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Attorney Turned Chaplain

Attorney Turned Chaplain

A Career Transformation From What I Do To Who I Am

by Karen Lieberman JD BCC for APC Forum

I had known from a young age that I would become a lawyer. My father was a lawyer, as was his father. Actually, I had wanted to be a nurse. I struggled with asthma as a child and had spent many scary and lonely nights in the emergency room. The doctors helped me breathe more easily, but it was the nurses who healed me. They smiled a lot more, and they spoke more quietly and gently. Sometimes they read books with me or played a game while we waited for the medicine to take effect. They were comforting and reassuring; I wanted to be like them.

But it was not meant to be. I came from a family that valued intellect and achievement; thoughts were important, feelings were not. Eager to earn my parents’ praise and approval, I dutifully became the valedictorian of my class in high school, graduated summa cum laude in three years with a degree in political science from Duke University, and went on to attend Stanford Law School, where I was appointed to an editorship of the Stanford Law Review.

Even in law school, my sights were set on helping. Through my study of criminal law and procedure, I became convinced that the criminal justice system wasn’t always just. I wanted to become a public defender to help ensure that those who were accused of wrongdoing would receive a fair trial and effective assistance of counsel. My father insisted that this was not the right path for me – it was too dangerous and I would not earn enough money. And so, following my graduation from law school, I applied for and was offered a coveted federal judicial clerkship in Chicago, after which I served briefly as an attorney for the City of Chicago and then as a litigator at a large, prestigious Chicago law firm.

From outward appearances, I was a success. And, in all honesty, there were many things I enjoyed very much about my chosen path. I had a lovely office, intellectually challenging and stimulating work, and exceedingly bright and interesting colleagues with whom to collaborate and from whom I learned a great deal. I could afford a very comfortable lifestyle that included a spacious apartment, nice car and wonderful Chicago restaurants, entertainment and cultural events.

Still . . . something nagged at me. One very late evening, I was working at my office. It was very quiet, and I found myself staring out the window at the Chicago skyline. I became rather painfully aware at that moment that I had many trappings of success, but I did not feel successful. Something was missing. I couldn’t identify what it was at the time, but a year or so later I gave birth to my first child, a son. Two daughters followed after that. I began to understand that there was much more to life than money and prestige.

My husband and I opted to move to Milwaukee to raise our family. I taught part-time for a few years and eventually put my law degree on a shelf altogether to focus on full-time parenting. Having been pushed fortuitously off the fast-track, I decided to take advantage of an innovative, comprehensive yet flexible distance-learning graduate program in Jewish Studies offered by Spertus Institute in Chicago. I had not had much formal Jewish education as a child, and this was an area of my life in which I felt incomplete.

Initially, my studies were torah lishmah – learning for its own sake. However, as I learned and experimented more with my inherited tradition, I came to understand Judaism as more than a set of religious teachings to be studied abstractly – I came to understand Judaism as a way of living and being in the world. Over time, my husband and I embraced a more observant Jewish lifestyle. I was particularly inspired by the compelling wisdom of Judaism’s rich ethical tradition, which I studied in depth and whose intrinsic values I aspired to incorporate into my own life and the life of my family.

Though not my original motivation, my studies at Spertus also induced me to think seriously about my career path. Returning to law practice after more than a decade away seemed daunting, if not impossible. More importantly, did I want to go back? The birth of my three children challenged me to re-evaluate my goals and priorities. I pondered this issue of career development for a long time. Even as clarity about the specifics of my future eluded me, I somehow knew with certainty that I would merge the training and skills I had acquired earlier in my life with the new knowledge and experiences of my present.

In the end, it was not my conscious mulling that resolved the dilemma; it was life itself. In August 2007, after nearly 21 years of marriage, my husband died suddenly and unexpectedly, two days after his 48th birthday. In an instant, my world was turned upside down. I was a widow with three minor children. When the initial shock abated, I became acutely aware of the many very real problems I needed to solve. Of feeling alone. Of being afraid.

It was through this traumatic encounter with death that I learned something essential about life: I learned that each of us possesses a profound power to heal others through our authentic presence. From the day my husband died, I was blessed with the constant presence of a few very special friends who walked with me every step of the way, even carried me at times, on a path toward healing. They couldn’t change what happened, but their genuine presence and their patient respect for and support of my process promoted my healing nonetheless. All very accomplished professionals themselves, they helped me to understand that, whatever gifts or talents we may be fortunate to possess, our ultimate purpose on this planet is to take care of each other.

About a year after my husband died, the U.S. entered the “Great Recession.” Individuals and organizations tightened their belts as portfolios endured crushing losses. The Milwaukee Jewish community was no exception and, in 2009, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation terminated the community’s Jewish Chaplaincy Program. I could empathize with the intense financial anxieties; still, I felt sad and deeply disappointed that the board seemingly had decided to balance the Federation’s budget, at least in part, on the backs of some of the community’s most vulnerable members – those facing serious illness or crisis. I was not able to reconcile that decision with the Jewish values I had come to embrace and cherish.

These two seminal events – the loss of my husband and the loss of the Jewish Community Chaplaincy Program – served as catalysts that propelled me from thought to action. I enrolled in clinical pastoral education (CPE) and began serving as a student chaplain in a hospital, visiting with Jewish patients to try in some way to fill the breach created by the elimination of the community program. When I was in the middle of my second unit of CPE, I was hired by the hospital on a very part-time basis. I completed my last two units of CPE and eventually became a board-certified chaplain. My position has continued to grow and evolve, and I now work virtually full-time.

My job is multi-faceted and challenging, with work that is absorbing and immensely rewarding. As the hospital’s only Jewish chaplain, I continue to assess and support the needs of our Jewish patients; however, my role has expanded to provide spiritual and emotional care to patients, families and staff of all faith traditions and no faith tradition. In all that I do, I strive to bring the caring, connection and relationship that is so deeply rooted in both my own experience of crisis and healing and in my religious tradition. Judaism teaches that our role is to partner with God in the work of perfecting the world. “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am Holy.” (Lev. 19:2). I understand this verse to mean that although we are not God, we are nevertheless enjoined to be God-like in our behavior and actions. “As God clothes the naked . . . so do you also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be God, visited the sick . . . so do you also visit the sick. The Holy one, blessed be God, comforted mourners . . . so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy One, blessed be God, buried the dead . . . so do you also bury the dead.” (Talmud Sotah, 14a).

Each of us is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and each of us has the capacity to bring holiness into the world by doing our best to emulate God’s attributes of holiness. These theological themes comfort and strengthen me, encouraging me to reach deep within myself to offer the sacred qualities of presence, compassion and empathy in my attempts to alleviate suffering and accompany patients, families and staff members on their journey toward healing and wholeness.

Many people are perplexed, even shocked, by my career transition from attorney to chaplain. They see it as a huge shift in direction, even a major break with my past. I don’t see it that way at all. My work today is not a disconnection from my past; it is rather an evolutionary integration with my present. Every day, I use a great many of the skills I acquired in law school and cultivated further as a practicing attorney: analytical ability, advocacy, mediation, synthesizing and presenting complex information clearly and understandably, oral and written communication, counseling, teaching, persuasion and more. About the only thing I don’t use anymore is the law license itself.

The evolution manifests in the way I now use these skills, in conjunction with new knowledge and skills I continue to acquire and cultivate. At last, the clouds have cleared, and, as I predicted, my career path seamlessly merges my past with my present and, even more fundamentally, combines my personal strengths and abilities with my passions. It is a joy and a very great privilege to have work that is meaningful, purposeful and holy, work that allows and even requires me to know and use my whole self in the service of others. I did not find this work; I was found by it. I did not choose it; it chose me.

How do I know I am on the right path? At my core, I feel more congruent and more complete. I feel happy, perhaps happier than I have been at any time in my life. I believe I feel this way because what I do is now fused inextricably with who I am. With all due respect to my well-meaning father (zichrono livracha – may his memory be for a blessing), my sense of inner peace stems from finally living my life in accordance with my values and priorities.

One aspect of my work has changed rather dramatically, and I struggle with this at times: lawyers are trained to fix things. Clients (at least clients of litigators) come to lawyers with legal problems; the lawyers’ job is to solve them. Chaplains, by contrast, are often confronted with situations they cannot fix and problems they cannot solve. This can be extremely frustrating, even heartbreaking, for me in the throes of a specific situation. In the bigger picture, however, I am able to recognize that these “limitations” create space for profound personal and professional growth and for encounters with the sacred. My perspective is grounded in my understanding that even when bringing our talents and abilities “fails,” bringing our selves in the service of another never fails.1 

Today, my office is much smaller and my salary is much lower. I don’t have a personal assistant or an expense account. But today, I feel successful — measured in my own terms and by my own expectations and aspirations for myself.

Karen Lieberman JD BCC is a staff chaplain at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Mequon, WI and is board certified by Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains. She may be contacted at

1. I am deeply indebted to Rachel Naomi Remen for shedding light on this powerful insight.  See Rachel Naomi Remen, “In the Service of Life,”Noetic Sciences Review (Spring 1996).

Friday, February 5, 2016