Rabbi Fredda Cohen always knew that chaplaincy was where she wanted to serve.
Since she graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2010, Cohen has done just that, in the relaunched position of Westchester chaplain under the auspices of the New York Board of Rabbis. Her congregation, as it were, comprises 21 nursing homes, assisted living residences, Alzheimer’s units and homes for people with mental illness in the county, from Yonkers and New Rochelle to Mohegan Lake. And since January of this year, Cohen is also the official rabbi for White Plains Hospital.
Her daily rounds can include sitting with terminally ill patients in hospice, offering guidance to family members and patients about stopping treatments or deciding when it’s time to enter hospice, simply talking with patients about their concerns, and running various holiday services. During the recent Passover holidays, Cohen was touched by running a seder for two elderly Holocaust survivors at a local nursing home. They had told her “there’s no seder if there are no children,” only to be joined by two non-Jewish children of a staff member there, who had simply walked in serendipitously, and shared in the experience.
Such moments reflect Cohen’s philosophy of “keeping my eyes and ears open,” when she’s at work. “When I walk in, I’ll introduce myself and explain what I do, and do a spiritual assessment of the patient,” she said. “It’s about lending an ear, and having someone tell me ‘how are your spirits?” I want to know what weighs on them, what gives them strength. I’ll hear their belief, and I’ll tell them what I do believe. I know the soul exists. I choose to believe that the soul is permanent and the soul goes on.”
At White Plains hospital, Cohen supervises the 10 Jewish volunteers from White Plains’ synagogues who are volunteer chaplains. One of her great joys is meeting new babies and their parents. “It’s nice to bless the baby,” Cohen said. “I’ll also give a blessing to the mother, who has to undergo healing, too.”
She added, “My average day here is better than my best day before I became a rabbi.”
Cohen came to the rabbinate in a roundabout way. A native New Yorker, she had graduated from SUNY Buffalo with a degree in English and Fordham University School of Law. A lapsed lawyer, Cohen didn’t enter JTS as a rabbinic candidate until her two children were grown. She was already working on a master’s in interdepartmental Jewish studies, which she received in 2008. Since 2003, Cohen had been teaching b’nai mitzvah students in her home congregation, Bet Am Shalom synagogue in White Plains, adding Hebrew school to the mix in 2006.
Before coming to White Plains Hospital, Cohen had worked in Norwalk Hospital and the Whittingham Cancer Center affiliated with the hospital, in nearby Connecticut, where she had done her student chaplaincy work.
“That was such a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “I learned a tremendous amount about how to integrate healing into this work. I saw people of all different faiths.” One elderly Irish Catholic woman, in fact, had been so taken with Cohen’s reading of the “Woman of Valor” prayer that she asked her children to include it for her funeral service.
She hopes to expand the chaplaincy to have more frequent visits to the various nursing homes and other facilities. Even more important, she said, “I want to have young rabbis understand the needs of the elderly.”