'We are doctors of the soul'

Chaplain duo at Soroka hospital treat patients spiritually wounded by October 7

The country’s second-largest hospital has taken in some 3,000 people hurt during the Hamas atrocities and their aftermath, but as the clergy can attest, not all wounds are physical

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Chaplain Baruch Siris visits with patient Clara Stofkooper at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, Israel, in this recent undated photo. (Courtesy/ Dina Frenkel)
Chaplain Baruch Siris visits with patient Clara Stofkooper at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, Israel, in this recent undated photo. (Courtesy/ Dina Frenkel)

Boruch Siris, a chaplain at the Spiritual Care Center at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, says that since the Hamas massacre on October 7, the question many hospital patients ask him is, “Why?”

“Why would God allow something like this to happen, they ask,” said Siris, a religious Jew. “All I can do is absorb the question. It’s unanswerable.”

Siris works with another chaplain, Frieda Ezrielev — who prefers the term melavah ruhanit, or spiritual companion — in providing spiritual care to patients and their families of all different religious beliefs (or none at all) at Soroka. Israel’s second-largest hospital, Soroka is the closest to the Gaza border. Since the start of the war, it has treated some 3,000 wounded soldiers and civilians, hundreds of them in very serious condition.

As chaplains during the war, Siris, 49, and Ezrielev, 51, navigate across religious and cultural barriers and grapple with unbearably complicated questions.

“We look for spiritual wounds,” Siris said. “We are doctors of the soul.”

The chaplaincy program at Soroka is one of the first of its kind in Israel and a relatively new field. The idea is to accompany and support people during the most painful times of their lives. The October 7 onslaught, Siris said, was like an earthquake with aftershocks, and “there’s nobody at the hospital who hasn’t been affected by the war.”

The atrocities of October 7 — when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists breached the border to butcher 1,200 people in southern Israel and abduct 252 to the Gaza Strip — struck an even more painful nerve for Israelis and Jews around the world than previous terror attacks.

That’s because not only was it the largest one-day massacre of Jews anywhere since the Holocaust, but it was carried out with particular brutality. The terrorists targeted mostly civilians, young and old, whom they raped, tortured, dismembered and mutilated, wiping out entire families together, many of them burned alive in their homes.

And so Siris tries to “channel spiritual energy,” connecting with people on what he calls a spiritual wavelength, according to each person’s spiritual needs.

Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba. (Courtesy Soroka Medical Center)

He tells the story of a Bedouin police officer who was on active duty near the Gaza border on October 7, when a fellow officer with whom he had been very close was killed. A few weeks later, the Bedouin officer suffered a heart attack and wound up in the hospital.

Although the Bedouin don’t share the same religion as Jewish Israelis and have their own customs and traditions, Siris said, “because of this man’s religious beliefs, he was able to see me as a spiritual leader. He talked to me in a frank way, saying that he saw the connection between the events of October 7 and what happened to his health.”

Something powerful happened between the religious Muslim officer and the religious Jewish chaplain when they spoke about faith, loss and grief.

They were able to harness “spiritual power, meeting each other in a holy space,” said Siris.

‘Hallway conversations’ and forks in the road

Another role chaplains play is to help people search for closure, he said, “even if they don’t necessarily find it.” A soldier, requesting anonymity, who was wounded at the end of November fighting Hamas in the Gaza Strip said that every conversation he’s had with Siris “helps me to heal.”

Chaplain Frieda Ezrielev visits with patient Marganit Cassapu at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, in this recent undated photo. (Courtesy/ Dina Frenkel)

Ezrielev, a native Russian speaker, talks with many Russian-speaking patients in the hospital. She said that because the Communist Soviet Union “stamped out the faith of a whole generation,” these patients usually don’t ask her, “Why did God do such a thing?” Instead, they ask practical questions such as, “How could it have happened in Israel?” Or, “What can we do to survive?”

Ezrielev said the chaplain’s job is to take in what people say and serve as listeners, witnesses, and then as catalysts for people’s own spiritual processes. In other words, a chaplain is someone who sits with people as they look for answers.

Since the start of the war, Ezrielev said, she has also spent time talking to hospital staff members who “have had to care for so many wounded, and they’ve stood up to this daunting task.”

A chance meeting that starts as a “hallway conversation” might develop into a serious discussion. Staff members are “surrounded by so much trauma and tragedies” that they “sometimes need to cry and unburden themselves,” she said.

Ezrielev, who grew up in Dekel, near the Gaza border, said that she personally knows several people who have been kidnapped, wounded and killed.

“People often ponder how life can go on without the people they’ve lost,” she said. “And along with that, comes the irony that amid all the deaths, you feel more alive.”

Chaplain Baruch Siris visits with a wounded IDF soldier at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, Israel, in this recent undated photo. (Courtesy/ Dina Frenkel)

Siris said that he has heard people voice two opposing reactions since the war.

The first is the question, “Where was God?”

The second is the statement, “I found God.”

He cited one example of a man who was treated in the hospital after a Hamas rocket exploded next to his house. The doctors expected that the man would lose his leg but the amputation proved unnecessary, a development they attributed to his “spiritual strength” they noticed in him.

The patient then felt his mission was to tell people, wanting to be a “walking testimony to the Divine,” Siris said.

New openness to seeing the other

Even people who were not directly impacted by the events of October 7 felt the war’s consequences. There was a patient who had lost his 19-year-old son a few years earlier, Siris said. While the boy hadn’t been a soldier, the patient became distraught seeing all the wounded 19-year-old soldiers. A doctor recommended that Siris visit him. “The war had triggered all kinds of baggage in his life,” Siris said.

Another story that Siris heard was from a man who was injured on October 7 and lay in the street until a stranger found him and drove him to the hospital. This wasn’t unusual. A hospital spokesperson said that on that day, more than 680 wounded people with varying degrees of injuries arrived at the hospital, some in ambulances and some in cars.

After the man recovered, he found out that the person who brought him to the hospital had gone back to help other people and was killed.

The person who saved this man’s life was from the other end of the religious spectrum. Before October 7, the patient had unfavorably judged what he considered “that type of people.”

Suddenly, the man felt remorse for all the things he had said, and told Siris he would never speak that way again. He organized a prayer group to pray for the man’s soul, Siris said, “and he began to see this person as a brother.”

Illustrative: Israeli rescue teams evacuate a wounded person near the southern city of Sderot on October 7, 2023, after the Palestinian terror group Hamas launched a large-scale surprise attack on Israel. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Both Siris and Ezrielev studied Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE. The two consult with the doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists and other staff members, and speak with the patients and their families.

Siris said that the idea of chaplaincy has been around since the 14th century, when King Charles V of France, also known as Charles the Wise, invited a priest to sit with him in a small room, which would later be known as a chapel, to talk about spiritual ideas “that went beyond prayer.”

Siris’s first wife, Noa, died of cancer in 2007 and was a patient at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, an experience which made Siris understand what things feel like from the patient’s point of view. (Since then, Siris has remarried and has four children, one from his first wife and three with his second wife, Tzipi.)

Ezrielev, a mother of two, did volunteer work at a hospice and then began studying Clinical Pastoral Education. There are several courses taught throughout Israel, with a curriculum that combines working with patients, theoretical lessons, and individual and group supervision. Students learn about spiritual texts, singing, religious scriptures, personal prayers and guided meditation.

Siris, who studied for many years in a yeshiva, said that rabbis wrote about the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem only after more than 100 years of coping with that loss.

For such a large trauma, the generation who went through it could not have understood it. The same is true for now.

“We search for understanding, but that can’t happen immediately,” he said.

However, even without a historical perspective, what Siris has found is that people have resilience.

“I try to help them tap into a power that is greater than they are,” he said.

Most Popular
read more: