TORONTO — Rabbi Geoffrey Haber, Baycrest’s new director of spiritual care, has been moving toward this position throughout his career.
A native of Montreal, Rabbi Haber, 53, a pulpit rabbi for 23 years in various U.S. and Canadian congregations, says that he has watched families grow and develop.
“I was there for every step of their lives, and for significant life events. Along the way, I grew increasingly interested in geriatric care. This is a significant portion of people’s lives, and the ability to find success in later years [lies] in finding continuing purpose,” said Rabbi Haber, who has a wife and three adult children.
He succeeds Rabbi Nachum Berlat, who was director of spiritual care at Baycrest for 25 years. Rabbi Berlat is now senior chaplain emeritus and scholar-in-residence.
“[Rabbi Berlat] was a pioneer in spiritual care. Before he started at Baycrest, [this position] was not on the radar of the Jewish community,” Rabbi Haber. “He laid the foundation, and I have come to succeed him and build on that foundation.”
Rabbi Haber, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, said that every geriatric stage has its own challenges, “and I really witnessed it as I watched my [own] parents age. There is a wisdom born of life’s experiences, and Judaism recognizes the value of that.
“Seniors have so much to give, and I want to learn at their feet, and help transmit that wisdom.”
As one of the only full-time hospital chaplains in Canada, Rabbi Haber is responsible for the entire Baycrest community, including assisted living, palliative care, the hospital and day programs.
He said he sees four aspects to his role.
“I provide religious and spiritual services to patients family and staff. I am responsible for Baycrest’s kashrut. I oversee Shabbat and holiday observances, and I am there for life-cycle events pertaining to families.”
Baycrest is an ecumenical institution, he said, and he facilitates the religious and spiritual needs of everyone by reaching out to clergy of other faiths to help provide services to people who require them. “There is a multi-faith chapel, and I make sure everyone has what they need.”
A pastoral presence is important in a geriatric facility, he said. “We deal with people in their waning years. Some are facing mortality, which [often] raises deep spiritual questions. People go to their graves either tormented or at peace, based on how they face their life experiences. I help people make that journey.
“Spiritual care is more than ritual observance. It includes a response to life’s questions. People’s wellness is dependent on wholeness – it is not only physical or mental. People who feel they have a purpose heal better and faster, and medical science is starting to recognize this. A chaplain can contribute to this.”
Having extended family in Toronto adds to Rabbi Haber’s excitement about coming to Baycrest, “a premiere facility in North America. My hope is to develop a professional staff, so there is more than just one chaplain. In keeping with Baycrest’s role as a teaching hospital, I would like it to serve as a site for clinical and pastoral education.
“I would like to [host] intern chaplains who want to know about the geriatric Jewish community, as well as volunteer lay chaplains who could be the eyes and ears of people’s spiritual needs. Baycrest is a jewel in the crown of Jewish life, and I would like [as many people as possible] to help out.”