James R. Michaels '68, a member of Cornell's 100th graduating class, always knew he wanted to be a rabbi. He dutifully chose a philosophy major when he entered Cornell but found that the department's emphasis then on linguistic evaluation wasn't a good fit.
Political studies, on the other hand, fit like a glove: Michaels' father was a New York state assemblyman. An introductory course in American politics in Michaels' sophomore year with Clinton Rossiter '39, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions, clinched it for him. He wrote to Hebrew Union College, the rabbinical school he planned to attend, to ask what they thought about him studying politics. "They said take whatever you want," he recalls.
He switched his major to government.
"Understanding historical and current events was useful to me in understanding what was going on in my congregations," Michaels says, "because there's a political process there as well."
Politics -- and the Vietnam War -- shaped much of Michaels' college experience. When he matriculated, anti-war protests were just beginning; by the time he graduated, it had become a national movement. Many faculty offered classes to help students understand the war; Michaels especially recalls the History of Foreign Relations course taught by Walter LaFeber, the Tisch Distinguished University Professor of History. "He never used a single note. He just talked," says Michaels. "After every class we'd give him a standing ovation."
He also fondly recalls his Hebrew teacher in the classics department, professor of Biblical and Hebrew studies Isaac Rabinowitz, who gave Michaels his first academic grounding in Hebrew.
"But there was much more to my education than just the classwork," Michaels says. "I was chairman of Campus Chest, a charity, which taught me about organizing and raising money. I was a reporter and then senior editor at The [Cornell Daily] Sun, which helped me understand the importance of deadlines. Cornell also gave me the notion of service, of doing things because they need to be done.
"People ask me, 'What should I study to become a rabbi?' I say take Shakespeare, take art, learn from experts. You won't have that opportunity again."
Although Michaels enjoyed serving as a pulpit rabbi in congregations in New York City, Pennsylvania and Michigan, he says his work as a chaplain at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville, Md. (which provide rehabilitative, long-term care, independent and assisted living services) for the last decade is the most fulfilling thing he's ever done.
"What I like about the chaplaincy is I can work with people and deal with life and death matters that are important to them. I did this as a rabbi, but it was more of the 'hatch, match and dispatch'; I officiated at life cycle events but rarely talked to people about what was going on with them."
Palliative care plans include medical, dietary, social and spiritual components, he explains. "I'm working with all four of these disciplines, coming up with a plan and helping people make the right decision. That's really what I enjoy about this kind of work."
The senior living complex has 1,000 residents and 1,000 staff in six buildings, and Michaels ministers to them all -- and their families. "It's the largest congregation I've ever had," he says, smiling. Fortunately, he has help from the interns he trains as chaplains, who handle many of the day-to-day tasks.
He also has help from Cornell alumni. Arnold and Mary Hammer '64, reunion chairs in 2009, helped him run services for the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Michaels' father, mother and brother also graduated from Cornell, but Michaels couldn't convince any of his five kids to attend. "They wanted urban schools," he says with regret. He holds out hope that one of his eight grandchildren will attend.
This story first appeared in Ezra Update.