Embracing Life and Facing Death: A Continuing Education Course for Jewish Clergy and Doctors

Over six consecutive Mondays, from May 16 to June 20, 2011, a new class sponsored by the Center for Pastoral Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary challenged professionals to share their experiences and learn from each other about end-of-life care. The class, Embracing Life and Facing Death: A Continuing Education Course for Jewish Clergy and Doctors, was sponsored in collaboration with UJA-Federation of New York, Metropolitan Jewish Health System, Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of JTS.

The diverse makeup of the 26-member class, which consisted of rabbis, cantors, doctors, nurses, a social worker, and a funeral director, contributed to the active and engaged discussions that took place. The students liked the format of the course, which was led by representatives from three different perspectives on end-of-life care: Dr. David Kraemer, the Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at JTS; Bernard Lee, MD, associate chief medical officer at MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care; and Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu, director, Rabbis Without Borders at Clal.

The participatory nature of the course and the varied perspectives of the students and professors exposed everyone to an education they may not have received elsewhere. The blend of academic and practical learning used in this course ultimately produced an extremely successful result. Students shared their experiences with each other: pastoral and other care professionals who face aging and dying congregants, clients, and patients with more and more complicated medical conditions as well as personal stories of loss. Everyone came away with new resources for how to answer questions that inevitably come up in their professional lives: how could I have done that better, what can I learn from that experience, what would other people think about to handle this situation, and how can I apply that to my approach?

Going forward, the Center for Pastoral Education hopes to educate an even more diverse group of people.