By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – After 30 years as chaplain of Hebrew Health Care in West Hartford, Rabbi Gary Lavit celebrated his retirement in May – but not the end of his professional life.
The Bloomfield resident plans to make aliyah in the fall, to engage both in yeshiva study and in the nascent spiritual care movement of chaplains.
Now 69, Lavit earned a BA from Yeshiva University, where he was also ordained and received a Master’s degree in Jewish philosophy, in 1977. During rabbinical school, Lavit pursued his love of flying, working as a flight instructor in White Plains, N.Y., having earned a commercial pilot certificate and certified flight instructor rating. He received a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011.
After ordination, he served as rabbinic administrator at Congregation Kehilat Jeshurun in Manhattan. He was Jewish campus chaplain at University of Bridgeport, then led congregations in Hampton, Vir. and Reading, Penn., before earning a Sacred Theology Master’s degree in hospital ministry from Yale University Divinity School, while completing a full-time clinical chaplaincy residency at the Hospital of Saint Raphael in New Haven. He arrived at the Hebrew Home and Hospital (now Hebrew Health Care) in West Hartford in 1984. There, he initiated both an ethics committee and a pastoral care program, teaching staff how to use their personal spirituality when interacting with those in their care – people of all religions as well as the areligious – and with one another.
A board-certified chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains and the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, Lavit is a longtime member of the Ethics Committee of Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center in Hartford, where he served as director of pastoral care and rabbinic consultant to the hospice program. Lavit is also a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, which presented him with the Healthcare Chaplain of the Year Award last month at its annual convention.
“Spiritual care, as practiced by the clinically-trained chaplain, is person-focused rather than text-focused,” he explains. “The teachings of religious texts serve as background knowledge, combined with an understanding of human social and psychological development, to be drawn upon selectively, at the right moment to meet the needs of the person or family at hand. There are no preachments and no pre-fabricated answers. Each person served needs to be understood as a unique imago dei [image of God]. The role of the chaplain is to accompany persons through challenging life situations, and to give the spiritual support that enables them to maintain their personal integrity – and even to find meaning – even in suffering and loss.”
Lavit has been involved professionally in Israel for nearly a decade. In 2005, he helped organize and present the first Conference on Spiritual Care, a collaboration with fellow board-certified chaplains of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains. He has actively participated in home-hospice visits in the Galil (the North of Israel) during subsequent visits to Israel.
While the chaplaincy or spiritual-care profession exists in Israel, Lavit describes the field as a splintered network of people and organizations seeking common professional standards. The first group of Israeli chaplains was certified last November at the 10th annual Conference on Spiritual Care by the “Reshet,” the Israel Jewish Spiritual Care Network, a loose coalition of organizations overseen and funded by UJA-Federation of New York.
Lavit attended the conference and explored the country to find a new home community, seeking compatible chavrusas, or study partners, as well as a place where he can work and mentor in chaplaincy. After traveling north, he eventually settled on the Moshava Germanit (German Colony) in Jerusalem. For several years, Lavit has been a dues-paying member at Shira Hadasha, an Orthodox, feminist congregation in the neighborhood.
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