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A Healing Journey: First For Me, Now For Others

A Healing Journey: First For Me, Now For Others

Sunlight shining upon a footbridge in a forest

I first found my voice at a dying woman’s bedside during a unit of clinical pastoral education. I had been paged to the neurology ICU for a family struggling to say goodbye to their mother, who was in the final stages of brain cancer. When I asked her daughter to tell me about her mother, I learned that she loved music and had been the choir director and organist in their church for many years.

Instinctively, I asked if I might sing something to help soothe her mother’s spirit in this time of need. The first song that came to mind was “Balm in Gilead,” a gospel hymn I remembered singing in my high school choir. I spent the next two hours singing and praying with her family, using Jewish and other faiths’ musical traditions to help them let go and transition their mother’s spirit through a window of love and memory.

Two years earlier, I’d sat with my own mother as she lay dying in a similar hospital ICU…and had found myself absolutely mute. There was no chaplain to soothe me or my ima (Hebrew for mother), and even though I’d been a congregational cantor for 20 years, I didn’t know much about using music or other end-of-life rituals to ease the way for patients or their families. 

My older brother Danny had died suddenly just 10 months earlier from complications from Hepatitis C and when my sister Sharon died suddenly six months after my mom, my life was irrevocably changed. Those events set me on a path that led me to find my voice – and use it – for healing, bringing solace and meaning to others at the most needed times.

I came to understand that what I had missed in my performance-oriented vocation was the deep, relational connection that comes from being the chaplain who is called to hear stories and hold space for others. I’ve since practiced doing that through more than 1,600 hours of clinical pastoral education and hundreds of hours of classroom study. 

I’ve written and composed, compiled, learned, and recited hundreds of songs, psalms, and extemporaneous prayers for individuals and families struggling with life- changing illness, trauma, and transition. In doing so, I’ve processed my own healing, eased my suffering, and strengthened my resilience and sense of hope. I’ve also composed “Bridge to Peace,” a collection of songs inspired by my chaplaincy work. They will be accompanied by a book of poems, stories, songs, and prayers for practical use by anyone on a grief or healing journey. 

None of this would have happened had I not, in the midst of my own grief journey, connected with the Jewish renewal community. (Jewish renewal is a trans-denominational approach to revitalizing Judaism. It combines the socially progressive values of egalitarianism, the joy of Hasidism, the inclusion of deep ecumenism, the informed do-it-yourself spirit of the chavurah movement, and the accumulated wisdom of centuries of tradition.)

At a renewal kallah (retreat) in 2011, I participated in extraordinary workshops led by visionary teachers and was invited to share Yoga Shalom, my prayer embodiment practice, which was received enthusiastically. I was drawn in by the mentorship of remarkable teachers and friends who took me under their wings and shepherded me into their world.

The next year, I enrolled in the rabbinic chaplaincy ordination program, a path to rabbinic ordination envisioned by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, and modeled on the work of the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), a rabbi, healer, and founder of Hassidic Judaism. As part of my education, I studied the art of public ritual and prayer, which opened my heart to inspirational chant, as well as traditional and creative communal styles of prayer.

Having now completed five years of intensive study, I will soon be ordained as a rabbinic pastor. When I reflect on this journey, I feel incredibly blessed and enriched by all I have learned. Yet I know that my learning has just begun.

Discovering the deep pool of sacred tradition, which has kept our people vibrant and enriched us for thousands of years, has reignited my own sense hope. It also has led me to my life’s work: joining hearts as a bridge to peace and connecting with those in need – one song, one person, one story, one sacred moment at a time.

Bridge to Peace
I am a bridge to peace
I close my eyes and breathe
I’m ready to receive
Your healing love
My heart is open wide
To truths I cannot hide
Keeping hope alive
Creating peace.
Bridge to peace.
We hold this sacred space
Nurtured by love and grace
Feeling the warm embrace of Holy Song
Together we become gesher l’shalom
A healing bridge that joins
Our hearts as one.

Cantor Lisa Levine serves Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD.

Cantor Lisa Levine
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