Rabbi Larry Heimer started as a hospital chaplain in Connecticut in 1981. Though he led sermons from the dais of a small shul outside New Haven for a few years, it was his chaplaincy career that blossomed and he joined UPMC’s staff in 1991. The rest, as they say, is history.
“The rabbis in the pulpit have a whole lot of … responsibilities and in chaplaincy, for me, I find some similar things,” Heimer told the Chronicle. “But my responsibilities extend into the medical setting. And I do a lot of teaching, in different ways.”
Heimer retired from his post as manager of pastoral care at UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Montefiore on Jan. 15.
Heimer is modest about his accomplishments but said he remains proud of his ability to install in several UPMC hospitals “Shabbat cabinets,” which offer the comforts of familiar rituals to Jewish patients and their families during difficult times in their lives. The project — for which Heimer collaborated with colleagues in facilities management and elsewhere — has led to cabinets being installed in at least six UPMC hospitals, including UPMC East, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Heimer also was instrumental in expanding the eruv to make it easier for Orthodox Jews to travel to health facilities as far-flung as Oakland and Lawrenceville on Shabbat, according to Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, who serves as executive director of the Aleph Institute and is secretary of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh, which is the halachic authority for Pittsburgh’s chevra kadisha, mikvah and eruv.
“Rabbi Heimer really put in the hours to work on the expansion” of the eruv, Vogel said. “It’s something he deserves a lot of credit for.”
Vogel stressed that Heimer also deserves accolades for the endless kindness and service he has shown to strangers — namely, Jewish patients who pass through UPMC facilities, and their families.
“People come from all over the world to get treated here,” said Vogel, “and Rabbi Heimer has been a tremendous asset to them all.”
Heimer also received praise in his closing days from a longtime peer, Rev. Gaea Thompson, who will succeed him as the head of UPMC’s pastoral care.
“Rabbi Heimer has been a chaplain colleague of mine for many years. His commitment to excellent, consistent spiritual care at the hospital is admirable,” Thompson said.
The two both trained with Rev. Charles Starr in clinical pastoral education supervisory work.
“Little did we know 12 years ago that those weekly Tuesday afternoon sessions at Shadyside would evolve into teaching together the last three years and then to being part of this leadership transition,” Thompson said. “It is humbling to be trusted with such a vital pastoral care program. The web of relationships that Larry built over the years connected the community and the hospital. I promise to honor the faith-based heritage of this work.”
Heimer also will be succeeded in part by Rabbi Eli Seidman, the retired Jewish Association on Aging chaplain who now will be working for UPMC about five hours each week. Seidman had nothing but praise for his fellow chaplain.
“Rabbi Heimer always quoted, ‘Service to others is the rent we pay for living on Earth.’ That quote fits his style and personality,” Seidman said. “Rabbi Larry loves and respects all God’s beloved children and listens to them. He serves others with empathy and is a great example of what a person should be.”
Heimer said he plans to continue to live in Pittsburgh but hasn’t planned much beyond that.
“I’m taking some time for a breather,” he laughed.
But one thing is certain.
“I’ve had a wonderful career here,” Heimer told the Chronicle. “I’ve been very blessed and very fortunate.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.