For decades, David Balto was a Type-A lawyer with a very Washington resume: more than 30 years in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and in private practice. He has argued against proposed mergers of high-profile companies including Verizon/SpectrumCo, United Healthcare/Sierra and XM/SIRIUS.
These days, his focus is on acts of chesed — the Hebrew word for lovingkindness. As a chaplain at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, he lives by a verse he quotes from Psalm 90: “Teach me to number my days so I may attain a heart of wisdom.” At 69, Balto said, “This is my effort in my later years to attain a part of that wisdom.”
A decade ago, when his father died, Balto, a Chevy Chase resident, found comfort in a bereavement group run by the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA).
“I realized that I received a great deal of spiritual satisfaction from being a presence for people, being an accompanying presence.”
For many years he was active in the mitzvah of bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) and in the chevra kadisha, the Jewish burial society.
His avid volunteering coupled with his experience with the bereavement group led him to the chaplaincy training program at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington.
One of five chaplains at the 1,100-bed Northwest Washington hospital, Balto spends about four days a week meeting with patients, their families and staff.
He starts his shift in the neonatal unit, where he says a prayer for each infant, drawing from the traditional words said upon waking: “The first prayer you say in the morning thanks God for awakening me, returning my soul to me. Then we say, ‘One day you’ll take that soul from me, and return it in the world to come.’”
The rest of the day whizzes by and a chaplain never knows what to expect. It might be a child shot by a stray bullet and her bereft family, or an elderly man with no immediate family, or a child with rare cancer.
On an average day, he may have a handful of Jewish patients — and Balto makes a point to visit each of them — but he’ll primarily interact with non-Jewish patients as all chaplains at the hospital work across denominations.
He’ll typically have about 10 Jewish patients at any one time. “When I visit Jewish patients, and I walk in and say I’m a chaplain, they give me a look that says, ‘Stay away. What are you doing here? I’m Jewish.’
Most Jews, Balto contends, don’t understand what chaplains do. When a Jewish patient sees him enter wearing a yarmulke, they often shy away, worrying he’s going to judge their faith, their practice or their belief. But that’s the last thing on Balto’s mind.
“Chaplains are there to be present,” he said, “to be active, compassionate listeners, to help people address what is spiritual in their own lives.”
A chaplain, no matter the denomination, does not come into a room with any specific agenda. “We don’t come in, pull out a prayer book and say, ‘Let’s pray this.’”
What a chaplain doesn’t do is attempt to convert someone or change their faith. “We’re not there to do religious accounting,” Balto said. “We’re just there to help you touch the spirit in your life, discover your spiritual strengths, your spiritual fears, your spiritual weaknesses.”
He continued, “I used the word ‘spiritual’ very deliberately. It’s not religion because the vast majority of people we see identify themselves as spiritual, but not religious. So my job is just to find out where the spirit is and help people find those sources of spiritual strength and be present as a compassionate listener, so they know they’re not on this journey alone.”
Affiliated with three area synagogues — Shirat HaNefesh; Ohev Shalom – The National Synagogue; and Ohr Kodesh Congregation — he discovered that crossing denominations and religions as a chaplain has strengthened his own Jewish spiritual life.
“It really puts you to the test to work in an interfaith environment,” he said, “and it really makes you understand what your beliefs are and learn how to translate them well.”
He’s counseled and prayed with Christian families who have had a child murdered, and he’s there for anyone of any religion or none, to talk, listen or just sit quietly and offer solace. And for Jewish patients, on Friday he sees every Jewish patient, and offers candles and other items to help them celebrate Shabbat, even when hospitalized.
As for how his own Judaism has changed, Balto said, “The accessibility of prayers becomes profoundly different, not only because of the need to go and look for specific prayers that help people find the spiritual strength. The challenge of being in an almost totally non-Jewish environment, bridging religion has made my own Judaism much more vital. “