History of Spiritual Care in the Jewish World

First Jewish Chaplains

Chaplaincy is rooted in Jewish values such as bikkur holim (visiting the sick) gemilut hasadim (deeds of loving-kindness) and caring for the weak and needy. However, these are general obligations for Jews, not professional disciplines.

The first professional Jewish clergy began working in chaplaincy in the late 19th century. Initially, Jewish chaplaincy focused on serving patients in Jewish hospitals and nursing homes and in state-run prisons or hospitals. By the early 20th century a number of Jewish hospitals and nursing homes in the United States had a rabbi on staff. Their roles generally involved classic rabbinic roles such as leading worship and providing access to ritual needs such as kosher food and holiday celebrations. Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained, served as a chaplain in Germany in the late 1930s before her deportation and death during the Holocaust.

The U.S. Army has employed chaplains since the civil war, recognizing the importance of ethical and spiritual guidance to soldiers in and out of combat. According to U.S. Navy Chaplain Rabbi Steve Rein of Park Avenue Synagogue, chaplains in the armed services show concern for each soldier’s well-being; provide confidential individual counseling regarding issues from army life and home life; ensure access to religious services and rituals; and provide ethical advice to decision makers and act as role models to staff and colleagues. The experience of World War II when over 300 rabbis served as U.S. military chaplains, advanced the civilian field as well. Between 1945 and 1955 Jewish chaplaincy programs through Boards of Rabbis or Jewish chaplaincy agencies expanded significantly in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

By the 1980’s, chaplains also began to serve Jewish patients in non-Jewish and secular facilities as well as non-Jewish patients. Jewish chaplaincy had few formal training programs. By the 1980’s, some rabbis pursued chaplaincy as a career through Clinical Pastoral Education (C.P.E.), an intensive supervised internship initially developed by Protestants but increasingly pluralistic. In 1990 the National Association of Jewish Chaplains (N.A.J.C.) was founded as a professional organization involved in training and certifying Jewish chaplains.

Today there are some 300 professional members of the N.A.J.C. and an additional 300 supporters including lay people with Judaic studies backgrounds, congregational rabbis, students, and Israeli affiliates. N.A.J.C. members serve in a variety of settings including geriatric venues, hospitals, hospices, Jewish community chaplaincy, prisons, mental health settings, and the military, as well as in pastoral care training and education or Jewish Healing Centers.

Jewish people who learn C.P. E. tend to focus on the text and rituals of their own heritage as points of discussion and inspiration for themselves and their patients. Yet Jewish chaplains are also equipped to serve patients of other faiths or no faith, by connecting on the universal human level, by using mutually meaningful text or prayers, or by exploring the patient’s own world of meaning and values.


Adapted from materials of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved, Robert P. Tabak (2nd ed.) and of the N.A.J.C.