A Still Small Voice follows Jewish Chaplain Mati Esther Engel’s yearlong residency providing spiritual care during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week, a global audience will enter the small world of Jewish chaplaincy, thanks to director Luke Lorentzen‘s latest film A Still Small Voice that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival’s 2023 US Documentary Competition.
The film is told through the lens of Mati Esther Engel, a “theologian and spiritual care practitioner” who is “a third-generation Holocaust survivor… deeply connected to [her] Afghanistani and Pakistani ancestral roots.” Mati, who grew up in the Hassidic community in Boro Park, Brooklyn, describes herself as a “practicing performance artist, theologian and spiritual practitioner” who utilizes the “arts, ritual and experience design” in her spiritual care-giving practice.
Mati’s yearlong chaplaincy residency at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City happened to occur in 2020 and 2021, during the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. The film is a sensitive portrayal of this tragic period and is a deep reflection on the question: “What does care look like when everything around you seems broken?”
The art of Jewish chaplaincy actually has biblical roots. The new film’s title A Still Small Voice is borrowed from the story of Elijah the Prophet’s passionate defense of God before the Israelite nation in the book of Kings, Chapter 19. Commenting on this story, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reflects that “in turbulent times” Jewish leaders must be driven by both “guidance and compassion” and not merely zealotry and passion. In addition to the prophet who guides the people through internal struggles, the biblical priest is also described as caring for the spiritual needs of sick Israelites who are befallen to ailments such as leprosy.
Dr. Michelle Friedman, who has taught pastoral counseling to dozens of Rabbis, describes “being a Jewish chaplain as bringing wisdom, spiritual insight and possibly guidance that is derived from the Jewish tradition to people in settings not primarily defined by Jewish purpose. In other words, Jewish chaplains serve the religious needs of people in medical situations, prisons, long-term care facilities or the workplace.”
Kretzmer-Seed elaborates on the role of a Jewish chaplain as “walking in God’s ways through the attributes of meeting someone where they are at and being with someone in their pain as God is with us in our pain.” Meeting someone where they are at means that chaplains commonly enter the world of patients in their worst possible moments of suffering, hopelessness and death. In the context of prison chaplaincy, Kretzer-Seed is “specifically inspired by the centrality of teshuvah (repentance) in the Jewish tradition, which means to be there and give hope to people who are in a dark and difficult place,, no matter what acts they may be accused of.”
A Still Small Voice is a close, intimate look into Mati’s life and personal struggle as she offers care in similar “seemingly hopeless situations.” During the historically deadly years of the pandemic, health care workers and chaplains were stretched extremely thin, often to the point of breaking and Mati was no exception. Her supervisor Rev. David Fleenor describes finding balance amidst such challenges as “if your bandwidth is stretched, you don’t have the room inwardly to metabolize the harder stuff that comes at you.”