"Il Ministro Guerini all’inaugurazione del Covid Hospital" by Ministero Difesa is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients are once again on the rise, but this time, it feels different.

“I don’t want to be angry because I’m a rabbi and need to be compassionate,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Lipschultz. “I just feel really sad, because the heartache of saying goodbye to somebody, or yourself saying goodbye and leaving this world is so much. Why would you do it unnecessarily?”

As a staff rabbi at Madrona Hospice and Palliative Care, which offers hospice care and chaplaincy visits to terminally ill patients in homes and hospitals, he hasn’t had much contact with COVID patients.

“There’s one good thing we can say about us Jews: We’re pretty good on vaccines. We’re pretty good with medicine,” he said.

But knowing that people are dying unnecessarily breaks his heart and adds to a mountain of grief he is still processing from 2020. Lipschultz and other area chaplains say this period has been incredibly taxing, unlike anything they’ve witnessed.

Lipschultz joined Madrona in December 2019. After 17 years of being a congregational rabbi, “I figured it’d be nice to have a little break from congregational politics.”

But just a few months after taking the job, the pandemic hit. “To put it nicely, the year sucked,” he said. Before the vaccine became available, he was not allowed to visit patients in person, unless it was to give last rites. “We had to do everything by Zoom.”

He offered as much support to families as he could, but it wasn’t the same.

“They need hugs. They need to hold hands. I need to let the person know that I’m here.” he said. “We chaplains need to give our emotional love to people to let them know it will be OK. And you just can’t do that with Zoom.”

The height of the pandemic was very depressing, he said. But he never considered bowing out.

“Helping somebody say goodbye to the world is one of the greatest mitzvahs you can do,” he said.

Once he got the vaccine in early January he felt it was at least a chance to end his patients’ isolation and his own. He is no longer limited to Zoom meetings and is grateful to be in person with patients, with the proper protective gear.

“Some of us are a little nervous about this variant, but we have faith in the vaccine, and that if we also protect ourselves through masking, we should be OK.”

In the decade that Rabbi Robert Kravitz has been a hospital chaplain with Jewish Family & Children’s Service, the COVID-era has been “the most difficult period of time,” both personally challenging and emotionally draining, he said.

He became a chaplain because he likes the opportunity to “give whatever I have that people find helpful and supportive.” Sometimes it’s just being there, and other times it’s relating to somebody.

Kravitz visits hospital patients, but since COVID many of those visits have been virtual, depending on the hospital system and individual hospital.

He hasn’t dealt with any COVID patients, but it’s been frustrating and difficult to keep up with hospitals’ changing rules regarding visits. “The painful part is sometimes not having the one-on-one direct contact with a hurting member of the community.”

He is hopeful that more and more people will recognize the value of the vaccine and get inoculated. As of Wednesday, Aug. 18, over half of all Maricopa County residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“That will bring down the number of severely ill patients, which will ultimately allow us more access to those who are in the hospital needing the support of a rabbi,” he said.

Rabbi Zari Sussman is in the process of becoming a board-certified chaplain. She always wanted to make a deeper study of chaplaincy after learning about the importance of accompanying people through difficult times in rabbinical school.

“What do you say when someone’s dying? That is not something that comes naturally and is worth being studied. How do you give comfort to someone who’s actively dying, or their family?” she asks.

Sussman began taking a clinical pastoral education unit with Banner Hospital in June, when the infection rate was trending downward. But hospitalization rates were sharply rising just weeks after her course started and visitation was soon restricted.

“The COVID patients when I started were in one pod taking up two floors or eight pods,” she said.

The last patient she saw was a 59-year-old Jewish COVID patient who did not receive the vaccine.

His daughter and wife were not allowed to see him and he had to communicate with his family through an iPad. “And that’s heartbreaking, and really troublesome,” she said. Sussman tries not to think about the fact that a vaccine would likely have prevented a hospital stay, even if he contracted the virus.

“Not getting a vaccine is a wrong choice. But it’s not worth being punished by what these people eventually go through,” she said. “Part of the problem is nobody sees the COVID patients who are actively dying. Unless you work in a hospital, you don’t see how much pain they’re in, because nobody can visit them.”

She learned a great deal during the 11-week unit, and plans to begin another in September.

“After all these years of trying to figure out what to say, it took me a while to learn that the most powerful thing we can do is listen.” JN