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'Activists need someone to be their center of gravity'

A new kind of chaplain? US Jewish clergy train to support social justice activists

T’ruah partners with the Faith Matters Network on a new course in ‘movement chaplaincy,’ which seeks to provide a spiritual anchor for protesters who face the ‘pain of the world’

  • T'ruah Rabbi Ariel Stone, holding megaphone, at a social justice rally in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Stone)
    T'ruah Rabbi Ariel Stone, holding megaphone, at a social justice rally in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Stone)
  • Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Washington, at a Women's March in this undated photo. (Courtesy)
    Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Washington, at a Women's March in this undated photo. (Courtesy)
  • Rabbi Rebecca Hornstein, second from left, at a 2019 rally against the Trump administration's immigration policies. (Courtesy)
    Rabbi Rebecca Hornstein, second from left, at a 2019 rally against the Trump administration's immigration policies. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — On a scorching day in July 2019, Rabbi Rebecca Hornstein helped lead a protest against the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters in Washington, DC.

Things quickly started getting out of hand. ICE officers and activists shouted at each other, and some of the officers revved the engines of their vehicles threateningly at the protesters.

In the chaos, Hornstein had to remain calm — she had been tasked with serving as the liaison between authorities and activists.

“I had to regulate myself in order to stay present and hold the group,” she recalls. “I realized that if I wanted to stay doing this hard work in the long term, I needed more spiritual resources at my disposal.”

Staying calm in situations such as these is what T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and the Faith Matters Network (FMN) hope to teach rabbis and cantors in a special course that launched this week. The 12-week course aims to train the clergy in movement chaplaincy, an emerging field centered around providing spiritual and moral support for social justice activists.

The program, which began February 1 and runs through April 25, consists of five hours of learning per week. While the course has been offered by FMN for years, this time it has a specifically Jewish component — participating Jewish clergy will regularly meet as a group with T’ruah in addition to FMN, to add a Jewish dimension to their studies and learn how to root the emerging role of movement chaplain in Jewish ritual, text, history and tradition.

“This vision is really about equipping rabbis and cantors to play some kind of role in the broader movement for justice,” said Hornstein, who now serves as the rabbinic peer educator at T’ruah. “[Activists] always kind of look to the person who seems grounded and centered to be [their] center of gravity.”

Prior to getting ordained as a rabbi last spring, Hornstein worked as an organizer for causes ranging from housing to racial justice. She says activists experience a high rate of burnout as early as their 20s. The idea of movement chaplaincy, she believes, is about “the care that is required to make a movement sustainable.”

“There is a really intense range of emotion and experiences that comes along with activism and organizing work,” Hornstein said. “Doing this work puts you directly in front of the pain of the world, the injustices of the world, and it’s hard.”

The partnership between T’ruah and FMN came about in the fall of 2020, in the midst of the 2020 presidential election.

Rabbi Rebecca Hornstein, second from left, at a 2019 rally against the Trump administration’s immigration policies. (Courtesy)

“We’re in a very tumultuous time,” Hornstein said. “We all feel this era of rapid change and upheaval and where there is so much uncertainty and despair, but also possibility.”

“I think so many people are trying to find their role in that,” she said.

Equal-opportunity chaplaincy

FMN project consultant Hilary Allen said that the course, which the organization began offering in 2016, is divided into three sections.

“The first is what we call foundation,” she said. “It’s about really digging into [the participants’] own stories because we are of the belief that a chaplain really needs to understand who they are and what they show up with in order to be effective in their chaplaincy.”

The second section, Allen said, focuses on skill-building, including things such as listening, trauma stewardship, de-escalation and mediation. Finally, aspiring movement chaplains discuss applying these skills to their personal contexts.

“We developed the training really out of conversations with folks sort of out in movement communities,” Allen added.

She also made clear that one does not have to be ordained as a clergy person of any faith in order to become a movement chaplain.

“T’ruah in particular is looking for rabbis and cantors but our course is open to anyone, there is no threshold for registration,” she said.

T’ruah Rabbi Ariel Stone, holding megaphone, at a social justice rally in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Stone)

“We have a lot of clergy, particularly folks who want to be out of the congregation and be more present in the community, but also a lot of people who are a-religious, non-religious, very skeptical,” she said.

FMN, she explained, is aiming to broaden chaplaincy and “tweak it a little bit so that it can be more expansive.”

“There is an assumption that spiritual care needs to be provided by people who are ordained or directly affiliated with the tradition,” she said. “But we have a lot of people who want nothing to do with traditional formalized religion.”

Allen pointed out that there is some “transferability” in traditional chaplaincy as well: “In a hospital, if it’s a Jewish chaplain who is on staff, and it’s a Protestant person who is the patient, and they are in a tough spot, the chaplain won’t say, ‘Sorry I’m Jewish, I can’t help you.’”

Everyone deserves spiritual support

Chaplains have been in high demand in recent years. A 2019 survey conducted by AmeriSpeak NORC revealed that some 21 percent of Americans had contact with a chaplain in the previous two years, mostly in a healthcare setting, and there is evidence that with the COVID-19 pandemic, the number is increasing. The federal government alone employs some 6,000 chaplains, including in the military, the correctional system and public health organizations. In addition, chaplains can be found in most higher education institutions and even corporate settings. They are tasked with providing spiritual guidance to those who need it.

Chief NYPD chaplain Rabbi Alvin Kass. (Courtesy NYPD)

That’s the work Rabbi Alvin Kass has been doing since 1966, not for social justice activists, but for those they often protest against — officers of the New York Police Department.

Over his 56 years at the NYPD, Kass has responded to countless emergencies and scenes where police officers have been injured or killed. He was at ground zero in the aftermath of 9/11, providing spiritual support to law enforcement. On a daily basis, much of his work consists of counseling officers on dealing with stress, family issues and other strains. Kass also teaches two courses at the Police Academy: police ethics and sociology of the Jewish community.

In May 2020, after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, thousands of people took to the streets across the country calling for local governments to “defund” the police. In those moments officers turned to Kass, who serves as the NYPD’s chief chaplain, overseeing 11 others from various faiths dedicated to the spiritual well-being of officers.

“There are moments of discouragement when police officers feel that society isn’t valuing or appreciating in a sufficient measure what they do,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know how police officers could function without spiritual support. [Their] work by its very nature is dangerous, it’s insecure, and you have to have some kind of faith.”

Kass is supportive of the idea of introducing chaplains to social justice groups. He believes “everybody needs guidance” and could benefit from a chaplain.

“Putting the fight for social justice within a spiritual context, and the realization that we are really doing the will of God when we are involved in the fight for social justice is very important, and chaplains can help to put everything in proper perspective,” he said

However, he added, “it is very important that chaplains be trained in the appropriate way.”

“Activism is a wonderful thing, but it is very important that whatever [social justice activists and their chaplains] do should be done within the context of the law,” said Kass.

Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Washington, at an immigration rally in this undated photo. (Courtesy)

Repositioning the rabbi

According to Hornstein, close to 20 people have already registered for the T’ruah/FMN course. Participants, she said, include a “full range of ages and experiences and kinds of communities that people are serving.”

“We have some rabbinical and cantoral students along with people who have been in the field for decades,” she added.

Rabbi Seth Goldstein has led the Reconstructionist congregation Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Washington, for close to 20 years. He and his congregants have been active in social justice efforts and their synagogue also serves as a sanctuary synagogue welcoming immigrants.

Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Washington, at a Women’s March in this undated photo. (Courtesy)

Goldstein is an earlier graduate of the FMN course, which he took before the partnership with T’ruah was conceived. He will augment his training with T’ruah’s additional group meetings this winter and spring.

“When we tend to think of chaplaincy, we tend to think of serving people when they are at their most vulnerable,” Goldstein said. “To be able to apply that to [social justice] is important because that work is draining, and it’s vulnerable.”

Goldstein said the course helped him look at his clerical role in a new light.

“The vision of the rabbi doing social justice work is usually leading the fray, being able to inspire, to make the connection to Jewish values, and teach on the issues before we engage in something,” he said. “But this is really framing it around how can we step back and not necessarily be the leader of the movement, but be on the side supporting the people who are leading the movement, who are already engaged in that work.”

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