A Day in the Life of a Jewish Chaplain
Rabbi Rick Brody was in the middle of making pancakes for Sunday breakfast when his emergency phone line rang. On the other end was a staff chaplain at a local hospital trauma center, letting him know that they had admitted a young man who had been in an accident. He was being kept alive on life support while the hospital waited for his mother to arrive.
The young man’s mother had requested a rabbi, and the hospital knew where to call. Rabbi Brody—known familiarly as Rabbi Rick—is the Baskin Jewish Community Chaplain at Jewish Family Service (JFS), leading a program that is funded in partnership with JEWISHcolorado.
Rabbi Brody arrived at the hospital and began the end-of-life ritual.
“Even on life support, this young man was slipping,” Rabbi Brody says. “Just as I got to the end of the ritual, chanting the word “Shalom” over and over, he died.”
Ten days later, Rabbi Brody got a call from the young man’s father. His plane from the East Coast had touched down at Denver International at almost the exact time his son had died. He was calling to thank Rabbi Brody for being there for his son when he could not.
For this family—unaffiliated with a synagogue in Denver—Rabbi Brody was a lifeline in their time of tragedy, offering spiritual care and comfort. For Rabbi Brody, this career path affords him an opportunity to perform the deeply significant mitzvah of caring for others and manifesting divine love and compassion in the world.
“Each of us is a vessel for G-d’s presence when we engage authentically with those in need,” Rabbi Brody says. “This is the essence of what I do, caring for all members of our Jewish community and honoring the value of all people.”
For more than four years, Rabbi Brody has been quietly working to care for those in need, a vocation that first took root in a young Long Island teenager who wanted to be a rabbi—and an actor.
“It gives me great joy to step into that role for people and provide the care they are yearning for.”
‘I am present for people no matter their needs’
Rabbi Brody was in ninth grade when the thought struck him: Being a rabbi would be exciting.
“I had conversations with older students who wanted to be rabbis and with rabbis themselves and saw how this career could address so many different passions and interests,” he says. “There was the opportunity to lead ritual and a community, to emphasize study and teaching, to work with people across the age spectrum, to be a voice for social justice, to offer pastoral care. All of that appealed to me.”
At the same time, Rabbi Brody’s parents were taking their young son on regular trips into Manhattan to see Broadway shows, where he discovered another passion—acting. As an undergraduate at Yale, he could pursue his passion for acting with many undergraduate productions. Straight out of college, he tried street and regional theater.
“I knew I wanted to be a rabbi,” he says. “But I didn’t want to let go of my love for acting.”
Then, the reality of regular paychecks, health insurance, and adult life set in, and he went back to school, at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. By the time he arrived in Denver in August 2018, after working around the country for 16 years in congregations, the community, Day Schools, adult education, and on a college campus, he was ready for a new rabbinical challenge as a chaplain.
“I had identified where I thrived,” he says “As a chaplain, I am present for people no matter their needs, supporting them through difficult moments.
It gives me great joy to step into that role for people and provide the care they are yearning for.”
As a newcomer to Denver, he came to a meeting at JEWISHcolorado hoping to get more involved in the community. He introduced himself as a rabbi who was interested in being a chaplain. At the same meeting, representatives of Jewish Family Service saw the possibility of filling an open position—that of a roving chaplain serving unaffiliated Jews in Colorado. And thus, a match was made.
A day in the life of the Chaplain
“Each day, I don’t know where I will be and who will need me,” Rabbi Brody says. “It makes each day interesting.”
Ask Rabbi Brody about a typical day, and he looks back to the previous 24 hours.
His day started at the monthly staff meeting at JFS where he functions as an in-house rabbi, offering guidance and education to the JFS community about Jewish life and holidays.
“The staff there know I am available as someone to talk with,” he says. “They also might identify a client who would benefit from a chance to focus on the spiritual aspect of their struggle, and they then can make an in-house referral.”
He launched the JFS meeting with a teaching, d’var torah, as a way to offer inspiration to staffers in their daily work.
No sooner had the meeting ended than his phone rang with a call from a local hospital chaplain. A patient had transitioned to hospice the day before, and the family was requesting a visit from a rabbi.
Multiple times a week, Rabbi Brody visits one or more of around 10 different metro area hospitals, seeing Jewish patients who are not members of congregations. At six of those hospitals, he regularly makes rounds to visit any Jewish patient currently in the hospital, even if they didn’t request him. Pastoral care in hospitals fills more than 30 percent of his time.
In this case, the patient in hospice was also positive for COVID. With a full year’s experience of doing visits remotely during the height of the pandemic, Rabbi Brody is always prepared to use technology when there is no other option. He arrived at the ICU and talked with the family outside the patient’s room. The family donned protective gear and went into the room. Rabbi Brody called the patient’s wife on her phone, and she put the phone on speaker so everyone could hear. On the other side of the glass, but as close as he could be to inside the room, Rabbi Brody chanted the end-of-life prayers and songs.
“When I was finished, I waved to them,” he recalls. “The wife nodded and put her hand over her heart, and I did the same.”
Even then, Rabbi Brody’s day was not over. He returned home and called a woman for whom he had been providing spiritual care after her sister died recently. He wanted to discuss remarks he would deliver at the funeral. If he connects with a person who is at the end of life or the family of that person, he will often officiate at the funeral, offering the family what he calls “continuity.”
“I view a funeral as an opportunity to be a storyteller, and sometimes, the preparation for the story is more important for the family members than the actual ritual,” he says. “We spend time talking about their loved one, and it’s an opportunity for them to start sharing memories and begin the journey of mourning and healing.
‘I am happy to listen’
If it is emotionally tiring to read about Rabbi Brody’s daily life, imagine living in his shoes. He uses various strategies to care for himself so he can care for others including prayer, exercise, spending time with his son, talking with friends, listening to music, and getting plenty of rest.
In the future, he would like to increase the numbers of visits he makes to older adult communities, nursing homes, and prisons, and he is always available for consultation with other chaplains and p
rofessionals at institutions that are serving Jewish clients or patients. He also oversees a team of volunteer para-chaplains who regularly visit many assisted living and nursing care facilities with a higher number of Jewish residents. His work is sustained by JEWISHcolorado through an annual Projects of Impact and Need (PIN) Grant to Jewish Family Service.
For rabbis who are affiliated with synagogues, Rabbi Brody
has a straightforward message:
“I’m here to help you stay focused on your congregants and keep your workload more manageable. When unaffiliated people contact you for spiritual care, you can refer them to me.”
The path of a chaplain is full of surprises, demanding a personality that can remain in the moment—much like an actor. For Rabbi Brody, it has been an opportunity to use his training in the theater as well as to practice Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, as he demonstrates compassion, care, and comfort across a spectrum of situations
And that is why Rabbi Brody responded, even at 9:30 p.m., when his emergency line rang several months ago. On that evening the call came from a tearful young woman in New York. She was in crisis, she had called a local synagogue, but she was not a member. So she had done a Google search and found Rabbi Rick across the country.
“I’m happy to listen,” he told her.