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In Chicago and Boston, Jewish chaplains are on the COVID-19 surge front lines

As he walks the hallways of a large suburban Chicago hospital amidst an increasing number of COVID-19 patients, Rabbi Ariel Marinelli is scared.

“My wife and I are on the same page,” said the 37-year-old Orthodox rabbi. “She too gets nervous.”

It’s a familiar but dispiriting return to the pandemic front lines for Marinelli, the Jewish chaplain at the NorthShore University HealthSystem, as the pandemic surges in Chicago and across the country.

“It looks similar to what it was back then,” he said. “People are bracing themselves.”

This week, Chicago’s seven-day test positivity rate hit 16%, with one out of 18 Chicagoans diagnosed with COVID-19 in the prior week, according to Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The city has now imposed new restrictions on meetings and social events – as well as a stay at home advisory.

Four of the five hospitals in the NorthShore University HealthSystem – Evanston, Highland Park, Skokie, and Glenbrook in Glenview — report a total of 142 COVID-19 patients as of Nov. 17, 20 of whom were in the intensive care unit. During the first wave of COVID-19 patients in the spring, the number peaked at 180.

Rabbi Ariel Marinelli

Rabbi Ariel Marinelli

For Marinelli and other chaplains, it means back to a familiar, frightening routine. To protect against the virus, family members of COVID-19 patients are generally restricted from entering the hospital. He himself remains outside the rooms of COVID-19 patients.

Normally, when someone is sick in the hospital, a chaplain can stand by the patient’s bed and lead them in prayer. But now, Marinelli said he is “totally powerless not being able to be there and hold their hands.The patients are having a very hard time with it, as are their families.”

He said he regularly speaks with both patients and their families and that for family members he has become “the closest thing to human contact for them, and they express to me their feelings of loss.”

The rabbi speaks by phone with patients. He Zooms with their families.

“They might have trouble seeing your face and your expressions,” he said, “but with your words you are responding to what they are going through. I close my eyes during the call so the other senses are enhanced.”

The coronavirus is also spreading again in the Northeast, which was hard hit last spring. Rabbi Ben Lanckton, the Jewish chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said that in walking the hospital halls he has noticed a “slight uptick” in the number of COVID-19 patients. And he too said he is “dealing as much with patients as with their families.”

Rabbi Ben Lanckton

Rabbi Ben Lanckton

A Conservative rabbi who has been the hospital’s Jewish chaplain for 18 years, Lanckton, 52, said most rabbis are motivated to provide patients with spiritual care because they recognize that “people in general do not want to feel alone. And certainly at the end of their lives they do not want to die alone.”

But, he said, COVID-19 has changed all that.

“Due to the way the Covid epidemic has been managed – or I would say mismanaged – thousands of people in the world have had to die alone,” he said. “One of my fellow chaplains told me a patient wanted the chaplain to stand in the window of the doorway and wave to make sure she was not leaving the world totally alone.”

Lanckton said for two COVID-19 patients who were approaching end of life, he stood outside their door at the request of their families and recited the vidui, or end of life prayer, while “a nurse in the patients’ room held up a phone on Facetime so the families could see I was there doing the prayers. I have never felt more helpless nor more needed during those end-of-life visits.”

Although his practice is to stay out of COVID-19 patients’ rooms, Lanckton said he made an exception in the case of a patient who was about to die, and whose mother on Facetime wanted a rabbi to say a prayer for her son.

“There were machines beeping, but other than that there was just silence,” he said. “After reciting prayers I couldn’t say anything. But it highlighted that the most basic thing that spiritual care providers provide is our presence, even beyond words.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory Nov. 19 warning that traveling to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends “may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19” and that remaining at home “is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

Lanckton couldn’t agree more.

“I have a fear that people will want the emotional connection of being together on Thanksgiving and will mistakenly minimize the risk,” he said. “The risk is great.”

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