Interview with Miriam Berkowitz and Valerie Stessin, Co-Founders, Kashouvot

Psalm 130 pleads May your ears be attentive to the voice of all my supplications”, yet spiritual/pastoral care has been slow to reach one of the world’s pre-eminent spiritual centers…until now! Our colleagues Miriam Berkowitz and Valerie Stessin – who met at an RA Conference where the seeds of their partnership were sown – are among the pioneers of spiritual support in Israel. They founded Kashouvot in 2010 to provide “quality, professional pastoral care for patients, staff and families in hospital, hospice and public retirement home frameworks.”  It serves a diverse population of Israelis at five project sites, including hospitals, nursing homes and home hospice frameworks; a remarkable accomplishment in just four years.

Miriam and Valérie were born in Canada and France respectively; both made aliyah and received ordination from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, Valerie having the distinction of being the first woman ordained by the Masorti movement in Israel and Miriam the sixth. Their experiences with pastoral care outside of Israel informed their desire to widen the range of available chaplaincy services within Israel.  Both are trained through accredited courses in Clinical Pastoral Education, including a long distance interfaith clergy course with Mychal Springer of JTS.  They offer services in English, Hebrew, French and Russian and meet a wide array of religious, cultural and spiritual needs. Despite cautions that Israelis would perceive them as either too religious or not religious enough, Valerie and Miriam have found almost all patients, family and staff open to talking, praying and sharing ways in which they need support.

Kashouvot staff - now including Rabbi Judith Edelman Green, a former social worker ordained at HUC and best known for her work with the special needs bar mitzvah, and Raya Tsalyuk, a native Russian speaker - work with patients at Jerusalem’s St. Louis French Hospital, Hadassah Ein Karem Bone Marrow Transplant Department, Bet Alicia nursing home in Jerusalem, home hospice referrals and Beth Protea nursing home in Kfar Saba. In addition Kashouvot shares online resources, provides instruction at the CY and elsewhere in the community and make-a-wish excursions for patients and is creating an anthology of prayers to be used by staff and other chaplains.  Increasingly, rabbinic colleagues have been turning to Kashouvot staff to visit congregants who are hospitalized while on trips to Israel.

Through their growing organization Miriam and Valerie continue to promote a larger role for pastoral care in Israeli society, expanding access to chaplains to help patients through a time of need and providing a unique introduction to open minded, accessible Judaism that has already touched the lives of many Israelis. The growth plan is to add at least one new site and chaplain every year. The long term vision is to make pastoral care an integral part of the healthcare system, funded by hospitals and nursing homes through the ministries of health and social services. But in this early stage Kashouvot must cover a large part of the costs to overcome at least one of the hospitals’ reservations to introducing pastoral care.  Kashouvot generates some income for services (from the nursing homes and private patients) but must rely mainly on foundations and private donors in Israel, Canada and the United States.