The saddest event in Rabbi Richard Safran’s life was probably the death of his wife of 60 years, Lois, two years ago. “I shared everything with my life partner. Sometimes it’s overwhelming” to be alone,” says Safran, but that hasn’t stopped him from helping others navigate difficult times, or from leading a productive life.
At 85, the rabbi has been a Jewish chaplain in Tucson for more than 10 years. Two days a week, Safran visits hospital patients by request. “Everyone should do this one day a week,” he told the AJP. “If you think you have tsuris (troubles) it puts everything in perspective.”
Safran visits around 3,000 hospital patients a year. “I represent myself, the Jewish community and I represent God in a sense, not through theology. I walk into a person’s life, wanting to know how I can be of help,” he explains. “I try to bring them strength and courage through Jewish values.”
The biggest questions we have as we age, notes Safran, are “’How shall I live? Why should I get up in the morning?’ For me, chaplaincy work is a joy. I meet people with such courage. It’s always touching. It gives me meaning and purpose.”
But there are “ethical and moral issues that come with living longer,” he says. “I’ve seen tremendous progress in the field of medicine over the years. I was part of a team of clergy allowed to watch open-heart surgery in Indiana. There will be more scientific changes in the future. We don’t have a handle on diseases like Alzheimer’s, which will be exploding in the baby boomers. As we live longer we’re going to get more sicknesses.”
As the population ages, “I think there will be more suicides. More and more people will say, ‘I don’t want to live this way,’” says Safran. “Life is much more complicated today. Spirituality is much more necessary to get through life today.”
Life was simpler when he grew up in “a traditional Conservative Jewish family” in Laurelton, N.Y., where he and Lois met. Safran wanted to be a history teacher, but in 1950, he found himself in the U.S. Air Force as a chaplain’s assistant during the Korean “police action.” A rabbi from the National Jewish Welfare Board, which served as a liaison between the military and the Jewish community, took him out to lunch and asked, “‘Would you consider becoming a rabbi?’ I told him, ‘I have to talk to my fiancé.’ She was key. ‘You want to do it, we’ll do it,’ Lois said. Being a rabbi basically means being a teacher,” says Safran.
Following military service he went to Brooklyn College, and married Lois in 1953. Safran continued his education at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and was ordained in 1960. After postings in Peabody, Mass., and Steubenville, Ohio, he and his family settled in Fort Wayne, Ind. Safran retired in 1995 as the rabbi of Congregation Achduth Vesholom, a historic German-Jewish congregation established in 1848, which was a founding congregation in the Reform movement.
The Fort Wayne congregation had about 300 members, he says, “counting men, women, children, dogs and cats.” In addition to being a congregational rabbi, Safran was a chaplain at veterans’ hospitals for 20 years and has been a hospital chaplain for more than 40 years. He was first certified by the Association of Mental Health Chaplains (which was later absorbed into another organization), and later by the National Association of Jewish Chaplains.
Here in Tucson, Safran recalls visiting a patient at the Tucson Medical Center who asked him, “‘Did you grow up on Long Island? Did your family own Safran’s Deli?’ She remembered me from behind the counter when I was a boy working there.”
These days, Safran works with patients suffering everything from drug addiction to all kinds of cancers. They haven’t been only Jewish people. “I work with everyone,” he says.
The rabbi stresses that “we’re made in the image of God,” which lends “a powerful way to bring a spiritual connection through my relationships with patients. People can be deeply touched by the materials and techniques I bring to help them get through.”
Safran’s hospital chaplaincy isn’t all sad, he says. “My greatest joy is bringing blessings to newborn babies and their families.” As the father of two adult sons and grandfather of three, his family has always been important to him. His other passion is hiking.
“I’ve got to get up to the big shul,” climbing mountains two to three days a week, says Safran. “My wife and I camped and hiked in every state in this country, plus Canada and Mexico and he hiked Mt. Jubal (also known as Mt. Sinai)” when the Sinai Peninsula was part of Israel. The couple discovered Tucson “accidentally” after attending a rabbinic conference in San Diego in 1995. They started coming to Tucson in the winter and built a house in 2001, which Safran sold last year, downsizing to an apartment.
“I still love to teach at Temple Emanu-El. I’m an adjunct. You must find meaning and purpose in today’s world and be positive about it,” says the rabbi, adding that society must be involved in helping people.
“For me, the saving grace of surviving is Shabbat. You have to get out of the world for a day. Do more than close down your computer on Shabbat,” Safran advises. “A religious sense is more important today than before. It used to be based on superstition and fear. Today it’s for survival.”
As a chaplain, “with all the pain I’ve seen it’s still been a joy,” he says. “I’ve been touched by the hope, courage and strength” of so many people.
Rabbi Richard Safran’s work is sponsored by the Deborah Oseran Chaplaincy, which is supported by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and Tucson’s congregational rabbis. Contact him at 760-2256 or bagel [email protected]