Adding a spiritual component to the counseling experience

By: By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

For Rabbi Michele Medwin, counseling was always a natural part of her rabbinate. “Congregants often come to me with various issues, including family problems, struggling to deal with losses, especially deaths, learning to live with chronic or serious illness, and being caregivers of those who are ill,” Medwin said in an e-mail interview. “While we had some training in rabbinical school, most of the counseling I did for congregants came from life experience, being empathetic and intuitively knowing what to say.”
Yet, it was a different opportunity to use her counseling skills that led Medwin to join the D.Min. program in clinical and pastoral counseling designed for working clergy at Hebrew Union College. While working part-time as a rabbi for a synagogue in Monticello, someone approached her a job opportunity. “[The woman] was working as a Jewish chaplain at a nearby residential high school for ‘at risk’ teens,” Medwin said. “She was going to retire soon and wanted to know if I would like to take her place. I worked there for five years as the Jewish chaplain helping students with addiction and substance abuse challenges, as well as behavior and mental health issues.”
When the school began focusing more on mental health counseling, rather than spiritual counseling, Medwin decided to get more advanced training. “I knew that I enjoyed the work and decided to go for advanced training as a mental health counselor to be able to continue my work at the high school,” she said. “I felt that program [at Hebrew Union College] would be a good fit for me. I worked at the high school in the counseling department for two additional years while I was getting my degree. Then, in the middle of working on my D.Min. project, the high school went out of business. I still enjoyed counseling and found it meaningful, so I finished my degree.”
Attending classes made life more hectic, but there were benefits. “I got to know the Shortlines Bus schedule very well,” Medwin noted. “Classes were once a week for a full day every Monday for two years in New York City. That enabled me to continue my part-time work at the synagogue and at the high school. The third year involved researching and carrying out the D.Min. counseling project. My classmates were other clergy. Since it was an interfaith program, in addition to rabbis, there was a Seventh Day Adventist minister in our cohort. It was interesting to learn about each other’s beliefs. We learned the various aspects of mental health counseling, as well as understanding that there can be a spiritual component to the counseling experience. As part of the program, we were required to have actual face to face counseling experience. Some of that I did at the high school, some in Monticello with my congregants and some in Binghamton for Jewish Family Service and at the Samaritan Counseling Center in Endicott.”
In addition to the D.Min. degree, given when she graduated in May 2016, Medwin has now received a temporary license through New York state, which requires her to continue being supervised for a period of time. What she learned at HUC has assisted her in her current counseling position at the Samaritan Counseling Center and her work with her congregation in Monticello. “[My studies] helped me to understand difficult people and to react to them in a more positive way,” she said. “It also gave me a strong foundation in ways to guide people through the various mental health issues they are dealing with, adding to my natural gifts as a listener and counselor. When working with congregants, I often talk about God and spirituality because that is a large part of who I am as a rabbi. I teach classes on spirituality and often bring it into my sermons and divrei Torah on the bima. They know that about me and expect it from me. With clinical mental health counseling, while my degree includes pastoral counseling, the people I counsel have various religious backgrounds. I let the client lead the way regarding when and if spirituality might be an appropriate addition to the counseling process. I enjoy working at the Samaritan Counseling Center because the Center is spiritually oriented, and I feel comfortable and welcomed there.”
In her counseling, she focuses on helping people learn new ways to cope and process past traumas. “I truly believe that what happens in childhood is carried through into how we act and feel as adults,” Medwin said. “I certainly deal with the present and give them tools to cope or change negative and erroneous thinking, but often times it is also helpful to allow a person to process past traumas and/or feelings of rejection or abandonment, physically or emotionally, from childhood. This gives them insights into why they are the person they are, and helps them to get past guilt and shame – to move on to being a person more at peace with themselves.”
Her D.Min., project, which focused on Alzheimer’s disease, was personal. “My dad had Alzheimer’s disease for over 10 years,” Medwin said. “I was personally devastated when I heard of his diagnosis. The 10 years were emotionally draining for our family and also physically draining for our mother who was his caregiver. It was hard to watch my dad deteriorate cognitively over the years, and watch our mom deteriorate emotionally and physically. I knew the statistics for Alzheimer’s and dementia. It is a growing problem, not just for my family, but for millions of families around the world. I thought this was a good place to devote my energies. My D.Min. project was called ‘Alzheimer’s Families: Emotional and Spiritual Tools for Coping.’ I learned things during my research that I wished I had known when my dad was alive. It would have made coping easier for me and my family. I wanted to help other families in the same situation. As part of the project, I meet with various Alzheimer’s family members to learn what was the most stressful, what helped and what made things worse. I also ran an Alzheimer’s Support Group through Jewish Family Service at the Jewish Community Center.”
Medwin feels an important part of her rabbinate is to help those in need and sees her counseling work as a continuation of that. “Becoming a mental health counselor enables me to reach even more people,” she added. “It is such a wonderful feeling watching the progress of my clients as they walk in the door at the first visit being distraught and feeling helpless, to watching as they transform into people more at peace with themselves and with the circumstances of their lives.”