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Chaplains Tap Hospital Experience to Guide Faith Communities Through Pandemic

Cedars-Sinai Chaplains Help Their Religious Groups Cope With Impacts of COVID-19

How does a religious congregation, which by definition brings groups of people close together in prayer and communion, navigate this tricky pandemic?

Cedars-Sinai chaplains have some of the answers. With expertise as healthcare insiders, they have used their knowledge and experience from their hospital roles to help guide faith communities during this uncharted and unpredictable time.

"At the very beginning of the pandemic, I received calls from rabbis in the community, saying, 'We need someone to step up and be a leader and help us figure this out,'" said Rabbi Jason Weiner, PhD, senior rabbi and director of Spiritual Care at Cedars-Sinai.

As early as March, Weiner began connecting these rabbis and other leaders in the Los Angeles Jewish community with Cedars-Sinai experts for a medical perspective on the evolving pandemic. The experts explained how the virus is spread and ticked off best practices that have become all-too-familiar — physical distancing, masking for all and frequent hand washing.

With guidance from Weiner and other Jewish community leaders, some congregations began closing their doors even before being ordered to do so by Gov. Gavin Newsom and local governments. And then, even after getting the green light to reopen, some synagogues kept their doors closed for two additional weeks to further decrease the potential of COVID-19 transmission.

"Most of the congregations in the area ended up taking an extremely cautious approach," Weiner said.

That cautious approach has meant pivoting when possible from in-person worshipping to online video gatherings to connect congregants, whether for regular prayer services, study groups, personal counseling or just regular check-ins.

Missing traditional holiday get-togethers and other group activities hasn't been easy for many congregants, but Weiner said it is worth it.

"It has been difficult, but the value of saving life comes before everything," Weiner said.

Christian Chaplain Carrie Kohler, MPhil, BCC, also used connections within her faith community to help others. For Kohler, that community includes her immediate family. Her father, sister and brother-in-law are all clergy members in their respective congregations, and her sister runs a nonprofit that provides guidance to community and spiritual leaders on how to lead their communities through collective trauma.

Kohler said that conversations with her family, particularly her sister, on the topic of COVID-19 have helped them make a positive difference in their communities.  

"We are very close as sisters, but also in our work capacity, we tend to be very supportive of each other with the work that we're doing, because it overlaps in so many ways," Kohler said. "She and I have had many conversations over the past three to four months about what it looks like to take care of people, communities and congregations."

Kohler connected her sister and other family members with guidance and resources, including research that has become available along the way, which ultimately helped them make decisions to postpone memorial services, gatherings and worship services.

While the recent reopening of places of worship offers a much-needed return to normalcy and a revival of community connections, they may also be a source of serious concern for many. Both Kohler and Weiner have assisted their communities in addressing these concerns and developing reopening plans.

"We're encouraging people to find strategies," Weiner said. "In my own congregation, we're meeting again, but only outdoors, with physical distancing and other measures in place to keep people safe."

With Weiner's guidance, those synagogues that have reopened have instituted strict limits on the numbers of congregants who can gather, along with temperature checks and required masking.

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai blog: Healthcare Heroes: Spiritual Care