Rabbi Julie Schwartz Continues Chaplaincy Work With New Teaching Program At Jewish Hospital

In spring 2022, when the board of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion voted to shut down its rabbinical school in Cincinnati, Rabbi Julie Schwartz saw the writing on the wall.

With no rabbinical students after 2026, there would likely be no need for the clinical pastoral education (CPE) program Schwartz had founded at HUC-JIR in the early 1990s, and no home for her on the campus as either faculty or an administrator.

She was right – the CPE program was shut down and she retired from HUC-JIR on Aug. 30.

But Schwartz isn’t done with training the next generation of chaplains and clergy. On Oct. 9, the CPE program went live again, this time under the auspices of the Jewish Hospital (part of Mercy, a Catholic hospital system).

“I am really happy here in ways that I didn’t realize I was not happy at HUC,” Schwartz said. “To come to a place that says, ‘What you’re doing is important, and we want to help you’ — that’s life giving, that makes everything easier.”

Clinical pastoral education programs help teach clergy and spiritual care providers how to support people in a medical setting, be it dealing with emergencies, chronic diseases, or helping those in hospice.

Even if someone doesn’t become a chaplain, Schwartz sees CPE as an invaluable learning experience.

“It enhances all of someone’s skills,” she said. “I often tell students: You don’t take CPE to become a chaplain, [you do it] to become a better member of the clergy and human race.”

The Jewish Hospital program now has provisional accreditation (working towards full accreditation) and six students, though there’s still much to work out. The program launched after just a year of planning, so Schwartz likened running it to building a plane while flying at the same time.

“We are right where I would like us to be, but it happened so quickly,” she said. “The hospital has been very welcoming…they get more than 40 hours a week of student pastoral care hours, which is a great deal. And it’s a teaching hospital, so it’s another way they’re teaching.”

For Schwartz, the Jewish Hospital program is a continuation of her life’s work. She was the first woman rabbi to be a chaplain in the U.S. military, serving in the Navy Chaplain Corps, and created the first CPE program affiliated with a rabbinical school at HUC-JIR.

But that’s not a path she expected to take when graduating from the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR in 1986. Being a military chaplain was a short-term choice inspired by Schwartz’s time in Israel – the rest of her career was supposed to be in congregational life.

“In Israel, one of the things that was very powerful to me was seeing how everybody walked around in uniform or carrying a rifle,” Schwartz said. “What I took from that was the relationship that they had with their country: that it was real, that it wasn’t about saying the Pledge of Allegiance once in a while. So I wanted…to connect to being an American citizen differently.”

Though she asked to be assigned anywhere but a hospital (she was worried about that notorious hospital smell), the Navy Chaplain Corps placed Schwartz at a hospital in Oakland, California.

“I went into the hospital the first day to check in and I really was like, drooping internally,” Schwartz recalled. “This is not the great start to my rabbinate that I had imagined. [Then] I took a breath in and it didn’t smell bad. And I thought, ‘this might be good.’”

Hospital chaplaincy was an eye-opening experience. Schwartz felt more of a connection to the people she was serving than she did in a synagogue environment. The more she did it, the more she fell in love with the work.

“Maybe we’re all just adrenaline junkies, but you have to get fed by it and you have to love it,” Schwartz said. “Something different happens in the hospital chaplaincy because you’re with people usually at critical junctures of their life.”

Even today, when people tell her the work must be hard, Schwartz disagrees.

“There are days that are long, but it’s never felt hard,” she said. “It’s felt painful at times, you walk in [and are part of] very sad moments.”

After three years in Oakland, Schwartz returned to HUC-JIR in Cincinnati to work while getting more chaplaincy training. After getting certified as a CPE supervisor (one of the first rabbis in the country to do so), she approached the HUC-JIR dean about creating a CPE program in Cincinnati.

“He right away said, ‘Let’s do it’ – and that’s how hard it was to start,” Schwartz said.

The program started in the early 1990s with just four students placed at the old Jewish Hospital building. Eventually, it would grow and become mandatory for all HUC-JIR rabbinical students in Cincinnati, filling a hole that Schwartz felt in her rabbinic education.

Chaplaincy is “a way of looking at, who am I when I’m working with people? What is it about me that makes people turn off? How do I mess things up interpersonally?” Schwartz said. “No one was working on that with us [in the 1980s]. It’s not easy to work on that with people, you have to have a different kind of contract with them.”

After taking a decade in Atlanta to work as a congregational rabbi, Schwartz came back to Cincinnati in 2011 to help teach CPE as faculty and manage the campus as associate dean.

Leaving HUC-JIR, and continuing that legacy of rabbinic CPE training elsewhere, is bittersweet.

“I think my really deep grief is over” about the changes at the Cincinnati campus, Schwartz said. “But I’m going to be grieving for a while yet – I mean, I teach about grief and mourning, and I know that it’s a process and I think I’ve got more time to put into it.”

Meanwhile, though the Jewish Hospital CPE program is no longer affiliated with a rabbinical school, Schwartz hopes to keep its Jewish identity going strong. Two of the six current students are Jewish (one ordained rabbi and one rabbinical student), and Schwartz is also connected with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York to hopefully bring more rabbinical students.

“And should there ever be a new seminary for rabbis in [Cincinnati], we would be very delighted to have them, too,” Schwartz said. “There’s no end of ways to ensure that this maintains a Jewish presence.”