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Interview

In Haifa coronavirus ward, a US-trained rabbi helps Muslims keep the faith

Mike Schultz, Rambam hospital’s spiritual care chief, tends to the non-medical needs of patients suffering from loneliness on top of COVID-19, whether they be holy or mundane

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Rabbi Mike Schultz outside of Rambam Medical Center on December 30, 2020. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)
Rabbi Mike Schultz outside of Rambam Medical Center on December 30, 2020. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

As Israel’s third wave COVID cases surge, Rabbi Mike Schultz dons his hazmat suit, and prepares to talk about Allah.

Israel’s Arab citizens have been disproportionately hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which means that 12 years after graduating from a New York rabbinical school, Schultz is spending his days talking with a lot of patients who are deeply probing their Islamic faith.

“I’m having many, many more God conversations than normal, as people who are largely isolated in the ward look at their lives,” he said on Wednesday at Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, which is caring for over 100 patients in its converted parking garage ward — almost a tenth of those hospitalized with coronavirus nationwide.

Isolated from family and cared for by rushed staff who are only allowed close to them for limited periods, loneliness is a constant feature of COVID-19 patients’ lives. This is where Schultz comes in, as head of Rambam’s Spiritual Care unit, which serves patients of all faiths and none.

The coronavirus facility at Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa (courtesy of Rambam Health Care Campus)

The brief of the chaplaincy unit is not to push religion but rather to make people feel connected with whatever is important to them outside their immediate health worries: hopes and dreams, family, ideals, and community. Religion is only on the agenda if it’s part of the patient’s world-view, or if they ask to talk about it.

Rabbi Mike Schultz. (Courtesy Rambam)

Israeli hospitals have long had in-house rabbis, but they are heavily focused on the religious needs of Jewish patients, kashrut and run in-house synagogues. Around 15 years ago, American-style chaplaincy, with its more pastoral and interfaith remit, started to make inroads and today there are spiritual care units like Schultz’s in around half of the large hospitals.

His 19-strong Jewish-Muslim-Christian team, comprised of staff and students, doesn’t divvy up patients according to faith, rather by hospital departments. This means Jewish patients can end up with a Muslim member of the team and vice-versa. There are, predictably, some objections, but most patients are happy with the arrangement, Schultz reported.

In the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa, where Jewish residents are famously secular and Arabs, most of whom are Muslim, are much more traditional, this creates an ironic scenario: Muslim patients are more likely than Jews to draw on Schultz for religious wisdom.

“I connect with Muslim patients because we have [a] shared sense of belief,” Schultz said. “There’s a sense that ‘you’ll understand me, I can talk to you about beliefs and God, as well as my illness.’”

“The main thing is to hold open conversations about challenges people face, whatever they may be,” he said. “It’s about trying to join them wherever they are at and whatever they are going through.”

His institution is named after another rabbi who spent lots of time by the sickbeds of Muslims: Rambam is the Hebrew acronym that refers to the 12th-century rabbi Maimonides. He was physician, among others, to Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria.

Schultz, 41, is a married father-of-three who moved to Israel from Boston 11 years ago after completing rabbinical training at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in the Bronx, which is also an interfaith chaplaincy training school.

Rabbi Mike Schultz (holding the marriage document) officiating a wedding in Israel (screen grab/ Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School)

He spoke to The Times of Israel on outdoor seating amid the bustle of the hospital, as elderly Israelis arrived for coronavirus vaccines.

The world where much of his work happens is hidden from view: The hospital’s COVID-19 unit is beneath his feet, in a special facility constructed deep underground so it’s safe for all sorts of crises, including bomb attacks.

For visits to coronavirus patients in the ward, which started in the summer once non-medical staff began being allowed in, he must don a hazmat suit — a whole new experience for a rabbi who hadn’t even worn scrubs before the pandemic.

“It makes it hard to see me and hard to speak and the patients are often talking through tubes,” he said. “But it’s worth everything for this human contact, as people say they miss conversation so much.”

Often, the conversation is very general. But when it gets reflective, things can get deeply moving, even if God is not in the picture.

Staff in the coronavirus facility at Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa (courtesy of Rambam Health Care Campus)

One patient, a Muslim man in his 50s, was determined to discharge himself and ride out his case of COVID-19 while being cared for at home. “He wanted to refuse treatment, to up and leave,” Schultz said. “Then he had a moment when he looked around, saw other patients, and noticed that there were Muslims and Jews, rich and poor.”

“He said, ‘why would I do this to my kids and insist on being at home with them and having round-the-clock care when I could be here around this diverse group?’ Seeing the cross-section of Israeli society in front of him, all dealing with the coronavirus, helped him to stay. It was a spiritual experience.”

Schultz also movingly recounted the spiritual journey of a Christian-Arab coronavirus patient in his 20s “who felt he had been so close to death, and this made him change his priorities, and focus less on all sorts of small things, like obstacles and insults from other people, that had really gotten to him in the past.”

Rambam Health Care Campus (courtesy of Rambam Health Care Campus)

As Schultz has helped patients, they have helped him too. “When I started going to see them, it actually made my stress levels go down,” he said. “It help me transition from being in a place where it feels like the virus is a monster lurking around every corner.”

“When I face the ‘monster’ head-on, seeing coronavirus at its worst, including deaths, I appreciate that even on the wards, there is life and vitality, and real conversations about important things,” he said. “It’s somehow easier for me to get perspective, and to say we have to be careful but can continue living, even in the shadow of this danger.”

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