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Asking the Clergy: What is the role of a chaplain?

Rabbi Uri Lesser of Gurwin Jewish Nursing &

Rabbi Uri Lesser of Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, Sanaa Nadim of the Islamic Society Interfaith Center at Stony Brook University, and Melinda Nasti, manager of chaplaincy operations, Northwell Health, and lay minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock. Credit: Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center; Newsday / John H.Cornell Jr.; Alexandra Schwartz

When faith or spiritual guidance is needed at a university, assisted-living center or health facility, a chaplain can offer a sympathetic ear. This week’s clergy discuss duties that range from nurturing emotional healing to celebrating holidays.

Rabbi Uri Lesser

Director of Pastoral Care, Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, Commack

As a new chaplain who started in September, I have been learning my role in the health care world.

During the High Holidays, I spoke with the residents about how Rosh Hashanah is a new year, a new beginning for everyone. I talked about the concept of forgiving each other. And we had apples and honey together at a Friday service.

For the other professionals in the building, roles are easier to discern: medical professionals take care of the medical needs of our residents; social workers take care of their emotional needs; rehabilitation therapists, their physical needs; and recreation therapists, social needs.

Seemingly, the chaplain’s role would be to care for the spiritual needs of our residents, but what are those needs? I have had patients discuss with me their medical, emotional, physical and recreational needs along, of course, with their spiritual needs, regardless of religious affiliation. So what really is the role of a chaplain in health care? I believe it is to listen.

I was a private high school teacher in Queens for eight years, so I’m coming from speaking six hours a day to listening six hours a day. Because, as I have learned, you can’t possibly address anyone’s needs without giving an ear to listen first.  

Sanaa Nadim

Chaplain, Islamic Society Interfaith Center, Stony Brook University

When I arrived at Stony Brook University in the early '90s, I was one of the first Muslim female chaplains in the country; my career has been aimed at undermining barriers that women experience in education and religion.

Since then, horrific tragedies like Sept. 11, mass shootings in Columbus, Orlando and at Sandy Hook (to name a few), hurricanes, and deadly assaults on mosques and synagogues have defined my chaplaincy and the makeup of my constituency.

The role of a chaplain involves emotional labor and spiritual nourishment. Having spent the majority of my career in the university setting, I find most of my day attaches to the minds of the future leaders of our country in conversations relating to parental divorce, spousal abuse or larger questions of intimacy and partnership. I did not arrive prepared for this.

Mentors like the late Catholic Sister Margaret Ann Landry taught me early in my career that we serve the purpose we are called to. And my dear colleague and friend Rabbi Joseph Topek imbued a similar message when he lamented that our role is as defined as the souls that surround us. The guiding light of the Rev. Diane Gardner and the Rev. Andrew Dees, at the university hospital, has shaped my understanding of emotional healing when the body is trying to find healing, too.

At the cusp of 30 years, I can recall the bright-eyed smiles of students excited about their futures and the parents hopeful for a brighter tomorrow. I take pride in nothing more than seeing interfaith communities vibrantly connected and the smile of a patient after our time together. The chaplain is a universal symbol of hope and light. It is at its crux a devotion to a life serving others in the name of God and goodness.

Melinda Nasti

Manager of chaplaincy operations, Northwell Health; lay minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock

All patients and families can benefit from a session with a chaplain. Chaplains create a sacred space for people of all faiths and cultural beliefs to find meaning and connection during challenging times. We are not fixing problems or providing answers; we are companioning them in stressful and sometimes life-changing moments and supporting them in identifying and drawing upon their own resources.

At Northwell Health we are trained and certified multifaith chaplains from many faiths traditions. We chaplain to people who define themselves as religious, spiritual or of no particular faith. We are also dedicated to the spiritual wellness of the staff, and chaplains such as myself work with employees both in the hospitals and among the tens of thousands of staff who are in our 600 outpatient facilities and other nonclinical sites. A chaplain is available to provide compassionate care for staff concerns.

DO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS you’d like Newsday to ask the clergy? Email them to LILife@newsday.com. Find more LI Life stories at newsday.com/LILife.

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