Life of chaplaincy leads Rabbi Kara Tav back to Pittsburgh
ProfileRabbi Kara Tav

Life of chaplaincy leads Rabbi Kara Tav back to Pittsburgh

Serving community is a 'gift and challenge.' Rabbi Kara Tav understands that better than most.

Rabbi Kara Tav, Ella Tav and Kovi Tav. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Kara Tav
Rabbi Kara Tav, Ella Tav and Kovi Tav. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Kara Tav

The first time Rabbi Kara Tav came to Pittsburgh was for her husband’s schooling. The second time was for her healing.

During the 23-year interim, Tav, 54, became a rabbi and chaplain. Representing spirituality and Judaism in hospitals and classrooms was a natural extension of her earlier studies. As a child growing up in Kitchener, Ontario, Kav imagined undertaking similar charges.

The difficulty, she said, was that the model didn’t exist.

Women didn’t become rabbis — not because anyone barred the practice but because the matter wasn’t addressed, she said: “It wasn’t a thing, but I wrote in my journal when I was a little girl, ‘It’s too bad that God doesn’t like girls as much as boys because I would make a great rabbi.’”

Tav went off to college and later attended Columbia University for graduate school. She became an educator and focused on curriculum development and teaching before moving to Israel during the “very fraught Oslo years,” she said. “I met my husband, Kobi, and we built a life together, and then the prime minister got assassinated.”

Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 death prompted the young couple to reevaluate their future.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to do something for the Jewish world, and I don’t think we can do it from here,” Tav recalled.

They traveled to Romania in 1996 and spent a year working with its Jewish community.

There had been the Holocaust, then 50 years of communism, “and then we showed up.” she said. “It was really an enormous gift and challenge.”

“The kids,” as they were called in Romania, finished the year and decided to come to Pittsburgh.

“Kobi had always wanted to be in academics, and I was getting more serious about working in Jewish communal life,” Tav said.

Kobi Tav, Rabbi Kara Tav and Ella Tav during their first stay in Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Kara Tav

They rented an old row house on Phillips Avenue in Squirrel Hill and Tav accepted a job at Congregation Beth Shalom.

“I ran their Hebrew school, the religious school, which was an amazing production for a young idealistic person,” she said.

In the late 1990s, there were close to 250 students and a team of teachers at the school; classes met three days a week, with services on the weekends and holidays. “It was a very vibrant and exciting time to be in the Pittsburgh Jewish community,” she said.

Kobi finished graduate school and the couple, along with their young daughter, moved to Cleveland.

Tav decided her career path needed to grow and that rabbinic ordination was the means.

“So we sold everything we owned — except our car, our books and not much else. We moved to New York City, and rented a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side,” she said.

The family stayed there for 18 years.

During rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Tav became a chaplain, “which became my life’s work,” she said.

She served different sites, before accepting her first “really big job” at a veterans hospital in Manhattan.

Tav spent an enjoyable year there, but because of her Canadian status “couldn’t be hired full-time,” she said.

She then worked as a multifaith chaplain at Elmhurst Hospital, a level 1 trauma center in Queens.

“It was an interesting role for a rabbi because there was a certain amount of strength in being a Jewish professional who was working inside a very multinational universe as a Jewish professional,” she said.

Citywide layoffs led to the decimation of her department, she said: “I was one of the masses.”

Tav then took a job as manager of spiritual care and a palliative care chaplain at NYU Langone in Brooklyn.

Two weeks later, the pandemic erupted.

That period, she explained, isn’t the easiest to discuss.

Tav told the Chronicle that she doesn’t like saying she was “on the front lines” because the “expression is overused.” The problem with avoiding that terminology, though, “is I spent all day, every day, on the front lines.”

“I saw and I attended to hundreds of deaths, and some tragic endings, and supported families and staff members through probably one of the worst times in recent history,” she continued. “It was a lot.”

“Paper towels and bottled water advertised for sale during COVID-19 pandemic-related shortages, Hamburg, New York – 20200313” by Andre Carrotflower is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

As head chaplain in the hospital, Tav was continuously on her feet. Besides her commute, which involved four subway trains in each direction, she walked about 20,000 steps in protective gear every day, she said.

“Now keep in mind, I’m entirely wrapped in plastic. And I’m new, and nobody knows who I am. I’m like a plastic thing, along with all the other plastic things, sort of shuffling along in the hallway,” she said. “I would come into the emergency department and I would go to where the chairs were, where people were waiting to be seen, and they were predominantly empty because people didn’t come to the hospital unless they were feeling sick.”

And the same situation would repeatedly occur, she said: “I would overhear a phone call of a young man talking on the phone to his girlfriend, saying, ‘Yeah, I’m waiting to get checked out. I still have this cough, but I think I’m fine. Um, they’re  gonna send me home.’ And I would go over and say, ‘Hey, what’s your name? I’m the chaplain here. I’ll follow your case.’ I would find out that his name was Joe Smith and it wasn’t 24 hours before Joe Smith was dead — like he would die. He would come in talking, he would walk in on his feet, talking on the phone, and he would be in a body bag 30 hours later. And that happened over and over and over again.”

In retrospect, it felt as though “I was in some kind of dystopian movie,” she said. The devastating scenes from New York, “those things you saw on TV, it was me.”

A year ago, approximately three years after the pandemic fundamentally altered life, Tav and Kobi returned to Pittsburgh.

“I came here with pretty visible and debilitating PTSD,” she said. “I don’t know if you ever completely recover from a trauma like that, but I’m really vastly better.”

She credits exercise, fresh air and teaching with helping, but mostly it was a network that refused to let her go, she said.

“There were those people who we knew here from the first time, who received us, they knew we were coming and they welcomed us with open arms,” she said. “There were cooked meals at the doorstep of the rental apartment when we got here. People would say, ‘I’m going to the grocery store; can I get you anything?’ Or, ‘I have a doctor’s appointment and I’m going to ask if there’s an internist you can start to see because you’re going to need to change doctors now that you live here.’”

The overwhelming kindness, even from strangers, isn’t surprising, Tav said: “When I first moved here, I told my New York friends that when you walk down the street in Pittsburgh, everyone you walk past just says, ‘Hello.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, what is that? Maybe they just want something?’ And I’m like, ‘No, they’re actually just saying hello.’”

Her story has a few takeaways, Tav said: “I want people to know that recovery from trauma is possible.”

There’s also the communal element — that when people unflinchingly rally around others unimaginable progress is possible.

Tav said she saw it herself, both as a recipient of care and as a provider.

Last summer, when chaplains came to Pittsburgh to help during the synagogue shooting trial, Tav met privately with those who wanted to talk.

Being a trained spiritual leader — and offering guidance in a city that had given her so much — brought countless things together, she said: “I was the chaplain for those chaplains.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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