Spiritual Triage: Jewish Chaplaincy in the 21st Century


Reading the Jewish press, you cannot fail to notice the exceptionally busy role of University Chaplains. Undeniably, they do a good job in reaching out to, and sometimes bringing into the fold, Jewish students as they venture into their new lives, away from home.

But somehow it is likely that the students who do become engaged are already affiliated in one form or another, leaving behind a hidden cohort of students who do not, or will not, engage nor would they want to share their concerns and issues with a religious person, or one perceived as representing any single form of denominational Judaism.

And more importantly chaplaincy has not had any impact on those young people choosing apprenticeships, or entering the world of work, or even in the Jewish faith school from which many may have emanated.

We need a new model.

A model that is based more on developing and enhancing spiritual triage, enabling young people to share issues and concerns before they become problems. But with someone who is not directly accountable to the organisation from where the young person is engaged, yet still being mindful of the need to ‘disclose’ should there be issues that cross the boundaries of the law or safeguarding.

University Jewish Chaplaincy‘s mission states that it ‘works with Jewish students and universities across the country to enhance the Jewish student experience and safeguard Jewish university life. Our Chaplains and Chaplaincy couples are there for all Jewish students to provide a warm, non-judgmental, vibrant, inclusive and inspiring Jewish environment’.

And indeed, so it may, but it is locked into a denominationally Orthodox stance since it is a United Synagogue initiative, although it has its own management structure. And in the progressive community “Jeneration” and the other progressive movements alongside the Union of Jewish Stjudents (UJS) have agreed a network of chaplaincy contacts for non-orthodox students. But both of these initiatives mean that students must declare their religious affiliation prior to engaging with a chaplain. And of course, there is Chabad Lubavitch.

The community needs another model, one that is predicated on need as opposed to denomination, where chaplaincy is pluralist and unbounded by the strictures of the sector of the community in which they are based, and with a far wider remit than that which is promoted today.

However, many of our young millennials will not simply leave school and go to university. Some will become NEETS (not in employment, education, or training) – these are the lost souls of the community, whilst others join modern apprenticeships or enter the world of work. In doing so these young people do not become members of the UJS, and furthermore they may not have had a ‘gap year’ and thus be a member of one of the movements, and if they are not active in their Shul or community they will simply fall off the radar.

According to the JPR and Board of Deputies November 2016 report, over 30,000 Jewish children are educated in the Jewish school system, yet there are no Jewish schools with a ‘chaplain’, although some schools will have a ‘principal’ or rabbi associated with the school. These roles tend to be inward looking, and concerned with halachic details and overseeing the curriculum, as opposed to being a form of ‘spiritual triage’, providing a much-needed liaison between the school, the community, families, and organisations that are poised to help. The school chaplain can also liaise with the academic and pastoral systems of the school and, as they are not accountable to them, parents and young people can feel secure in talking through their issues, especially at key moments such as the time leading up to bar and bat mitzvah, examinations and on leaving or transferring school.

The community needs a strategy to enable University Jewish Chaplaincy and Jeneration to work more closely together, and in addition stimulate the potential of school based chaplaincy, and more importantly train and engage Community Liaison workers, who are not tied denominationally and work regionally and across boundaries.

The NHS depends on a system of triage to ensure that specialists quickly and efficiently manage patients best able to solve a situation. If such a system of spiritual triage were initiated in the community then it is much more likely that fewer of our young people will simply disappear. More important is that the leadership of the community ends its propensity to view young people through a lens that is academically elitist, denominationally skewed and Londoncentric.

I believe that with this new model it is much more likely that more young people will maintain their links with the community, and not feel marginalised by being outside the mainstream and at the same time uphold the aphorism in Pirkei Avot, ‘Aseh lecha rav, u’kneh lecha chaser’ – find yourself a mentor and acquire for yourself a friend.


Laurie is a Jewish Educator and teacher with a wide and varied professional background both within and beyond the Jewish community in the UK and internationally.
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