership “because we wanted to help Israel.”

‘Wonderful opportunity’

Funding sources for the $3,600 fellowship include the hospital’s foundation, corporate sponsorship, and the Challah Foundation, established by Dr. Michael Nissenblatt, associate director of medical oncology at RWJ. An apartment is provided for the fellowship recipient by a member of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.

DeVelder and Rabbi David Glicksman, former chaplain at the Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset and current NAJC certification committee chair, provided additional consultation.

However, the program could never have gotten off the ground without the guidance of Davidowitz-Farkas, said DeVelder. Ordained in 1988 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, she has been affiliated with New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York City, the American Red Cross, and the Institute for Disaster Spiritual Care.

DeVelder credited her teaching and experience in promoting chaplaincy to Schechter, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and hospices throughout Israel. “She was the right person because she was unflappable,” said DeVelder.

Ben-Aharon, looking back on her training, said that just as support for pastoral care has evolved and grown over the last several decades in the United States, she believes Israel’s medical community will come to embrace its benefits.

“Clinical pastoral care is 90 years old in America so we are the babies sponsored by the grandfathers,” she explained. “This is a really excellent program and has been a wonderful opportunity.”

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