Some of the Christian chaplains believed I was going to Hell because I didn’t accept Jesus as my personal Lord and savior, which as Jews, we don’t typically do. Our group of six had met weekly for several months, sharing stories of patient encounters, confronting our limitations, our failures, our fears, establishing relationships of mutual respect. Now, I sat in our circle and realized the two evangelical chaplains thought Judaism inferior to Christianity. I stared at both. Neither met my eye. “There’s more than one way up the mountain,” I said. How could anyone think otherwise? They glanced at me and then looked down, smiling sadly. I realized they felt sorry for me. Had they felt this way our entire time together? What the hell! I’d wanted to say, because for me hell was punctuation, not a place where ‘sinners,’ Jews, and other non-Christians were destined to burn.
During Nurses’ Week we chaplains had a special meeting. We were to do a Blessing of the Hands, thanking the nurses for their service. I felt a bit foolish. The idea of a blessing seemed religious and well, Christian. What holy body gave me—a secular Jew who wasn’t sure she even believed in God—the authority to consecrate another human being? Yet, when I started the blessings later that day I immediately realized their power. The nurses closed their eyes and kept hold of my hands as I blessed them. When I saw how the acknowledgement touched something near their core, I felt gratitude for work that brought me close to another’s heart. After a moment they said “thanks” and rushed off to their jobs. I continued blessing.
I’d given maybe thirty blessings when Betty, an old-time nurse, approached me. “Would you bless me?” she asked intently. But she didn’t want to be blessed at the nurses’ station, where I had blessed almost everyone else. She wanted to go outside.
We went down the hall and out to the fire escape high above a busy city street, with the screech of car horns, slamming doors and stray voices below. She closed her eyes. I took her hands. “No,” she said, “put your hands here.” She moved my hands to her head and closed her eyes again. Despite her blond dye and spiny-looking tufts, her hair felt soft and fine.
“Thank you for your hands,” I said slowly, “for your caring, for your service.” For another moment my palms rested gently on her hair. Then she opened her eyes, and for an instant I saw a tear. She covered it up with a slight laugh, and we hugged. I left the hospital at the end of the day feeling that Betty, and every nurse I’d blessed, had blessed me.
My father was secular and only started meeting with his rabbi soon after his cancer diagnosis. One day when I was visiting, the rabbi dropped by. We sat in the family room and talked about my father’s illness and treatment. The rabbi mostly listened. At the end of the hour she asked if we’d like to pray. I was surprised when my father said yes. We stood in a circle, she took our hands and then we were all holding hands as she recited the Mi Sheberach, the prayer for healing, calling in Hebrew to our biblical ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah to bless and heal my father, to “send him a complete renewal of body and spirit.” My father’s eyes shone and he had a beatific smile. I felt comforted by the warm clasp of hands and the melody of the ancient, familiar Hebrew, as my beloved father’s death loomed.
The day of my father’s death the rabbi came to his hospital room. She recited the Vidui, the confessional prayer said at the end of life: “May God guard your going out and coming in, from now until eternity.” Our family joined hands around my father’s hospital bed, linking his with ours, chanting in Hebrew in what the rabbi called a circle of life—because my father was still alive. We said the prayer for him, because he could no longer speak, asking God for my father’s forgiveness, for his peace, for the memory of his goodness, and for comfort after he died. Death’s imminence heightened love for my father and for our family— taking me into the presence of something I didn’t yet know how to name, sparking a longing in me that led to spiritual seeking.
A few months after his death I started graduate school, studying for a master’s in Gerontology. I thought I’d become a care manager, a kind of social worker finding solutions to an old person’s physical and social challenges, but instead I glommed onto courses like “Death and Dying” and wrote an extensive paper about palliative care, tackling issues of hospice, end-of-life, and the role of hope. When I spotted a class called “Accompaniment as Spiritual Practice” I knew that I had to take it, with only the most vague idea of what it was about, because that last year with my father felt like a spiritual practice as I accompanied him through his illness and dying.
When the rabbi who taught the class suggested I apply for a program in clinical pastoral education at a local hospital, I knew I had to do that too, though ‘pastoral’ and ‘chaplaincy’ were still fuzzy concepts to me. I was accepted and joined five other chaplains-in-training. As I listened to them talk about their Christian beliefs I envied their depth of knowledge, their certain faith in God, the easy way they called themselves religious. I realized how little I knew about my own Jewish faith.
Years ago, my husband, sons, and I joined the synagogue because I wanted my sons to have a Jewish education. It was a three-minute walk for a healthy adult from our house to the synagogue’s entrance, but for me and my three-year-old triplet sons going to their preschool, it stretched to a twenty-minute amble as they scooted from one side of me to the other, scouring doorways and the sidewalk for small objects. For months their treasured find was rubber bands.
On Friday afternoons I joined my sons and their classmates for Shabbat, my first experience with the day that traditional Jews observe weekly. We sat in a semi-circle on the floor, their teacher Mimi on guitar, my sons nestled at my feet. We sang prayers over the candles and challah, using grape juice as a stand-in for the wine. I felt surprised by the warmth and connection I felt sharing the observance with my sons. Observing Shabbat had been considered radical, in the family of my youth. My parents had mostly Jewish friends, but—“Do you know,” my mother would say, “ the Silver family is really Jewish. They light candles and have a special dinner every week for the Sabbath.”
I can’t remember when I first began to want more for myself of Judaism, but sometime before my sons’ B’nai Mitzvah at age thirteen, and a year before I divorced their father, I was sitting in a rabbi’s book-lined office to talk about our sons’ service, when I found myself unexpectedly in tears. “What about my Jewish practice?” I said—the unhappy years of my marriage surging inside. I’d taken our sons to preschool, services, Sunday School by myself, sometimes with my parents, never with my soon-to-be ex-husband. I’d attended parent gatherings alone and rarely celebrated Jewish holidays in community. I’d not once allowed myself to consider how I might want to grow as a Jew for fear of alienating my husband, whose excuse that he ‘disliked religion,’ masked an inability to support me. The rabbi didn’t know my history and didn’t have an answer. I’d have to figure out the way forward for myself.
Before we ate lunch in the hospital cafeteria I felt disconcerted when my Christian chaplain supervisor bowed his head in silent prayer. Gradually I grew accustomed, and even took a moment to silently give my own thanks. Sometime over the year I found his offering profound— his example an impetus for me to learn about my faith. I decided to take a break between my first and second year of chaplaincy training to study Judaism, in hopes that I would learn about the holidays, study Torah, read Heschel, Buber, Maimonides.
I kept a log during my six-month break that I hopefully and prosaically titled ‘Journal of Sue’s Jewish Studies.’ Next to my first Hebrew lesson I wrote: “Love it!” I tried different Friday night services in San Francisco with a friend who was also exploring. I studied Psalms with one of our synagogue rabbis. I met with a spiritual director. I took classes about the Jewish holidays and Jewish thinkers. I read Entering Jewish Prayer, Every Person’s Guide to Judaism, Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer. When I rejoined the training I gave a teaching to our cohort of chaplains about the underpinnings of spiritual care in Judaism. My supervisor listened, nodding. I felt gratified to see him smile.
I finished training, became our synagogue’s first lay chaplain, remarried. I spent a winter vacation in Israel with one of my sons and my new husband. My only previous trip there was in the mid 70’s, over a college summer vacation, more than forty years before. I remember going to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where I’d dutifully written a note on a tiny piece of paper and stuffed it alongside other snippets of prayers.
Now, I stood at the Wall with the other women while my son and my husband stood with the men. I heard the chanting of Bar Mitzvah groups, the strains of multiple guitars, prayers sung and sobbed. I was surprised by a surge of longing as I placed both hands on the wall. I let my head fall against it and prayed for peace and my family’s wellbeing.
On my first visit to the Western Wall as a young, single woman I’d had no reason to doubt that my hopes would be fulfilled. I’d felt hope’s yearning but didn’t understand hope’s vulnerability—hope was not promise. Now, I understood hope lives alongside disappointment and failure. Judaism gave shape to yearning and to pain. Rituals, prayers, teachings offered sustenance and connection. It was mine to claim and explore.
On Friday morning we left for Shabbat in the city of Tsfat—a center of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism in the north of Israel. We had to get there by early afternoon, because the whole city shuts down for the Sabbath. We wanted to have Shabbat dinner at Livnot, a program my son participated in the previous summer. He went ahead; I followed about an hour later. I got lost, wandering windy, cobbled streets, passing black-hatted, big-bearded men with modestly dressed wives and children in tow. I finally found Livnot’s locked side door. I knocked, and a pretty, longhaired young woman answered. The feathers she wore for earrings shimmered as, smiling, she led me through a small hallway and under a stone arch into the living space. I came to the dining area, where I found my son and about fifteen other young people gathered around a cloth-covered table for the Sabbath meal. We sang the blessings; someone brought a plate of roast chicken and vegetables.
Toward the end of the meal another young woman stood and started talking about how she was in the process of becoming her authentic self. Everyone sang the Hebrew song inspired by Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: Kol Ha’olam Kulo Gesher Tsar Me’od—The Whole World is a Narrow Bridge. The song repeats the title, adding: Ve ha’ikar-veha’ikar Lo lefached… “And the main thing to recall—is not to be afraid.” I felt like I’d fallen off that narrow bridge in a troubled marriage and painful divorce. Now, Rabbi Nachman’s song reminded me of our family’s passage and arrival, back on the bridge and on our way to a place of more discoveries yet. My heart filled with gratitude.
After I got home from Israel, my husband and I lit Shabbat candles on our own and sometimes we’d have Sabbath dinners with dear friends who are Modern Orthodox. I appreciated how they powered off their phones for Shabbat and kept a kosher home, which was as much as I knew about Orthodox Judaism. I started to fantasize—could I keep kosher? Could I turn off my phone on Friday night and all-day Saturday? Could I walk everywhere on Shabbat? I imagined a life of ritual and observance would surely be a path to deeper connections and meaning.
Eventually, I made a few friends in the local Chabad community. They invited me to join their family for Shabbat in Crown Heights, Brooklyn—headquarters for the larger Chabad world—when I visited New York. As a guest for Shabbat meals in Crown Heights, I discovered that I had quite a few things to learn. It didn’t matter that I dressed according to modesty norms—a top covering my collarbone and elbows, a skirt that fell below my knees—as a married woman without a sheitel—wig—hiding my hair I was immediately pegged as an outsider.
If there was rain I was out of luck and unprotected—there’s a prohibition against carrying things (umbrellas, for instance) on Shabbat. When I entered a home I noticed a large painting of a white-bearded black-hatted man hung in a prominent place. I asked the man’s identity and was told it was Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, last Rebbe of the Lubavitcher Hasidic dynasty, known simply as “the Rebbe,” thought by many during his lifetime to be the Messiah, believed yet alive by some of those adherents—despite his death in 1994.
Guests included family living nearby, perhaps a daughter residing abroad with husband and children—Australia was frequently represented— married at what seemed to me a tender age: nineteen, or maybe twenty, after a not-arranged but carefully managed courtship, introduced by a shadchan—matchmaker—engaged following a few dates, and by twenty-eight or so perhaps a mother of three or more.
I was greeted by the male host and when I extended my hand he never took it. Orthodox men don’t touch any woman who is not an immediate family member. When I entered I was led into the kitchen to wash at the sink and encountered a two-handled pitcher. I had no idea what to do. My host demonstrated how one lifts the pitcher with the right hand, passes it to the left, pours water onto the right three times, and then the same for the left. I repeated the prayer said for washing— Netilat Yadayim, and a guest shushed me with a finger to his lips and I learned not to speak until the challah was blessed and I took a first bite of the bread.
Dining room tables set with linen cloths and crystal were shrouded in plastic, in what seemed a practical move to protect from weekly spills. I paced myself ¾first, chicken soup was served, next hummus, tahini, mixed greens. Fish displayed on a gold-rimmed platter was passed, followed by a meat course with vegetables, with cobbler for dessert. I offered to help clean up after the very long prayer that I didn’t know was chanted following the meal, but I learned that dishes stay piled in the sink till Shabbat ends. There’s a prohibition against working on the day of rest.
In the bathroom I discovered the lights taped ‘on’ because there’s a prohibition against turning them on or off during Shabbat. I used the tissues made available so as to follow the prohibition against tearing toilet paper (or any paper) on Shabbat. I applied lipstick I’d tucked under the top of my tights, thinking no one would know I was breaking the rules and carrying something on Shabbat, but when I came out of the bathroom with red lips of course they knew. I was a Jew among Jews yet felt like a member of an altogether different tribe.
They were —surprisingly—as curious about me as I was about them. I wondered, and imagined they wondered about me—what meaning would life hold to live like them? Did I want to? Was it possible that they wanted to live like me? Chabadniks and other traditional Orthodox Jews lived a Jewish life that we secular and reform Jews had long ago abandoned.
Back in the Bay Area, crossing the bridge to get to a Shabbat dinner with a Chabad family in Berkeley, I was running a little late. I remembered a story I’d heard about some Chabadniks who got stuck in traffic, and in order not to drive on Shabbat, abandoned their car by the side of the freeway and walked several miles to their destination. “Where’s the common sense in that?” I’d asked. The storyteller turned to me. “You’ve got to understand,” he’d said. “For the Orthodox, by obeying these strictures, they fulfill their living, breathing covenant with God. It’s real to them.”
I inched along in traffic, glancing at the bottle of Kosher wine rolling on the car floor and took another look at my iPhone to check the time—and it finally made sense. Each choice, each decision mattered to the Orthodox, creating a foundation of meaning that I respected, but who was I kidding with my fantasies of Orthodoxy? That structure would never work for me. My community is hardly observant. If I want to carry things on Shabbat, I will. If I decide to drive, I drive. I turn on lights. I carry an umbrella in the rain. I reapply my lipstick. I tear toilet paper. Logic, common sense, habits—and yet—I began to question and feel guilt about my particular practice of Judaism. I’d come far in knowledge and observance, but it was as if the more I’d learned the more I understood that I fell short in the eyes of an Orthodox community. My husband and I were lighting candles at the wrong time—there’s a specified time according to halachah—Jewish law. Women aren’t allowed to become rabbis in the Orthodox world, or wear kippot. I didn’t want to be a part of this non-egalitarian universe—yet reluctantly, unhappily, I asked myself—were the Orthodox better Jews than me?
When I got to Berkeley—on time, before Shabbat—I sat on the big couch in the family’s neat living room, lined floor to ceiling with Jewish texts. The rabbi and his wife had had their third child just eight days earlier. The baby was tucked into the couch, asleep next to me. The rabbi stood before the bookcase, chanting and swaying. The sky darkened, a car drove by, crickets chirped and the soft sounds of rhythmic Hebrew and our slow breathing wafted into the night. The rabbi’s wife came downstairs, her hair knotted into a scarf, her expression content, peaceful, yet exhausted with recent birth and sleepless nights. Near us, the table was set with wine and homemade challah; our Sabbath meal connecting us with observant Jewish homes from Jerusalem to New York to San Francisco, from times past to today. As I leaned into the couch, I knew there was a heartbeat to their lives that I wanted but didn’t quite know how to get. If I wasn’t going to be Orthodox, what kind of Jew was I going to be?
One morning at the start of our opening circle my chaplain supervisor read a prayer to our group: “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles…How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!” Our chairs faced one another in the nondescript chaplain’s on-call sleep room on an upper hospital floor. The chaplain next to me let out a sigh. Outside, cars honked, tires screeched. Birdsongs, the sun’s warmth, a hand’s touch— how many moments were rushing past my unseeing eyes? “Where did you find the prayer?” I asked, as we waited for the elevator to take us to the cafeteria for lunch. He said he didn’t know.
My husband and I began early evening strolls through our neighborhood on our way to the synagogue’s Friday night services. We passed a father coming home from work. “Daddy! Daddy!” a little girl called, her arms outstretched, her smile big as she ran to him. Dinner scents wafted our way on the next block, on another, a girl with a hockey stick hopped out of a car and bounded up the steps to her home. When we got to the synagogue, we sat on wooden pews near the front. The service began. I opened the prayer book as the cantor’s melodies seemed to float through me. The verses my supervisor read jumped out—his prayer was from Jewish liturgy, and it was calling.
Not long after I sat at a long boardroom table at a monthly Torah class. We read selections from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man. “The ultimate insight is the outcome of moments when we are stirred beyond words, of instants of wonder, awe, praise, fear, trembling and radical amazement…” he wrote. “It is at the climax of such moments that we attain the certainty that life has meaning…” I starred the words, underlined, drew circles around the text. Experiencing time through awareness. The ability to see with wonder. These ideas were beginning to feel more and more urgent.
At another morning meeting our chaplain supervisor asked us to find one key word or phrase from our religious tradition that had meaning for us. I shared the Hebrew word hineini, meaning “here I am,” first used in the Torah when God called to Abraham. “When we bring our full, empathetic, spiritual discerning selves to the patient-chaplain encounter,” I said, “we are fully present, embodying the essence of hineini,” remembering my presence with a patient confiding in me her fears after receiving a cancer diagnosis, a daughter burying her face in her hands as we talked about her struggles to care for an ailing parent, a patient with chronic pain only partially alleviated by medication. “It’s good to talk,” the patient said.
Being fully present brought the heartbeat to my life that I wanted all along but did not know how to articulate.
“Have you heard of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality?” our rabbi asked at a Friday night oneg. I discovered their Kivvun— direction—an eighteen-month retreat-based program to develop mindfulness, prayer, and spiritual practice grounded in Jewish text and tradition.
At our first gathering we learned mindfulness meditation. Rabbi Jonathan Slater, a retreat leader, wrote, “We pay attention all the time, but not always with intention, and rarely with awareness of the lesson of the moment.” We read 19th century Hasidic teacher Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapira about developing our connection to God through mindfulness. “As we develop our capacity for mindful observation,” he wrote, “we begin to perceive in ways that were never available to us before.”
At retreat gatherings in Los Angeles and upstate New York our group of eighteen meditated daily in the morning, after an evening and breakfast in silence. I continued at home. During a Rosh Hashanah service after one retreat, our synagogue rabbi discussed meditation, suggesting we try breathing the Hebrew letters of God’s name: Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey—Yod with our in-breath, Hey, our out-breath, Vav, in-breath, Hey, out-breath. The letters spell an unpronounceable word composed of vowels that are the sound of breathing, sometimes translated as, “Is-Was-Will Be.” When we are born, the rabbi said, we take our first breath, when we die, our last, and in-between is a life spent breathing God’s name. Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay—I began my meditation with those breaths.
I said the Modah Ani when I woke, thanking God for returning my soul to my body. I added morning blessings as I got out of bed, thanking God for the start of the day, for opening my eyes, for the firmness of my steps. My husband and I continued to walk to services, we lit Shabbat candles, I said a silent Motzi at meals.
I’d found a way forward.
I slept on a cot in my father’s hospital room before he died. The room was dark, the windows black. I don’t remember the usual hum of monitors. Nurses came and went. I saw them in the room, shadowlike, watching, listening. My father cried out during the night and each time he did I went to him and said, “I’m here, Dad,” wanting him to know he wasn’t alone. I might have said, “hineini,” but neither of us knew the word.
Susan Moldaw’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad Street, Fourth Genre, Lilith, Literary Mama, Narrative, Ruminate, and others. She’s a chaplain and gerontologist, and recently started a program in spiritual direction. She lives in San Francisco.