Learning to Listen

As Hospital Chaplains, GPATS Students Provide Spiritual Comfort to Patients and Families 

In a patient room at Mount Sinai Medical Center, a man sits by the bedside of his dying wife during her last moments. He is soon joined by Michal Schechter, an aspiring doctor. But the purpose of Schechter’s visit is not to address a physical hurt. Instead, as a Jewish chaplain at Mount Sinai, the 23-year-old seeks to provide relief, comfort and closure for the emotional and spiritual suffering of patients and their families.

“As a chaplain in a hospital setting, my primary responsibility is to support and see the hospital experience from the non-medical provider side—namely, the patient’s point of view,” said Schechter, a recent graduate of Stern College for Women’s pre-med program and current student in its Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Study (GPATS). “I feel that my chaplaincy work will make me a more caring and empathetic physician to my future patients. The close involvement with patients, as well as their families and friends, has helped me develop a better understanding of the mental and emotional challenges people face in a hospital setting.”

Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS) students Michal Schechter, left, and Sara Rozner hope their experiences as chaplains at Mount Sinai Medical Center will make them more caring clinicians.
Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS) students Michal Schechter and Sara Rozner hope their experiences as chaplains at Mount Sinai Medical Center will make them more caring clinicians.

The idea to become a hospital chaplain grew from Schechter’s desire to marry her passion for medicine with the love of Judaism that led her to enroll in GPATS. The program is designed to provide women with an opportunity to further develop high-level Talmudic skills, but it also urges students to share their knowledge more broadly.

“All GPATS students share a love and passion for learning and spreading Torah, some as professional educators and others by using their Torah knowledge to enhance the world around them in different venues,” said Nechama Price, director of GPATS. “I am fortunate to facilitate internships between each of the talented women and many incredible organizations. These opportunities allow the women to gain additional experience and exposure to areas of Jewish life which fit their professional goals.”

“Through GPATS, I connected with Rabbi Daniel Coleman, the Jewish chaplain at North Shore University Hospital and was privileged to participate in a Clinical Pastoral Education course there this past summer,” said Schechter. “The program provided supervised pastoral training to participants who included theological graduate students and ordained clergy from different religions and backgrounds. I was excited when Rabbi Coleman offered me the chance to continue chaplaincy work with him this year at Mount Sinai.”

As a chaplain, Schechter consults with patients of all faiths, as well as those who specifically request to meet with a Jewish chaplain. That might seem like a heavy undertaking for a graduate student—but for Schechter, it has taught her an important and increasingly rare skill: the art of listening.

“I believe that the training I received and the daily interactions with patients, many of whom were critically or even terminally ill, help me develop a greater sensitivity and a deeper sense of empathy with others’ travails,” said Schechter. “While I helped the patients, I am also changed for the better. Taking an active interest in other people’s well-being and hearing what they are feeling in their hearts is one of the greatest and most powerful gifts that we can provide, not only to the people around us, but also to ourselves.”

As she begins her second year in the chaplaincy, Schechter has been joined by fellow GPATS student Sara Rozner, who hopes to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. Like Schechter, Rozner was introduced to the opportunity through GPATS. “As a volunteer chaplain at Mount Sinai, I visit with patients and their families and support them with their spiritual and emotional needs,” said Rozner. “Contending with illness and hospitalization can be very stressful, upsetting, and spiritually challenging. It can help to have someone to talk to.”

chaplainimage2Rozner is also hoping the experience will illuminate her chosen career path. “The kind of emotional skills needed for chaplaincy are very similar to the skills needed for psychology—empathy, listening skills, acceptance, emotional and mental presence.”

She added, “I feel privileged to be able to engage with people on this deep level, and I hope that through this experience I will be able to strengthen my emotional skills and one day become a better therapist than I might have been without it.”

For both Rozner and Schechter, GPATS has played a crucial in their development as future clinicians, in addition to Torah scholars.

“I believe that GPATS provides me with an in-depth knowledge and understanding of Judaism which contributes to the religious aspect of my chaplaincy work, and the program’s support of my work has been instrumental in the success of my hospital internship,” said Schechter. “It is a testament to GPATS that their students are offered placement at world-class facilities and are given the opportunity to explore careers at the intersection of science and spirituality.”

“We are so proud of Michal and Sara for the critical contribution to the lives of their patients in their chaplaincy internships,” said Price.