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World Jewish Digest reports on pastoral care and counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling

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Monday, May 1, 2006

Rabbi Nancy Wiener leads a class discussion on pastoral care and counseling with students at HUC-JIR in New York.Courtesy of Richard Lobell/HUC-JIR

When Your Rabbi Is Also Your Psychologist

by Alison Buckholtz 

When Debbie Schechter, a former attorney who lives in Chevy Chase, Md., met a pastoral counselor for the first time in 1992, she was feeling especially vulnerable: her 5 1/2-year-old son, Jonathan, had just died of brain cancer. "A pastoral counselor from the hospice counseled my husband and me, and it was very valuable," she said. Through it, "a whole new realm opened up." That new realm turned into a new career track. Schechter, who is Jewish, decided to give up her 25-year law career and pursue social work so that she could counsel others on bereavement issues. But as her social work training progressed, she was disappointed that "there was no way to talk about religion or spirituality" in her social work program. In search of an avenue that would bring together those issues with professional training, she left social work and enrolled in the pastoral counseling program at Loyola College in Maryland, where she has completed one year of a three-year master's degree. She is considering eventually working at a hospice or in private practice. Schechter may be part of a trend pointing to pastoral counseling as an increasingly appealing option for committed Jews seeking a field that provides professional advice and support grounded in religious tradition. Until fairly recently, pastoral counseling has not been an option for most Jews because "the Jewish community accepted a medical model" based on psychotherapeutic treatments of emotional disorders, according to David Olin, rabbi of Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, Ill., and a certified pastoral counselor. But that is changing. "As Jews become more focused on spirituality, they may be seeking out [pastoral counseling] more and more. I see a growing openness to being both religious and spiritual," Olin said. "Jewish pastoral counseling is in its infancy," concurred Betsy Stone, adjunct instructor of pastoral care and counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling in New York City. "But it's growing [in popularity] for the same reason that spiritual direction is growing. In human history, religion waxes and wanes in importance. We're at a time in this country where religion is very important." 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.