Small acts of kindness

On Thanksgiving Day of 2020, eight months into the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, Susanne Walther, a palliative care nurse working in New Jersey, received a text message from the wife of a former patient who died in the early days of the pandemic. The wife said that she thought about Walther, 61, often and that she would never forget her.

The message was a reminder for Walther that “small acts of kindness stay with people forever.

”What had she done? She simply “didn’t let them throw away her husband’s belongings,” she recalled. “Even when people are acutely grieving the loss of someone they love, they still have the kindness in their hearts to reach out to the clinicians who have cared for them.”

As the director of the palliative care team at University Hospital, a 519-bed hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Walther works closely with patients close to death. This means that she often talks with families when her patients are near the end of their lives, which would sometimes wear on her mental health.

The year of the pandemic has taken a toll on health care staff. Many frontline workers have left their jobs because of the pressures. Those who continue this work, like Walther, report that they are sustained, in part, by the thanks and appreciation they get from patients and their families.

The message meant so much to Walther. It reminded her that while they could not always save those suffering from COVID, they could offer comfort to them and their families.

In the early days of the pandemic, nurses and other frontline workers were especially important because few visitors were allowed in hospitals. Family members dropped their loved ones at the door of the emergency room and might never see him or her again.

The wife who texted that she would never forget Walther was one of them. Her husband was sick at home last spring and did not come to the hospital until the last minute. The staff attempted resuscitation with CPR, breathing machines and life support, but he still died in less than an hour at the emergency room. Right before the staff took his body out of the emergency room, Walther noticed his bag of personal belongings underneath the stretcher, which would get thrown away soon.

During the pandemic family members often called the hospital about clothes, wallets or watches that belonged to deceased patients, but the items were already gone, Walther said.

“It was such a panic with COVID. People were so scared that sometimes the belongings would be thrown in the garbage,” Walther explained. “Nobody wanted to touch them. People thought if they opened up the bag, they would get infected.”

Walther did not want this to happen to the wife of this patient, so she took the man’s belongings and planned to return it to his wife.

A month later, the wife and Walther met outside of the hospital. She handed Walther the small tropical plant inside her husband’s bag of belongings and insisted on Walther keeping it.

She told Walther, “Your kindness was the only thing that pulled me through my husband’s death. I cannot thank you enough.”

Since then, Walther has been watering it once a week, and the plant is thriving in her office at the hospital.

Born in 1959, Walther graduated from Rutgers University in 1985 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and started working as a nurse in New Brunswick. To search for more challenging work, she quickly transitioned into the intensive care unit and worked as an ICU nurse for nearly 20 years.

From 1987 to 1990, Walther worked as an agency nurse in Bergen County, NJ. As an agency nurse, she got staffed in ICUs and critical care areas of different hospitals over the county based on needs. In 1990, Walther joined University Hospital.

Working night shifts from 7pm to 7am, she rotated all around different units in intensive care units, including the medical unit, the surgical unit, the trauma unit, and the neurological unit.

Patricia Murphy served as the director of the palliative care team at University Hospital until her retirement in 2013. She said that Walther is “one of the most specialties you will ever meet when it comes to caring for patients… families would tell me about this wonderful nurse who took such good care of the person they loved.”

After working in ICUs for 17 years, Walther burned out: “I found myself working very, very hard to keep people alive at all, you know, even though it appeared as if they were not going to survive.”

“I was just overwhelmingly morally distressed by some of the work that we were doing on people’s bodies. And I felt a great need to be sitting with families and talking to them instead of taking care of the patients,” Walther explained.

Around that time, Walther was thinking about graduate school programs, and Murphy suggested palliative care. In Murphy’s opinion, Walther already had all the skills needed to be an ICU nurse, but the skill she was missing was how to be with families in times of crisis.

In the following three years, Walther continued to work night shifts, split the duty of raising two children with her husband, and received her master’s degree in palliative care from New York University in 2005. Shortly after her graduation, Murphy hired Walther to join her team full-time at University Hospital as an advanced practice registered nurse.

Thank you cards at Susanne Walther’s Office

“It was extremely morally and professionally satisfying to be moving into palliative care, and setting myself up to work with families, having meaningful conversations, and empowering them to have options and choices and making decisions about their loved ones,” Walther said.

Recently, Walther worked with a young woman in her late 20s, both of whose parents were critically ill after contracting COVID. Her father, only in his 50s, was on a ventilator at the hospital, while her mother was also on a ventilator at another hospital.

Having conversations with family members on the end-of-life of their loved ones can be tough, but Walther never shies away from those conversations. She felt obligated to inform the daughter that some families would find this type of prolonged life support unacceptable and wanted their loved ones to die peacefully, liberating them from the machines and the tubes.

Later that day, the mother of this young woman died at the other hospital. The daughter called the hospital and said that she wanted her father taken off life support and any treatments to be discontinued. As the medical note suggests, the daughter wished his father to have a natural death and be at peace with his wife who had just passed.

Walther still choked up when talking about this case. “I really didn’t want to call her and have this conversation because I knew it was going to be a very hard conversation,” Walther said. “And yet, I feel like if I never told her this and never gave her this opportunity, she never would have been empowered to consider that she could actually let her parents die on the same day and be together wherever she thinks they are, after they die.”

Although Walther has many intimate conversations with patients and their family members, she does not keep in touch with them afterward the service. However, working in a small community where many people have limited health care resources, Walther has helped multiple families through multiple losses.

After Murphy retired in 2013, Walther became the new director of the palliative care team at University Hospital. Currently, the palliative care team has four people, including two advanced practice registered nurses, one social worker, and one licensed counselor.

When COVID first hit New York City last year, tens of thousands of people died. The operating rooms at the hospital were closed, and most of the staff got relocated. Despite relocations, the palliative care team supports not only patients and families but also their colleagues at the hospital.

“One of the things our team was talking about, through the surge last year, was how little we felt that we could actually do for people,” Walther said. “But we have so many more thank you cards from families showing such appreciation for the smallest, tiniest way that we helped them connect with their loved ones.”


Christianity and natural farming in the Hudson Valley

Christianity and natural farming in the Hudson Valley

Sara Badilini

Dairy farmer Rick Vreeland tends to his cows. (Photo/Sara Badilini)

A tall wooden cross and an American flag announce the entrance to “Freedom Hill Farm,” in Otisville, a rural village in Orange County, N.Y, that is north of the city, but not quite upstate.

The owners of this 50-acres , Rick Vreeland and his wife Julie Vreeland, are born again Christians. By combining the principles of natural farming with those of Christianity, they hope to fulfill their mission of sharing the Gospel with others.

“We don’t own the farm, we simply take care of it,” said Rick Vreeland, 67. “It belongs to God.”

The cows and their calves mooing in the barn are the soundtrack of this holy land, which is dotted with colorful signs singing God’s praises.

Jewish, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and even atheists visit the farm frequently as well however, shopping their products and asking questions about the owners’ faith.

From the cows’ milk, the Vreelands produce yogurt, buttermilk, and kefir that they sell and distribute in retail locations from Albany to Brooklyn.

All of the employees — two full-time, five part-time — and the several volunteers are Christians. “We don’t ask for it, but God seems to send us only other Christians,” Julie Vreeland, 64, said.

Faith hasn’t always been so central to the Vreelands.

Julie Vreeland grew up in Otisville in a Roman Catholic family, but she “unconsciously fell away from religion,” right after receiving the sacrament of confirmation, at the age of 13.

Rick Vreeland never stepped into a church until he turned 38. “Everything changed that year. I was crossing a yard and I heard a voice telling me ‘You have to go to church,’” he said.

He doesn’t know why God picked that particular moment of his life to speak to him, but ever since, he has dedicated his life to what that voice called him to do.

After growing up on the family farm, not far away from where Freedom Hill Farm is today, he started farming in 1972, when he opened his own commercial farm with a colleague. His wife joined him in 1975, after they got married. Together they worked on their commercial farm for 26 years with more than 2,000 cows.

Despite the success of their business, they decided to quit and four years later they opened Freedom Hill Farm. The barn had been a property of the Vreeland family since the 1930s. After farming it for generations, the dairy farm shut down in the 1960s, and the barn sat empty until May 2007, when the Vreelands opened Freedom Hill and nine milking cows started calling the barn home.

“Before renovating the place we had been praying for years,” JulieVreeland said. “I wanted to do something for Jesus, but didn’t know what.”

Then they came up with the idea of a small dairy farm that could also be a Christian ministry for the youth.

The Vreelands understood they made the right choice when they met their neighbors, who run the Freedom Farm Community, a nonprofit that also happens to be a Christian ministry for young people in the form of an organic farm, where they grow tomatoes, cilantro, pumpkins and all sorts of vegetables.

Edgar Hayes, the nonprofit’s executive director, remembers when the Vreelands knocked on the door and announced the plan for their land. The Vreelands and Freedom Farm Community still cooperate today.

“We have our own program for the youths and they’re really busy with the dairy farm, but their cows come on our land, and we share a mission,” he said.

Lou Enoff, president of the Christian Farmers Outreach — a program based in Maryland that supports Christian farmers around the world with different initiatives — explains the connection between farming and Christianity using the parable of the sower explained in Matthew’s gospel.

“To sow the seeds of the gospel you talk to people to tell them about Christ,” Enoff, 78, said.

Christian farming became a popular concept in the United States in the 1980s. To respect God’s creation, devoted farmers started promoting organic agriculture and unprocessed foods, as opposed to more industrialized products, Enoff said.

Some Christian farmers gathered in organizations such as Christian Farmers Outreach, and the Christian Farmers fellowship. Others, like the Vreelands, carry out their Christian mission on their own.

“Once the seed is planted, if it falls on good ground, it grows and produces crops,” Enoff said. “If it falls in the weeds, then the weeds can choke it out. It's similar to evangelism.”

Today, the Vreelands own 36 milking cows and have around 1,000 clients, who come to the farm once or twice a week to collect their order or raw milk. Freedom Hill is one of only a few farms that sells raw, unpasteurized milk and products. They believe that producing whole foods, while respecting their animals and caring for the land is what makes their farming Christian.

The days at Freedom Hill Farm start early. Julie wakes up at 3.30 a.m., checking the milk orders, while her husband starts the day at 4 a.m. Once they are both awake, they study the Bible for about an hour before heading out into the fields.

“We pray for the cows, the land, the people we know. And we pray every day for divine meetings here at the farm,” said Rick Vreeland.

By 5 a.m. he is milking the cows, while his wife feeds the goats. The rest of the farm soon comes to life. The couple’s son shows up to gather the products and deliver them to the retail locations, and the store manager arrives to open the shop. Other employees and volunteers work in the barn, others fill the milk, and one makes the yogurt — which includes the pasteurization process, the culture of the yogurt with bacteria, and a 10-hour setting.

In the early afternoon Julie Vreeland takes the calves from the barn into the adjacent meadow, followed by some young visitors. Each child leads their own calf with a rope, teaching the calves how to follow instructions. One of them struggles more than others when a stubborn calf refuses to follow the young girl’s lead.

When bigger groups of young visitors come the Vreelands organize afternoon activities and games to entertain them, always starting with a prayer. But the rest of the time with the children is dedicated to games and activities, it’s not meant to be a religion class, explains Julie. Vreeland.

“We don’t want to overwhelm the children with a lesson on faith, we want them to witness our faith through natural farming. But when the subject of religion comes up we are happy to speak about it,” she said.

The Vreelands say they have found a way to combine the farmers’ lifestyle with the Christian ministry, but they don’t belong to any particular branch of Christianity. After trying a number of churches and denominations, they’ve found their own way to worship and praise God.

They hold weekly Bible study gatherings at their home — now on hold because of the pandemic. They also pour their faith and Christian values into how they care for the cows.

As they explain, one of the basic needs for cows to thrive is comfort. That’s why the cows at Freedom Hill Farm stay in the barn only while they’re getting milked and they spend the rest of their day in the fields, where they can take a dip in the pond and lay down.

That heavenly environment for the livestock prolongs their life expectancy, Rick Vreeland explains. On average, the cows at Freedom Hill live around 10 years, he says as he caresses the back of a cow whose box is in front of a poster of “The Last Supper” by Da Vinci, hanging on the barn’s wall.

“You cannot just go to church and think you’re going straight to heaven,” Rick Vreeland said. “You have to be born twice and then you secure yourself a place in heaven. This, instead, is cow’s heaven.”


Emma’s Torch: Religion and Food

Emma’s Torch: Religion and Food

Kathleen Shriver

Kerry Brodie teaches her students to bake Challah, a ceremonial Jewish bread. (Photo/Emma’s Torch)

Some of the best views of New York’s Statue of Liberty are from a waterside park in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. From there, visitors can see the broken shackles at Lady Liberty’s feet, the golden fire raging from her copper torch, and the words to “The New Colossus,” the sonnet at her pedestal.

Just a few blocks from New York’s Statue of Liberty, a nonprofit restaurant and school labors to keep the spirit of Lady Liberty alive. It is known as Emma’s Torch, a tribute to Emma Lazarus, the Jewish American poet whose verse -- “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe” – decorates Liberty’s pedestal. Founded by Kerry Brodie, Emma’s Torch aims to empower refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of human trafficking through culinary education.

When launching the nonprofit, 27 year old Brodie, thought back to her highschool -- Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School -- where she learned about Jewish leaders. She says Lazarus was one of the “unsung female heroes of Jewish history” whose work always stuck with her.

“I felt like Emma never got to see what her poem would become,” Brodie said. “ So my hope is that Emma's Torch will also be able to create that sort of lasting legacy and those ripple effects of change as well.”

In the Jewish tradition, when speaking of a righteous deceased person, many will say Z"l (pronounced zal), which is an abbreviation for Zikronam L'bracha. This literally means “may their memory be for a blessing.” “I think this definitely applies to how we are trying to honor Emma's legacy and memory. We are working in her memory,” Brodie says.

While for many restaurants, reopening after the pandemic means staffing up, adding tables, expanding menus, opening the doors earlier and closing them later, for Brodie, it means reprioritizing. It means reconsidering the purpose of Emma’s Torch and drawing from her past and, as it turns out, her faith.

Since its founding in 2017, Emma’s Torch has become a beacon of hope for hundreds. The nonprofit offers a full-time paid training program, during which students receive instruction, mentorship, and work experience, while also developing English conversation skills and other “soft skills” such as resume development and computer literacy.

In 2020, Brodie was looking forward to formalizing and publishing her curriculum and opening new locations around the country.

“2020 was supposed to be the year of stability,” she said. Instead, she got a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and a racial reckoning.

While the pandemic threatened the lives and livelihoods of everyone, the toll it took on those working in the restaurant industry was especially dire. To make matters even worse, Emma’s Torch doubled as a training program for immigrant communities, some of the country’s most vulnerable. Even so, Brodie had faith.

Brodie’s Jewish faith has gotten her family through a profoundly difficult past. “My great grandparents are among the only people from their families, to survive the Holocaust,” she said.
She recalled that several years ago she joined her grandfather on a trip to Lithuania, where many members of his family were murdered by the Nazis. “Standing there was just such an eye-opening experience of what happens when we don't remember that our neighbors are not that different to us, and that's just always stuck with me,” she said.

Ever since this experience, Brodie has been particularly motivated by the Jewish practice of welcoming the stranger. A commandment that is repeated 36 times in the Torah, the scripture reminds Jews that they once “were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). “We hope to live up to this commandment and imperative in our work.” At the same time, Brodie doesn’t see these values as exclusive to Judaism.

She loves learning from her students how these same values can come from different life experiences, including other religious traditions.

“At Emma’s Torch, a lot of times either our students come from very strong backgrounds of faith, or are supported and have found friends through their religious community, whether that be a church or a synagogue or mosque,” she said. “Faith in general can be such a powerful tool to bring people together.”

These universal values of unity and welcome have motivated every step of Brodie’s career. After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, Brodie hoped to effect change through public policy.

Following two years of policy work at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC, she became the press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, a nongovernmental agency based in Washington D.C., where she publicized the organization’s international work. At the same time, she spent her free time meeting with women who inspired her next endeavor.

“I started volunteering at a homeless shelter and was really struck by the conversations about food that I would have with the women at the shelter,” she said.

Brodie wanted to cook with the women. She grew up learning to cook different dishes that connected her to her family’s religious and cultural history and inspired her pride in that history. She wanted to find a way to use food to do more than just feed these women. She wanted food to empower them, too.

“Recipes are not simply a list of ingredients. Each is wrapped in memories,” she said. “Cooking simultaneously defines and transcends our communities.”

Kerry Brodie at 3-years-old after helping her grandmother make milchika. (Photo/Kerry Brodie)

Growing up, Brodie would visit her grandparents in South Africa, where they had found refuge during World War II. Both of Brodie’s parents were raised in South Africa and her grandparents still live there today. And during her earliest visits to her grandparents, Brodie learned to cook.

“My grandmother makes the most incredible milchika which are basically South African cinnamon buns. One of my earliest cooking memories is helping her make these.” While many American Jews have foods like bagels-and-lox to break their fasts on the Jewish High Holidays, South African Jews break their fast with milchika–a kind of cinnamon bun. Dishes like milkchika and the religious traditions around sharing them with family and friends has always inspired Brodie to see food as a powerful element in strengthening her faith and in enforcing a shared sense of identity amongst her community of faith.

For this reason, she encourages her students to embrace and celebrate their origins and home countries when they cook.

“Food helps our students understand that they’re not victims and that their work is valuable,” she says. Brodie says that she wants her students to see that each of their unique understandings of flavor and culture can actually enhance our communities and inspire our kitchens.

Inspired by her love of food and her conversations with the women at the homeless shelter, Brodie started reading about the restaurant industry. She read about widening labor gaps and about restaurants struggling to find talent to build out their kitchens.In May of 2016, Brodie left the HRC and began studying at the Institute of Culinary Education.

When she wasn’t learning to cook, Brodie was working to build out the organization of her dreams: a restaurant that would provide opportunities for the most vulnerable, a restaurant that would tell stories through its food.

She wanted to provide jobs for those who were left out. She wanted to bring people of different backgrounds and life experiences together in a space that felt comfortable to all of them; in a space where they could connect and realize that they could, in fact, work together. That space was the kitchen. And after graduating from culinary school in June of 2017, Brodie launched her first pilot program at Emma’s Torch.

Emma’s Torch began offering a free 12-week apprenticeship program with up to 500 hours of culinary and professional training. What’s more, students were paid to participate, allowing them to train full-time and cover expenses.

By the end of 2019, over 100 students had graduated from the program with professional culinary skills, English proficiency, and a community of support. Ninety-seven percent of the graduates had been placed in culinary jobs around the city.

And then, the pandemic hit. Like most people working in the hospitality industry in New York, many alumni were laid off or furloughed and Brodie was forced to close her training program and restaurant. She closed the doors of her restaurant and sent her students and staff home. But Brodie didn’t give up.

She turned her faith into action. The organization remained stable due to support from donors and a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Meanwhile, the Emma’s Torch staff began volunteering to work with students and alumni online. They hosted online cooking classes while also helping students and alumni apply for unemployment benefits. And Brodie innovated, working with old and new partners on her “Culinary Council” to restructure the business in response to the shifting industry.

After six months of solely online programming, Emma’s Torch reopened in October of 2020 with a three track program including the original culinary program in addition to two new tracks for alumni: the first being a community building program and the second a management-level leadership development fellowship for select program graduates.

Ruslan Abdraimov, a graduate of Emma’s Torch, participated in the fellowship. Abdraimov arrived in New York from Russia in 2016 with just $216 in his pocket and no understanding of the English language. Fleeing cultural and political persecution, he left everyone and everything he knew behind – for a chance to start over in America.

Winter’s Heat, cooked by Abdraimov on his graduation night.(Photo/Ruslan Abdraimov)

He knew one person in New York, who loaned him his sofa and told him about Emma’s Torch. Abdrainmov applied to the pilot program in 2017 and became a student in the first graduating cohort at Emma’s Torch.

Abdraimov remembers making 12 dishes on his graduation night. “I can’t choose a favorite,” he laughs. “It’s like asking [me] to pick [a] favorite child.”

But four of the dishes made him especially proud – a combination he calls “Winter’s Heat.” The roasted buckwheat katah, celery potato mash, sauerkraut stir fried with German sausage, and deep fried mushroom stuffed meatballs use all the vegetables available during winters in Russia. “Winters in a large part of Russia are long and cold. And you have to eat a lot to keep yourself warm,” he says with a smile.

Abdraimov describes his experience at Emma’s Torch as more than just an education in the culinary arts.“You know, it’s one thing when you hear about different countries and religions, but the other thing is, when you actually have a chance to meet that person and spend some time in a kitchen with that person, you know, and be around them every day, like for eight to 10 hours a day,” he said, nodding his head. “You learn a lot. And behind all that history, it’s something universal -- things like kindness, friendship.”

As Brodie shifts her focus to the students and alumni, the flames of Lady Liberty’s fire continue to burn at Emma’s Torch, which has transformed into a take-out cafe. As it was before the pandemic, the menu remains “New American cuisine,” cooked by New Americans.


‘Not Your Mother’s Potato Latkes’

As published in the Columbia News Service

‘Not Your Mother’s Potato Latkes’

Lily Lopate

Kosher Culinary Center co-founder and director Perline Dayan in the teaching kitchen. (Photo/Lily Lopate)

Kosher cooking has a lot of rules, but that doesn’t mean that learning kosher cooking isn’t fun. During a pastry workshop at the Kosher Culinary Center in Brooklyn in July, the students — six women, one teenage boy and one man — were tasting bite-sized cocoa pear muffins that had just emerged from the oven. “These muffins are perfect for a ladies’ brunch, bridal shower or bris,” said Avram Wiseman, 64, the Center’s co-founder and chef. As the class inspected the flecks of melted chocolate and grated pears, the teenage student looked despondently at a muffin that overflowed in the baking tray. Wiseman noticed. “What do we do with our mistakes?” he asked. “We eat them!”

There’s plenty of humor at the Kosher Culinary Center, especially since it reopened to full capacity cooking classes this summer. Located in Sheepshead Bay, between Marine Park and Mill Basin, the center offers recreational cooking classes, a catering business and a professional culinary training program.

Because people experience faith at varying degrees, the center’s aim is inclusivity, and its students make up an eclectic mix of Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews. “We cater to everyone regardless of how religious they are,” said the center’s director and co-founder, Perline Dayan, 53. “One does not need to have knowledge of kashrut laws prior to starting our program.”

This attempt to create common ground, through food, among segments of the Jewish population that may otherwise be isolated from each other has made the center a place for members of the Jewish Brooklyn community to connect or reconnect. Recreational and professional classes are open to men and women, ages 16 and older. And things are getting busy again now that in-person gatherings are less restricted than they were last summer. “Once people got vaccinated, our class size shot up,” said Dayan.

The increased number of students has inspired the school to apply for full accreditation, which would grant it an added degree of recognition as an educational institution. It’s currently the only trade school licensed by the state of New York to teach the skills needed to work in the kosher food industry.

In addition to its classes, the center’s also seen an increase of customers who book the venue for social events. People come for Jewish Singles Night or Culinary Date Night. “The date nights always fill up fast,” said Dayan. “A few couples meet for the first time and make a signature cocktail, kalamata olive focaccia and the chef’s choice of hors d’oeuvres.” The center has also resumed catering for large party events up to 50 people, a significant increase from the 10-person average last summer.

The center certainly has the look of a place where serious cooking happens. In the airy, industrial-sized teaching kitchen are red cupboards filled with baking tools, large pieces of cookware hang from a pot rack that wraps around the ceiling and students wearing black aprons work at long silver tables. A Star of David and printouts of Hebrew prayers are taped to the entryway wall. Opposite the sink, a framed plaque displays the kosher certification signed by two rabbis from the Northern American Kosher Supervision. If it weren’t for these hints of Judaism, the Kosher Culinary Center — which founders say is the only school outside of Israel to offer professional training in the kosher culinary arts — looks just like any professional cooking school.

Wiseman’s classes are the most popular, said Dayan. “Students love him,” she said. It is easy to see why: his sense of humor and playfulness in the kitchen allows him to quote apt lessons from the Torah as he’s teaching. In a class on “quick dry breads,” Wiseman asked, “What is the origin of unleavened bread?” And when students answered “Passover,” he explained further. “When Pharoah agreed to let the Israelites go, they hurried out of Egypt. They were in such a hurry they could not let their bread rise all the way so they took it with them just as it was starting to rise. So, there you go — quick bread.”

Wiseman teaches classes in both the professional and recreational tracks. Recreational classes are shorter and focus on one theme, like breads, desserts or meats. Professional classes are much more intensive. They include 216 hours (or 54 days) of hands-on training in technical professional skills and techniques. Courses last 11-16 weeks, and participants must enter with a high school diploma or equivalent degree to obtain a certificate from the culinary program. Students are drilled on how to cook safely and skillfully in a kosher environment, and the course’s difficulty escalates from knife skills to breads, starches, stocks, fish and meat.

The school also provides counseling, networking opportunities and interview preps to help students make the transition into a full-time culinary job. Come the end of the term, students in the professional classes must take a final exam to test their knowledge of kosher rules.

Before co-founding the center with Dayan in 2015, Wiseman had been teaching for several years, most recently at the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts in Brooklyn, which closed in November 2015. He had also worked in a variety of settings, including the United Nations, where he was the executive sous chef. In that role, he said, “I cooked for several presidents: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. Each one had their quirky favorites.” He also cooked there for Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

Though he keeps kosher, Wiseman’s years in the culinary industry were spent cooking in non-kosher kitchens at a large, restaurant scale. His vast career network allows him to connect students with colleagues in the industry. “I’m doing this so people can gain a parnassah [the tools to make a decent living],” Wiseman said. It’s a way of passing on the trade through generations.

Avram Wiseman instructs a student on country biscuits during a class at the Kosher Culinary Center in Brooklyn. (Photo/Lily Lopate)

Dayan met Wiseman when she took a class of his in 2013 at the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts. “It opened up a whole new world. I had never tasted a beet before,” she said. Dayan, like many of Wiseman’s students, is a career switcher. After years working in the trading firm Ladenburg Thalmann and Co., she wanted a change.When the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts was forced to close because it was operating without a license, Wiseman and Dayan decided to form a partnership. “I come from accounting and he’s a professional chef,” she said. “We decided to start our own school.”

Their vision was to create a modern twist on kosher cooking. “We do traditional Jewish foods, but we do them with style,” said Wiseman. “It’s not your mother’s potato latkes. We make it gourmet.” To stay relevant, they also teach a range of global cuisines including French, Italian, Vietnamese and Greek. Recently, at the request of one student, Sephardic dishes were added such as cassola (sweet cheese pancakes), buñuelos (puffed fritters with an orange glaze), keftes de espinaka (spinach patties), and keftes de prasa (leek patties).

For Dayan, an observant Jew, the kosher component was critical to the partnership. “If it wasn’t going to be a kosher school then I wouldn’t be here,” she said. To be fully compliant as “kashrut” (kosher), the kitchen must be supervised by a rabbi, and a certified “mashgiach” (the kitchen supervisor), must always be present. The kashrut rules are strict and unyielding: no meat can coexist with dairy in the kitchen and even meat and dairy utensils must be separated. Recently, a younger student entered class with a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and, when asked whether it contained milk, was directed to go outside and immediately throw it away. It is common practice to toss out or “tear” food that is out of order. (The Yiddish word “treif” derives from the Hebrew word for torn).

Across the spectrum of Judaism, the level of piety in the kitchen may vary. A nostalgic relationship to Jewish cuisine is sometimes described derisively as “Kitchen Judaism,” referring to Jews for whom religion revolves mainly around food. At the center, the connection between faith and food is clearer. “There’s more to Judaism than just being Jewish and cooking at the same time,” said Dayan. “So, if we have someone who is new to Judaism, we educate them on aspects of the religion.”

But regardless of the degree of piety, once students come to the center, they are part of the “whole mishpachah” (family) as Leah Waronker, a recent high school graduate and volunteer at the center, described it. “To cook kosher is to have faith in Judaism,” she said. “There’s a real intimacy that comes from working inside this community. From the moment I first put on my apron, I was welcomed with warmth. I literally fell in love.”

Back in the kitchen classroom, the smell of baked apple and cinnamon fills the room as the students begin preparing country-style biscuits. “Gentlemen,” Wiseman said to the two males in the class, “when you’re working with the flaky dough, bring out your feminine side. Be tender.” If the dough lacks moistness, he recommended more kosher butter (a non-dairy substance akin to margarine). “We grab the block of frozen butter, and we grate it like mozzarella cheese into the bowl. Now, we add vanilla. Say it with me,” he said, waving a wooden spoon like a conductor. The class recited the words after him “van-i-ll-a, van-i-ll-a, van-i-ll-a.”

For Alla Dorch, an architect and student in the pastry class, baking kosher started as a peripheral activity and is now central to her life. “Cooking is usually something I do on the way to doing something else, you know?” she said. “I have my own design studio, so this started as something I could do with my family. But now I realize the crossover with architecture and pastry — both are very precise.” As Dorch’s interest in kosher culinary arts has grown, she is now considering starting a baking business. “It’s funny,” she said. “I used to go to synagogue to think about what comes next in my life. Now I come here.”


“The Whole Situation was Soaked in Love”

“The Whole Situation was Soaked in Love”

Lucy Soucek

Rev. Christine Davies, ordained Presbyterian minister. (Photo/ Christine Davies)

When Hope Fried first received the text from her staff chaplain, she burst into tears. Pacing her Manhattan apartment, her mind was racing. It was spring of 2021 and she was working the on-call shift of her chaplaincy residency at nearby Mt. Sinai hospital. The message came in at around nine in the evening explaining that a mother in the labor and delivery unit was preparing to give birth to a baby either stillborn or expected to pass away soon after birth. The mother was Roman Catholic, Spanish speaking, and she was asking for her child to be baptized.

Fried, 32, is Jewish. Normally, she would have called for a Catholic priest to conduct the baptism, but this was during the overnight shift. If the baby was born alive and they waited for the priest to make it over to the hospital, they ran the risk that the baby might die before the priest arrived.

Fried wasn’t allowed at the hospital during the overnight shift because of Covid restrictions. She had never been to a Catholic baptism, and now she would have to talk a doctor or a nurse through one from her living room on the phone in Spanish in the middle of the night during a pandemic. After her initial bout of panic, she realized that she had a choice to make. And that choice was experienced by many chaplains over the past year and a half.

“COVID made it so that in the times where you would call for a priest or you'd try to call for an Imam, that wasn't available,” said Fried. “So it asked more of us because just the logistics weren't really possible. I think a lot of chaplains were like, okay, we just have to show up with our full humanity.”

In hospitals across New York City, pandemic restrictions have forced chaplains to navigate novel and potentially uncomfortable situations in their attempts to administer care. But what has guided them through the last year and a half is training that prepares them to honor the belief systems of their patients, even when those belief systems are dramatically different from their own. Now, chaplains and chaplain educators are focusing on how to care for themselves so that they can care for others as they continue to practice both in person and remotely.

For Fried, growing up in a multi-religious household influenced her eventual path to chaplaincy. Her mom is Catholic and her dad is Jewish. Ever since she was young, she’s felt more connected to Judaism, although she’s never had a strong belief in God. That’s where her humanism comes in. She identifies as a Jewish Humanist, which means she is ethnically Jewish, but in terms of spiritual beliefs, she doesn’t believe in a higher power.

When deciding what she wanted to pursue in her career, religion felt important. She thought, if she was meant to become a rabbi, God would reach out. But that just never happened. And so she turned to chaplaincy. It was a way for her to still feel connected with her faith, despite not believing in a higher power, and it allowed her to just sit with people and help them navigate hardships.

“I thought, ‘maybe I should try chaplaincy,’” said Fried. “It doesn't have to be super religious, but you get to be with people; you get to accompany people.”

She attended Union Theological Seminary, graduating in the spring of 2020. After taking four units of Clinical Pastoral Education to become board certified and participating in a yearlong residency. She is now a staff chaplain at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.

It was during her residency that she navigated the baptism. And so on that night, Fried spoke with the doctor, who also happens to be Jewish, and they decided to make it happen. “We were both very firm,” Fried said. “I remember that feeling of being really grounded in our intention of like, we've been asked to do this; we are going to do this.”

After they made the decision, it was all about talking through logistics. Fried’s staff chaplain and clinical supervisor emailed her a guide to performing an emergency baptism, with details outlining the protocol, sample prayers and information on how to provide support over the phone.

She didn’t know Spanish, so she pulled up YouTube videos and practiced it with her husband over and over again, then walked the doctor through the ritual instructions on the phone. The doctor would need a little pill cup of sterilized water, which would act as holy water. Typically, holy water is water that has been blessed by a member of the clergy, but in the hospital, the protocol is different.

Dabble water on the baby’s forehead, and say:

“[Patient’s name,] Bautizo a ti en el nombre del Padre,” [I baptize you in the name of the Father].

Drop of water.

“y del Hijo.” [and the Son].

Drop of water.

“Y del Espiritu Santo,” [and the Holy Spirit].

Drop of water.

“Amen.”

The baby was born at around 4:30am, alive. A nurse performed the baptism, though Fried doesn’t know their personal religion or language preference. And then, at 4:45am, Fried called the on-call priest to come to the hospital to bless the baby and provide an official document. The baby survived for a couple of hours and then died later that morning.

In the Catholic church, baptism is seen as a way to cleanse infants from the original sin they were born with, and to welcome them into the Catholic faith. So Fried says the family was deeply appreciative that they were able to perform the ritual and receive the certificate.

“I think sometimes we attend to the worst moments in people's lives,” said Fried. “We try to be present and accompany and we try to lessen, slightly, their spiritual distress, and I think having their baby baptized was able to slightly lessen some of that spiritual distress.”

Throughout this whole situation was the tension between Fried’s Jewish Humanism and the Catholic ritual that she was being asked to lead someone through. But Fried, relying on what she learned about being a hospital chaplain where they often have to navigate interfaith situations, thinks of it as an expression of love.

“If a family has this request and this is their ultimate expression of love and will provide some sense of spiritual relief to know that their baby has been baptized and blessed by God and will be accepted into heaven, I think that's an ultimate expression of love and I will perform it,” said Fried.

Hospital chaplains navigate these complicated situations every day, but many also benefit from a system of training called Clinical Pastoral Education that is in place to guide them. During her yearlong residency, Fried was guided by her education supervisor, Rev. David Fleenor. He is the director of education for the Center for Spirituality and Health and the Assistant Professor of Medical Education at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. He is also ordained as an Episcopal priest.

One idea that Fleenor, 46, taught Fried to keep at the forefront of her mind was to think about the context of the situation and how that determines her role as the chaplain. For Fried, the pandemic, the timing of the birth, the support she received from educators and other chaplains, and the importance of this ritual to the family all drove her decision to make sure it would happen.

“The whole situation was soaked in love,” Fleenor said. “People have their own convictions, but the beautiful work that she did was to dig deeper within herself and find that love was a deeper value; that love and care and compassion compelled her more to facilitate this meaningful ritual for this family, at such a profound time of loss in their life.”

Profound loss was ubiquitous throughout the pandemic. And hospital chaplains spent much of their time caring for not only patients and families, but staff as well. At Mount Sinai, chaplains had the option to administer care throughout the pandemic in person, and many did. Fleenor said their role of caring for staff at the hospital was vital and is too valuable for the field to be replaced by services done over the phone.

“What happens with chaplains is that they are embedded on units and they walk around and staff informally say, ‘Man I'm really struggling,’” said Fleenor. “They're not necessarily gonna reach out to the employee assistance program. But when the chaplain happens to be there, then they open up.”

But to be able to provide staff support, hospital chaplains also need to know how to take care of themselves.

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the staff chaplains were able to administer care in person throughout the pandemic, just not in the rooms of COVID-19 patients. Figuring out how to sustain care and avoid compassion fatigue is now one of their primary concerns.

“It’s like everyone's taking a vacation or is sick or something,” said Rev. Christine Davies, ordained Presbyterian minister and the director of pastoral care at Robert Wood Johnson. “They're all dropping like flies just because of the sheer amount of suffering that they witnessed; It’s unparalleled. And so I think they’re still carrying a lot of that.”

Davies, 38, teaches Clinical Pastoral Care Education courses as well, and she says that much of what she teaches her students has to do with learning how to maintain their own emotional wellbeing so that they can care for others. Especially after this past year.

“Even right now, when we're not in a surge, I'm cognizant of my students’ cumulative exhaustion since the pandemic started,” said Davies. “A lot of it is helping them to see and acknowledge and be aware of their own feelings and emotions so that they can honor the emotions in others.”

For Fried, practicing chaplaincy during the pandemic will stay with her for a long time, and she’s learned to recognize when she might not be able to give the care she wishes she could. “I think it just really made me aware of how long lasting the intensity of the pain that we're asked to witness and hold is, and that that can become sort of ingrained in your body and needs to be processed over a longer period of time,” Fried said.

When she got home from her shift the day after the baptism, her husband ordered her favorite takeout dish, Pad Thai, and she spent the afternoon watching The Real Housewives and taking moments to cry. Fleenor and she have a running joke that she’s the crying chaplain.

“Your body needs to release the anguish and the fear and uncertainty,” Fried said. “All that needs to come out, and my way is through crying.”