When Rabbi Sara Berman was a child, she would go to the hospital with her father, who worked as an oncologist.
“I’d say hi to his patients and try to comfort them,” she said.
Berman, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, enjoyed being in the hospital and seeing what her father did all day long. Her father thought that she was going to follow in his footsteps.
“I was supposed to be a doctor,” she said. “I was very comfortable in hospitals.”
However, Berman wasn’t interested in studying medicine. Instead, she wanted to become a rabbi.
“I went on a teen trip to Israel, and the leader was about to study in rabbinical school,” she said. “I realized I had the same goals, to be a cross between a teacher and a social worker and be connected to my Jewish identity.”
Berman got her undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies and enrolled in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University. She wasn’t sure where she’d want to work once she graduated, but the answer quickly came to her. When an acquaintance was diagnosed with cancer, she visited her in the hospital.
“I realized there was a special role that a chaplain could play, and no one else could fill that role,” Berman said. “She didn’t know me very well, but she felt like she could open up to me.”
The rabbi trained as a chaplain in both Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and currently works at Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills Medical Center. There, she visits with patients, families and staff and supports them when they need her the most.
“I make sure their spiritual needs are met, whether they want kosher food or to pray in their room, or they need emotional support and comfort,” she said. “I’m there during end-of-life discussions with their doctors and make sure they understand everything that’s going on.”
In her work, Berman talks about going from sorrow to strength, which she learned from the story of the matriarch Rachel’s death and Benyamin’s birth. Rachel dies during childbirth, and Ben’oni becomes Benyamin.
“When I was pregnant with my second child, I was on call when a woman died during childbirth,” she said. “I tried to help her husband, but there is no way to comfort someone at that time. I was a presence for them, and I helped to comfort the staff later on.”
While the story of Ben’oni becoming Benyamin is not without heartbreak, it also inspires Berman.“A lot of what we go through helps to make us stronger,” she said. “It’s not always immediate, but it does transform us into who we are.”
Along with being a chaplain, Berman, who has struggled with clinical depression her entire life, is a mental health advocate. She wrote a book titled, “Ben’oni L’Benyamin: From Sorrow to Strength: My Journey With Depression” and did a TEDx Talk on the same topic, calling it “Monster Slayers: Overcoming Stigma.”
“I tell people I suffer from depression and make it OK to talk about it,” she said. “If there is a stigma around it, people won’t get the help they need. It’s something that is treatable, but you have to ask for help. People shouldn’t be ashamed.”
When working with patients, Berman hopes she can help them with any mental, emotional and, of course, spiritual issues they are contending with during their time there.
“When you’re in the hospital, it’s not just about your body being sick, but also about your mind and spirit being sick. If that’s forgotten, you won’t heal as well.”
“When you’re in the hospital, it’s not just about your body being sick, but also about your mind and spirit being sick,” she said. “If that’s forgotten, you won’t heal as well.”
She continued, “I focus on comforting those in need. Sometimes all people need is someone to listen to them and be there for them.”
Fast Takes with Sara Berman
Jewish Journal: What’s your favorite Jewish food?
Sara Berman: Matzah ball soup.
JJ: How about your favorite spot in Los Angeles?
SB: Huntington Gardens. You can get away from all the chaos of this city but you don’t really have to drive that far.
JJ: What Torah figure do you like the most?
SB: Chana. She challenged God in a gentle way. She was educated enough to have an appropriate way to challenge God.
JJ: What superpower would you want to have?
SB: Invisibility. I’d be able to see behind the scenes and better understand how to help people.