Pictured: Phyllis and her late husband, Gary Toback
The following memoir was written by Selfhelp’s very own resident and generous donor, Phyllis Toback…
The Early Years
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Boro Park. The neighborhood I grew up in was middle class – Jewish, Polish, and Italian, with many synagogues and Catholic churches. The high school I attended had a mixture of students, including Scandinavians, Italians, and Jews.
Marriage and Family
I met Gary Toback at the beginning of my first year in high school. We dated throughout high school and both went on to Columbia University: Gary to Columbia College, and I to Barnard College, from which we both graduated in 1963. We got married just after graduation, then went on to graduate school: Gary earned an MD at New York University Medical School, and I earned a PhD in English Literature from New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. We moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1967, for Gary to continue his medical training as an intern. I had completed my doctoral work in English Literature and was able to find employment as an instructor in English at Cuyahoga Community College.
After two years of medical training, Gary was drafted into the Navy. We moved to Boston, where I got a job as an Assistant Professor of English at Bridgewater State College. I worked there for five years, while Gary completed his Navy service, and continued his medical training. I had my first child, David, in 1969, and my second, Alison, in 1972. We moved to Chicago in 1974, when Gary was hired as a Kidney Specialist, Professor of Medicine, and Biochemistry Researcher at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
A Return to Judaism
In 1979, we had the opportunity to spend a year in San Diego, where Gary had a sabbatical with a Nobel Laureate in biochemistry at the Salk Institute. We now had three children and found a similarly oriented school for them. My son Dave decided, after attending his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in New York, that he wanted to have a Bar Mitzvah himself. This was the beginning of our serious commitment to Judaism. I had been raised in an Orthodox home, but the education of girls in Judaism was not highly valued then. In San Diego, we began attending a synagogue where the Rabbi was from a Rodfei Zedek family, and we joined Rodfei Zedek in Chicago as members when we returned the following year. Dave had a Bar Mitzvah in 1982, and after I had been helping him study, I decided to have a Bat Mitzvah in 1983, at age 40. This was at a time when, at our Conservative shul, women were just beginning to have bat mitzvahs and be counted in minyans.
Phyllis and her family
Clinical Pastoral Education
Back in Chicago in 1980, I found that I was free to figure out what the next chapter in my life would be. In consultation with Rabbi Ralph Simon of Rodfei Zedek, I was advised to consider becoming a Temple Administrator. He gave me a flyer about a new program for Para Chaplaincy Training for lay people. I completed this training and was certified to visit Jewish patients. This led me to my initial experience with Clinical Pastoral Education, which is a hospital-based training program, mostly for clergy, but also open to lay people, to visit the sick, dying and their families in hospitals. With encouragement from the interfaith faculty of the program, I continued along a path of training which eventually qualified me to be a chaplain, and certified me to become an educator of students. I was the first woman and the first lay person to acquire credentialling for this profession.
At the early stage of this part of my career, the Rabbi, who was the chaplain visiting the Jewish patients at the University of Chicago, retired. I approached the Board of Rabbis, who made the assignments to hospitals, and they told me I could have the job but not the salary, because I was not ordained. After two years, I got a job at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. I was hired as a staff chaplain and chaplain educator for the Department of Spiritual Care, where I remained on staff for the next 30 years, active both as a chaplain to the few Jewish patients and Jewish doctors, but also active in the local, regional, national, and international activities of the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education. During this time, I trained hundreds of students to function as chaplains and pastors in hospitals or congregations.
I acquired a second doctorate, a Doctor of Ministry at Chicago Theological Seminary in Chicago, and I also earned certification in Spiritual Direction. I saw myself mainly in the role of companioning: helping students develop their skills with what is called the Action/Reflection model of learning. Students went out and visited patients, and then met in groups where they presented written reflections of their patient and family visits, and I, as educator, facilitated the groups. I retired from my position in 2015 at age 72.
Finding My Self at Selfhelp
In July, 2016, Gary was still working as a professor of medicine, with full clinical responsibilities, and also operating a laboratory doing research on kidney disease. He was out jogging one block from our home in South Shore, when a woman driving an SUV hit him. He was killed instantly. My world was thrown into chaos. Two of my three children, who live in Chicago and Evanston, wanted me to move north to be closer to them. I remembered that a number of families from Rodfei Zedek had moved into Selfhelp Home. I moved in September, 2016, and spent the next year in a daze, both from the loss of my life partner of nearly 60 years, and from emptying and selling the house I had lived in since 1974.
Finding My Home at Selfhelp
“The Selfhelp Home is a unique place. For me personally, I cherish the commitment to Jewish rituals, celebrations, and values. These are done with appropriate reverence, and also joy and fun. I love the extensive entertainment program which has existed here for decades and been fostered by skilled staff and generous contributions from residents.”