What I Learned on the Psych Ward, Before Becoming a Rabbi

As a student chaplain I was terrified to be assigned to the psych ward, but this time, as a rabbi, I couldn't get there fast enough.

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When, as a student chaplain, I signed up for a unit on Clinical Pastoral Education, I was assigned to three units: intensive care, pediatrics and the psych ward. The first two opportunities were exactly what I was looking for; the third one terrified me.

I remember the first day I walked onto the psych ward on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I pressed the buzzer on the sidewall and cautiously announced that the new student chaplain was here to begin his rotation. The magnetic lock clicked open. The first thing I noticed was the smell. Subtle but pungent, dried urine I supposed. It crept into my nose, journeyed down my throat and found its way into my churning stomach. The second thing I noticed was the patients. Unlike my patients in pediatrics, and certainly unlike those in the ICU, the patients on the psych ward were wandering free in their soft slippers, making me, the sane chaplain, uncomfortably vulnerable. And so, faced with my first encounter with the mentally ill, I did something I am not proud of: I immediately turned around and asked to be buzzed out the door.

By the end of that sweltering New York summer, something strange happened. The psych ward became a sanctuary for me - a place where I could have long and meaningful relationships with my patients, and a place where I could come to avoid the clamor and the tumult of the hospital. Frankly, those ten weeks changed my life, as a rabbi, as a chaplain, and as a human being.

But summer ended as did rabbinical school, and I, unlike some of my patients, left the psych ward far behind, never to return.

That is, until the phone rang two weeks ago. When my receptionist informed me that there was a mental health social worker on the phone and she had a patient who wanted to speak to a rabbi, I was immediately transported back to that summer in Manhattan. And so despite being immensely busy, and although this potentially pastoral moment had nothing to do with my current work as a Jewish summer camp director, I answered the phone. Immediately, the social worker informed me that she had a Jewish patient who was extremely depressed and potentially suicidal and she was looking for a rabbi who would be willing to come down and visit him. “I’ll be there at seven,” I answered.

Though she was shocked at my immediate willingness to help out, I was not. The truth is that I missed the psych ward and perhaps I missed the sanctuary that it provided me as one who loves to listen, and hopefully, to find the spark of the divine in each and every human being.

I arrived at this mental health crisis center later that evening and quickly found my way to the patient in question. The social worker was right. He was immensely depressed and he quickly, and tearfully, shared the details of his personal saga, his downward spirals, and ultimately his recent desires to take his own life.

I sat, I listened, and occasionally I asked questions in order to deepen my understanding of his situation and his needs. This was another lesson from my chaplaincy experience: when we are actively listening, we must not only listen to the content of the words themselves, but we must also search for the subtle vibrations of meaning which reveal the deepest needs of the person who is speaking.

As our time came to its end, I comfortably slipped from being chaplain to being rabbi. And although I explained why Judaism forbids suicide, and although I implored him to find a way to learn to love himself, and although I taught him about Maimonides’ unwavering belief in the power of transformative t’shuvah, redemption, I hope that I had my greatest impact in leaving him with two tangible things:

Firstly, I gave him a copy of a book that has brought me inspiration in times of darkness, “The Empty Chair”, a collection of wisdom teachings from Rabbi Nahman of Breslov. As I handed it to him I shared a lesson that I pray gave him even a modicum of encouragement: “If you believe that you have the power to destroy – then you must also believe you have the power to repair.”

Secondly, I gave him something that I imagine those who are suffering with mental illness often go without – I gave him a hug. “You are created in the image of God,” I reminded him. “And you are important to me, because now, because now I have met you.”

I only pray that it made a difference.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the incoming director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Illustration: A 1920s hospital operating room.Credit: Hadassah

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