Jewish residents celebrate new chapel at Bergen Regional Medical Center

Jewish residents celebrate new chapel at Bergen Regional Medical Center

Rabbi Barry Schneider in the renovated chapel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. courtesy brmc

Fair Lawn resident Rose Harris is glad she answered the 2001 ad seeking volunteers to work with Jewish residents at Bergen Regional Medical Center.

Harris – who is still helping out there – says that while she is involved in many volunteer activities, “this is my favorite.”

Now president of Cong. Ahavat Chesed, the synagogue housed at BRMC, Harris said she and fellow volunteers help bring people to religious services.

“They need someone to accompany them,” she said. While most are housed in the center’s long-term care facility, sometimes attendees come from the center’s hospital wing. In either case, “They need someone with them.”

“We volunteers work very hard,” she said of the six to eight regulars who show up each week, “and we also set up refreshments. The hospital helps by bringing in hot coffee and hot water for tea.”

The volunteer credits BRMC with recognizing the importance of residents’ spiritual lives.

“They bend over backwards,” she said of the administration and staff. “[Religion] is very important to people. There could be a real void, especially in an elderly person.” Describing herself as a senior, Harris said she too “has turned even more religious than before. There’s more of a spiritual feeling going on now. I share that with the people who come in.”

She is also excited about the synagogue’s renovated chapel, shared with the center’s other religious groups.

“It’s magnificently beautiful. You needed to see what there was before to appreciate what we have now.”

According to volunteer and former journalist Eliana Mechlowitz, who produces the synagogue’s newsletter and other publicity, the center’s Jewish community recently lost longtime member Fritz Weiss, co-president of Ahavat Chesed.

“He was very proud and took an active role,” she said, “and he was eagerly awaiting the new chapel.” When accepting the position of co-president, he said the shul gave him hope, “something to look forward to every day.'”

Rabbi Barry Schneider, who serves as the religious leader of the BRMC synagogue and has been with the congregation for some 10 years, said that Jewish residents make up about 10 percent of the medical center’s population. There is also a large number of Jewish staff members.

Reflecting on the religious life there, he said, “It’s unusual to find this type of programming in a regular, public, nondenominational environment.”

“It’s one of their priorities,” he said. “They understand that the Jewish residents in long-term care were presidents of their own congregations years ago. They feel that since this is now [the residents’] home, they should have the facilities and programming, as best as they can, equal to what they had before. They call it normalization.”

The congregation has a name, a president, and a board, “so [attendees] feel that they’re in a normal congregation.”

While the rabbi described himself as “traditional,” he said that services are run so that everyone can participate. Pre-Shabbat services are held on Thursday afternoons, and all food served at Shabbat and holiday celebrations is “100 percent kosher.”

Schneider is thrilled about the new chapel, which boasts a built-in ark and bimah. He said the hospital spent “a lot of money figuring out how to make it look completely neutral ” – since it serves several religious groups – while someone can, with the push of a button, display the particular symbols of each group.

“It’s state of the art,” he said, adding that the idea of making it adaptable came from the hospital president, Joseph S. Orlando. Groundbreaking took place in December, though the project has been in the works for more than a year, he said.

“Before it was renovated, a Jewish person walking in would see [non-Jewish] icons and maybe would walk out. Now there’s nothing. When we have services, we activate the Jewish symbols. Everyone has the ability to have their own religious icons.”

Schneider noted that the Foundation at Bergen Regional Medical Center “pays for the budget, but we raise money for extra things.”

In addition to pre-Shabbat services, the synagogue offers holiday celebrations. For example, it hosted services and refreshments for Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot. The first program was held on Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

“Most people come in wheelchairs,” said the rabbi, adding that “30 is a comfortable number” of attendees, though Pesach observances, for example, attract many more.

In addition to leading services, Schneider teaches Bible classes.

Harris said the rabbi asks questions – of both residents and volunteers – giving participants a chance to talk about their personal lives.

“Many times, that is lacking for these people,” she said. “They may not have family ties or visitors.”

The rabbi described the volunteers – some of whom have been serving the Jewish population at the center for around 25 years – as “busy people, the ones who drive Meals on Wheels, are active in their congregations, etc.” Most are seniors themselves. He noted that in 2008, Cong. Ahavat Chesed was awarded the volunteer of the year award in the group category by the Health Care Association of New Jersey.

Mechlowitz, Schneider’s daughter, said the synagogue is planning a gala in the fall to celebrate the new chapel, and that congregants are hoping to get more ritual objects. She added that both residents and volunteers are encouraged to hold simchas in the facility, whether birthday parties or grandchildren’s b’nai mitzvah celebrations.

For further information or to volunteer, call (201) 967-4177.

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