Community chaplaincy program could fill the gaps in pastoral care

Community chaplaincy program could fill the gaps in pastoral care

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Keith Rosenstock’s father — who is well into his 90s — lives at a senior community located on the Allegheny River in O’Hara Township, as do “a surprising large number of other Jews.” But while the facility provides ample opportunity for stimulating activities, Rosenstock has noticed a need for something else: spiritual companionship and counseling.

Rabbis, including Yaier Lehrer of Adat Shalom, regularly visit the residents on a volunteer basis, Rosenstock said, but as the older population of Greater Pittsburgh continues to grow, so will the need for Jewish chaplaincy at senior facilities as well as hospitals.

“There is an opportunity to do a lot more,” he said.

Seeking to meet the need, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, spiritual leader of New Light Congregation in Squirrel Hill, is working now to raise funds to launch a Jewish community chaplaincy program in Pittsburgh to tend to the elderly and the ill.

Perlman is a board certified chaplain, having received his training in clinical pastoral education at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis seven years ago. He has ministered to all faiths since 2009, serving as a hospice chaplain for the Allegheny Health Network from 2010 until early 2016.

With a change in management at AHN last year, Perlman — along with many other employees — lost his job, and “decided to start from scratch” in building a sustainable chaplaincy program.

There are other trained Jewish chaplains in Pittsburgh. Rabbi Larry Heimer is the manager of pastoral care at UPMC Presbyterian/Montefiore, and Rabbi Eli Seidman is the chaplain for the Jewish Association on Aging. Rabbi Doris Dyen of Makom HaLev is a trained chaplain who volunteers at Magee-Women’s Hospital.

But, Perlman explained, while there are Jewish patients at many different hospitals and Jewish residents at senior facilities across the area, there are not enough chaplains to serve them. Congregational rabbis typically visit their members, he said, but not all Jews are affiliated with a congregation. Moreover, it can be challenging for a rabbi to visit all of his or her congregants needing pastoral care, along with all the other duties of the rabbinate.

The benefits of such visits, though, are immense. Visiting with a chaplain can be “transformative,” Perlman stressed. “A patient is put into a hospital room alone, and is poked and prodded by the hospital staff, whose goal is to cure him and have him discharged. But the role of the chaplain is to discuss how does this experience affect the patient spiritually. If the patient is old, and facing the end of life, is there room to reflect back on his achievements or regrets?”

Not every patient is religious, Perlman noted, but “having a chaplain is a chance to be in the presence of someone who is there to listen, and to think about the future. Chaplains raise hope in the hospital setting. And in cases of a terminal illness, it is a good way to find a vehicle for confession, storytelling, healing, redemption and repentance.”

The intent of bikur cholim (visiting the sick), he said, “is to put the sick person who is isolated in touch with the community.”

Perlman is working with Pittsburgh’s Jewish Family & Children’s Service in trying to launch the program. His goal is to raise $50,000, which will cover his salary for the first pilot year of the program, by soliciting individual donors and foundations. He is hoping to raise enough funds ultimately to cover a $130,000 budget that will allow him to hire two additional chaplains.

Perlman’s proposed program is in line with the mission of JF&CS, said Jordan Golin, president and CEO of JF&CS.

There is an “increasing need in the community, and there is definitely some expertise out there to get the need met,” Golin said.

When Rabbi Nosson Sachs, who served as a hospital chaplain employed by UPMC-Shadyside, moved to Israel a few years ago, the hospital did not replace him, Golin noted.

“That meant that Jews don’t have any kind of reliable spiritual support,” he said. “If they are affiliated, they might get it from their rabbi, but many times the rabbis don’t know they have the needs, or the patients aren’t affiliated with synagogues. We are looking into a way of getting the need met.”

JF&CS will be working with Perlman in finding funding for the program, Golin said, noting that similar programs run in other communities. Those communities include Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami and Washington, D.C. The sources for funding for those programs vary widely, but often come from the community’s Jewish Federation, the facility requesting the visit, private donors and foundations.

Perlman introduced his concept of a community chaplaincy program to the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association last year, said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation and president of the GPRA.

The group is supportive of the idea, Bisno said.

“There is clearly a need,” Bisno said. Although the GPRA has not voted on a proposal about the program or taken an official position, the members are on board with the idea.

“Rabbi Perlman is a skilled chaplain,” Bisno said. “He is an asset that our community can make good use of.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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