Answering the Call

Posted on May 28, 2020

JTS students like those who graduated last week are trained to be leaders. Broad and deep grounding in Jewish history and texts familiarizes them with many ways in which Jewish tradition has been adapted over the centuries to changing needs and circumstances. Classwork, field experience, and mentorship prepare them to find the precious balance between continuity and change in the institutions and communities they will serve. This spring, alumni from all of JTS’s schools, like countless other professional and lay leaders in America and elsewhere, are being tested as never before. I want to share the stories of four alumni whose innovative work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has especially inspired me.


RABBI JASON KIRSCHNER (RS ’17) is a staff chaplain at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. Kirschner, who as part of his rabbinic education did specialized training at JTS’s Center for Pastoral Education, confesses that “I have been a practicing chaplain, either as a student or professional, for seven years, and none of the tremendous pain I witnessed during those years could have prepared me for the sights and sounds of COVID-19.” Kirschner now spends three days a week at the hospital, offering hope, prayer, and support to patients whose rooms he cannot enter if they are afflicted with COVID-19. He also ministers to hospital staff, exhausted and sometimes traumatized from caring for those patients. The other two days a week he works from home, using the rapidly developing techniques of “telechaplaincy.” Families of COVID-19 patients are not only worried sick about loved ones, he reports, but may in addition feel frustration, anger, or guilt about not being able to sit by the patient’s bedside. They are grateful for firsthand reports from the chaplain who has visited and seen their loved one up close, even if only from a hallway, through a door.    

The limitations to this form of service are real, Kirschner explains. “How do you prepare to be strong for others, to provide a ‘ministry of presence,’ when you can’t be present in a room with the dying?” Conversations are stunted. Physical touch is impossible. Even smiles are blocked by the face mask. It’s harder to pick up and follow the lead of patients who wish to talk about God (as Kirschner sensitively does with me). “I have found that the only way for me to be a chaplain during this immense hour of need has been through emunah and action. Emunah, faith, in the promise that my work is holy and needed, and that God will hear my prayers and act on them as God sees fit. With action in the direct application of the Jewish faith on behalf of all patients when they and their families need it most.” 

Kirschner credits conversation with peers with enabling him to do his work well—that and reminders from his wife and daughter about “why I go into the hospital to help others.” He seems to me to radiate a quiet confidence. “While I know that we have not seen the end of this crisis, I know that, with God’s help, together we will overcome it.”                          


CANTOR JEN COHEN of Temple Beth Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey (CS ’09), took an elective unit in clinical pastoral education while a student at JTS. She credits that training with “helping me all the time” to be a better listener—a skill she has deployed to great effect during the pandemic in a personal project of making visits to the lawns and sidewalks of her congregants. It started one day when Cohen texted a neighbor whom she knew was at home with a baby and a three-year-old, as she and her dog walked by her house. “All of us got so much out of those 10 minutes of human contact, I thought Biscuit and I would walk around the rest of my condo community and pay some visits.” Congregants from other neighborhoods soon reached out after selfies of the visits appeared on Facebook. Cohen has since checked in on over 300 households. A geographic spreadsheet helps her plan walks or drives to particular neighborhoods and townships. 

Cohen says the project has reminded her that there are some people whom Zoom cannot reach (because they do not have computers or are not comfortable using them) and some benefits that video calls cannot provide. Doorstep conversations are often brief: how people are coping; what’s happening with family near or far. Sometimes talk gets more serious, for instance with a person who has recently lost a spouse, or a young family that is struggling. People seem to be craving this individual contact, Cohen reflects. They are happy for the unexpected break in their day and the chance to talk for a change to someone not sheltering in place with them. Other TBS clergy and a team of volunteers have been reaching out to the entire synagogue’s membership by telephone since the pandemic began. Cohen hopes to visit all 800 member families over the coming weeks—unless we (happily) lose the assurance that everyone will be there when she rings the bell.

Watch this video highlighting JTS faculty, alumni, and students who have been featured in the media over the past few months.

 (LC ’01), like so many other JTS alums, has been working at home since the virus began: moving from office tasks to helping with his kids’ homework to household duties and back to his job as a technical program manager for Google. For twenty years or so, Kestin reports, he has been working professionally to solve technology problems; for the past two months, he has applied his skills to a new set of challenges: helping the school his children attend, Golda Och Academy in South Orange, NJ, make the rapid transition to remote learning and activities. All classes—including music lessons, science and art, and even PE—had to be moved online in short order. The same was true of “milestone” events such as Torah reading by the 5th graders and the 1st grade siddur ceremony. Teachers, students, and parents had not trained for this. “Suddenly we’re in a world where very young children—some of whom do not have their own email accounts or do not have their own devices—need to learn all of their subjects . . . entirely using technology.”

Kestin praises the alacrity with which teachers and administrators  “embraced this new world with love and enthusiasm and a determination to figure this out and get it right.” But there were things that he, as a parent of 2nd and 3rd graders, knew could be done more efficiently. “It’s taken some trial and error to find the right new procedures—for everything from letting the kids know where a class will take place to posting homework assignments to collecting, grading, and providing feedback on work.” Kestin suggested ways to manage email coming to and from the school and its teachers; organized shared Google Folders in which teachers could collect homework submissions from each student; set up a centralized online schedule for all grades with all the class times and online meeting details; and initiated chat rooms where students and parents can ask homework questions and get a quick response. 

School professionals deserve a lot of credit for creativity and responsiveness, Kestin says. He minimizes the importance of his own efforts—but the many hours he devoted to the school have by all accounts made a major difference. I am pleased to see one significant outcome, twenty years after the fact, at a moment when it greatly matters, of joining a Columbia major in Computer Science with a List College major in Modern Jewish Studies.


RACHEL WACHTEL (DS ’13) switched the congregational school she directs in Seattle to remote learning before educators and government officials in the rest of the country realized that they would soon have to follow suit. The coronavirus struck early in the Seattle area, and Congregation Beth Shalom adapted at once. “It’s very fortunate that most of the teachers are college students, so they were not afraid of the technology,” Wachtel reports. “I brought our staff together for a morning of social distanced training about teaching on Zoom, changed our schedule, got links out to families, and more in a very short time span.” What began as a short, experimental hiatus from in-person learning ended up lasting through the entire semester, which has just concluded.

Wachtel understood that the change to remote learning meant more than the method of delivering learning would change. Educational goals had to shift as well. “Completing all the units in the curriculum” took second place to continued connection with peers and teacher, keeping up Hebrew skills, and continuing some pieces of their previous curriculum while adding others better suited to Zoom instruction. Wachtel’s team quickly “built an online program based on these three key elements.” She singles out the devotion of the Israeli shinshinim, teachers who had to rush home without a chance to say goodbye to their students but have kept in touch remotely and will continue to offer programming throughout the summer. Wachtel is currently working on plans to “engage our community and keep everyone connected”; in the absence of Jewish summer camps, she will “do what I can to bring Jewish summer camps into the homes of each of our families and to show our families that I miss them and care about them.”

When Wachtel tells me that “what [teachers] have done is nothing short of heroic,” wishing—as did all the alumni with whom I spoke this week—to share the credit with others, I reflect that we are fortunate to have leaders in our community who elicit effort and share credit in this way: two essential elements of the sort of leadership that JTS works hard to inculcate.