Livyat Chen: Introducing YCT’s Israel Center for Pastoral Counseling

March 12, 2024

Sharon found herself caught between a rock and a hard place when faced with a daunting treatment for her illness, one that all of her friends and family were strongly encouraging. Yet Sharon wasn’t ready.

Feeling like her independence had been stripped away by her illness, she confided in Rav Mike, expressing her desperation while craving some semblance of freedom. She felt like a prisoner, yearning for the autonomy to make her own decisions. The pressure, she admitted, was not helpful, and she was terrified. Mike listened attentively, offering understanding without judgment or pressure. Instead of insisting she undergo the treatment, he validated her feelings and empowered her to choose for herself.

With this newfound sense of agency, Sharon felt a weight lift off her shoulders. Six months later, having completed the treatment, Sharon reflected on the pivotal role R’ Mike played in her journey. In a heartfelt thank-you note, she credited him for guiding her through the darkest period of her life with his calm demeanor, patience, and unwavering support. She highlighted the importance of spiritual caregivers like R’ Mike, emphasizing the need for more compassionate listeners and supporters in the world.

YCT alumni are everywhere. From educators to military chaplains to pastors, all are changemakers in their fields. As we watch what is unfolding in Israel from afar, we also are able to witness the actions of YCT alumni on the ground in Israel, and there are many. This week, we want to acknowledge the efforts of R. Mike Schultz (’08) on his Livyat Chen program, located in the live setting of the Rambam Hospital in Haifa.

Livyat Chen is YCT’s Center for Pastoral Training in Israel. Its objective is to give participants not only “skills” necessary for pastoral duties, but like all YCT programs, intends to grow the student personally and professionally, shaping who they become as they learn more about what drives them to contribute to the betterment of the international Jewish community. Through Livyat Chen, our Israeli students become active listeners who are empowered to provide spiritual and emotional support to their constituents.

We had the opportunity to learn about R. Mike’s (YCT 2008) journey to rabbi and how Livyat Chen has evolved, and wanted to provide a window into the last few decades of his life.

MIKE’S STORY

R. Mike comes from an esteemed Jewish family that has always been involved. While he acknowledges that “I wouldn’t say I always wanted to be a rabbi … it’s not so surprising that I ended up going in this direction.” His zaide, based in Montreal, was a dayan and volunteer shul rabbi, his uncle an active rabbi who was regularly giving shiurim, and even his brother has taken the rabbinic path, becoming a special education rebbe.

But it wasn’t until he was a freshman at Harvard that this family legacy began to materialize. There, R. Mike played an active role in volunteerism, working at the student-run homeless shelter where he spent long hours into the night learning about the residents and guests of the shelter. This paved the way for him to attend rabbinical school, specifically to continue his work of integrating the Orthodox community into society at large.

Nonetheless, R. Mike was still unsure what path to take. With several options to choose from, he acknowledges that YCT became the better fit because of its “top-notch pastoral care training program,” which was founded and led by Dr. Michelle Friedman. Deeply inspired by Dr. Friedman, R. Mike committed himself to being the kind of rabbi who was able to support all in their time of need.

While there are many fields of choice for rabbis, it was unknown to R. Mike that there was an option of a “hospital chaplaincy,” which he learned about from others who had done a summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). The idea enthralled him, and he took to hospitals in Manhattan to follow that path. As a student at YCT, R. Mike was already simultaneously working in hospital chaplaincy at Beth Israel, and upon graduation, he went off to do a chaplain residency at New York Presbyterian.

Still, with a deep longing to make aliyah, R. Mike did not know how he would be able to marry the idea of having a hospital chaplaincy abroad. After all, R. Mike learned about the field in the US by chance; in Israel it was even smaller and younger, if it existed at all. “Baruch Hashem,” he says, “I had the great fortune of getting the support of the UJA/Federation to join the staff at the Rambam Health Care Campus in Israel.”

That was fifteen years ago. R. Mike continues to happily support patients, family members, and staff. Ten years ago, he began co-leading a training program akin to Clinical Pastoral Education—in Israel. Leading the charge, R. Mike managed the oncology chaplaincy staff and as of two years ago, he was promoted to take charge of the hospital-wide spiritual care service, with a staff of nine.

R’ Mike and oncology chaplain staff at Rambam Health Care Campus in Israel

Looking back at R. Mike’s career trajectory and his volunteer efforts, it is no surprise to learn that until the hospital chaplaincy efforts began to consume significant chunks of time, he also volunteer led a small shul in Karmiel.

Unlike in the United States, R. Mike acknowledges that community was lacking, as “professional spiritual care in Israel is not primarily the work of rabbis or imams,” causing him to seek out a rabbinic community and network in Israel known as Beit Hillel.

THE BIRTH OF LIVYAT CHEN

When Rikmah, YCT’s rabbinic and leadership training program for influential Israel-based rabbis and rabbaniyot, was created, with the help of Rav Ilay Ofran and Rav Mishael Zion (YCT’10), and later joined by Rabbanit Yafit Clymer, pastoral training was put at the forefront. Participants were given the opportunity to take part in an intensive chaplaincy at Rambam that was led by R’ Mike. Being able to meet people in crisis from all walks of life and to leverage that experience to apply it to their pastoral care work with the populations that they themselves serve became a powerful byproduct of the program’s participation.

The program was a tremendous success, with the group doing the chaplaincy intensive in the second year wanting to continue their powerful work. That said, something was missing: a peer group for these individuals to confidentially share their experiences and to receive support and shared wisdom. Consider the mental health profession: supervision is a fundamental part of that practice, yet the same does hold true for pastoral care. Given what these pastoral students are experiencing, however, this supervision became desperately needed. With past experience as a participant in process group that R’ Mike attended as a YCT student every week for four years, he knew the benefits of a facilitated peer supervisory group and went on to create one for the Israelis. This support group continues to be a means of comfort and guidance and continues to expand. In 2023, Rabbanit Rahel Wachtfogel joined the team, and together, they built a curriculum around a full year-long program. At the heart of these sessions is peer supervision, where one or two participants brings a current pastoral care situation to the larger group for discussion. In the same sessions, participants look at topics relating either to issues being faced by community members, such as feeling like a lost sense of belonging, dealing with disability, or tragedies within the community, or they evaluate challenges of rabbinic pastoral care identity, such as setting boundaries and not feeling like they’ve reached their full potential. Then, they reflect upon these struggles through personal writing, spiritual chevruta, creative artwork, and of course, the study of Torah.

Given the strong interest in R. Mike’s programs, YCT recognized the great need for more established pastoral training in Israel, and realized that it was high time to create Livyat Chen, a Center for Pastoral Training, under R. Mike’s leadership.

This year, Livyat Chen looks a little different as it continues to evolve. For the first time, they are offering a pastoral care training program in conjunction with a beit midrash training program at Ein Hanetziv’s new advanced halacha program, together with Maharat. This is a biweekly course that gives R’ Schultz the opportunity to draw upon his experience as a spiritual care educator and the modeling provided to him by Dr. Friedman. Currently in its pilot year, R. Mike says, “we’ll see what happens next.”

OCTOBER 7 AFTERMATH

Since October 7th, R’ Mike acknowledges that some things have changed and others remained the same. Early on, his services were requested by groups of rabbis of various denominations specifically to address pastoral care provision in times of crisis. R. Mike organized a group of volunteer rabbis to visit bereaved families within the first month, and the discussion, much like in any Jewish community at this time, is often war-related. Currently, one of the rabbanits is providing ongoing care to a parent of one of the hostages being held in Gaza.

With this comes the demands on the hospital chaplains who also need to provide more support for each other while ensuring there is an adequate focus on self-care. It is hard to truly be in the shoes of those dealing with physical and emotional struggles while also aiming to care for the people the chaplains support. However, “here, the whole country is in it, and we’re all grieving people close to us.” As a small country, everyone knows someone else impacted in some way by the war or in fighting in Gaza, and all continue to live and breathe the worries and fears of wartime.

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