Chaplaincy efforts altered due to COVID-19

Chaplaincy efforts altered due to COVID-19

Rabbis Doris Dyen and Jonathan Perlman offer insights into current work.

Rabbi Doris Dyen, left. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman at podium. Photo by Joshua Franzos
Rabbi Doris Dyen, left. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman at podium. Photo by Joshua Franzos

Rabbi Doris Dyen has a very particular set of skills that she acquired over a long career of caring for those around her. But these days Dyen is at home and unable to render aid in the way she’s used to. Due to COVID-19 concerns, the septuagenarian and Reconstructionist rabbi who serves as a chaplain at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is like many spiritual care workers whose hospital presence has been limited.

Dyen keeps in touch with colleagues from across the country. “It’s very interesting to hear the similarity of stories where people are saying, ‘I was told to be at home, just to stay at home, not to come in, it’s only direct medical personnel who are really being allowed to be at the hospital,’” Dyen said.

Such instructions are certainly understandable given the close proximity to others typically required of her work, she acknowledged, but it’s also somewhat confusing.

“It’s a very sort of disorienting experience to have what I feel are very useful skills for exactly this situation and not be able to use them because of the situation that we’re in,” Dyen said.

Rabbi Doris Dyen. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Doris Dyen.

In recent weeks, Dyen, who regularly works with the hospital’s palliative care team, has explored the possibility of FaceTiming or hosting Zoom meetings with patients or their family members, but because of hospital policies and the HIPAA Privacy Rule — aimed at keeping patients’ health information confidential — she has encountered difficulties.

How to connect inpatients with family members “who are not being allowed to come into the hospital now” and doing so through an off-site chaplain while maintaining necessary confidentiality is “the riddle in all of this,” said Dyen.

As of April 8, “for the safety of patients and staff, and to lower their likelihood of exposure to any illness including COVID-19, UPMC is temporarily restricting visitors,” reported the hospital. “While our current visitation guidelines do not apply to facility access of essential health providers and vendors necessary to be on-site for direct patient care or hospital operations, we are recommending they be limited as much as possible, if non-essential.”

Apart from navigating federal policies and hospital guidelines, Dyen has dealt with her own mixed feelings on this issue.

There’s a certain ambivalence, she said, “because I feel that my hands are tied in a way; I can’t be of very much help. I also have to say that given the age that I am that I feel somewhat relieved in a way that I am not on the frontlines, and at the same time I feel sort of bad about that because other people are on the frontlines. And so it’s really a mixed set of feelings because I basically want to be doing what I was trained to do.”

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who serves as a chaplain at UPMC Shadyside Hospital, has been allowed to continue traveling to the hospital throughout this period, although certain restrictions have altered his work, he explained.

“The senior chaplain here has advised me not to make cold calls on patients — I usually just go from room to room and visit Jews, non-Jews — but to wait until I get referrals or get requests from patients themselves,” Perlman said, adding that not being able to freely connect with inpatients “is something I struggle with.”

In light of workplace realities, the Conservative rabbi has tried other ways to be useful, such as sending prayer books to Jewish patients or disseminating inspiring quotes each day to hospital staff to provide “encouragement, faith and hope,” he said. It’s clear, though, that without regular volunteers, visitors and non-clinical personnel, things are different. “There’s a smaller number of people in the hospital,” and that “does feel strange.”

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is working with the support of JF&CS to establish a community chaplaincy program.	Photo by Toby Tabachnick
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman. Photo by Toby Tabachnick

Perlman praised the efforts of medical professionals and community members who’ve exhibited best practices in combating COVID-19.

As of April 14, Allegheny County has experienced 893 cases of COVID-19, resulting in 24 deaths, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Perlman said he’s been told that if those numbers pick up, he may be reassigned to do something different.

“I’m not really on the frontlines, as it were,” he noted. “Maybe that will change, I don’t know.”

For now, Perlman said he will continue his chaplaincy efforts, as well as adhering to social distancing and other recommendations, and offered hope “that God who looks after people, who is benevolent, will be benevolent with us, and this scourge will be taken away from the world.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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