A hospital is one of the loneliest places to be on a Jewish holiday, Shabbat, or a simcha.
It’s not just the patient who feels isolated and frustrated, as Devora Hosseinof of Teaneck discovered when her 15-month-old daughter, who had salmonella poisoning, was admitted to Englewood Hospital erev Pesach last year.
The holiday began on Friday night, forcing a worst-case scenario for the Orthodox mother who spent three days and nights sleeping on a chair in her daughter’s room. Her husband, Josh, had stayed home with the other children, and people at the local synagogue couldn’t know she was right across the street because there was no way to let them know she had no appropriate food for Pesach and limited access to a kosher pantry.
The religious support system, Hosseinof discovered, was geared to weekday situations where the hospital would provide rabbis with a list every day at 10 a.m. But some people fell through the cracks if they showed up later in the day, or on Shabbat or yom tov. "When someone checked in on Friday afternoon," said Hosseinof, "it was possible no one in the community would know about them until Sunday morning."
With her own crisis over, Hosseinof worked to create a network of the people involved with bikkur cholim in the Jewish communities in Bergen. Originally from Monsey, she was familiar with the comprehensive bikkur cholim system in Rockland County, and decided to see if she could help Bergenites work toward a similar system.
"Admittedly, this could take years to fully develop," Hosseinof told The Jewish Standard. "But a family in medical crisis has enough stress without having to cope with things like room and board, especially if the next of kin needs to commute. If we can create a bikkur cholim system that clicks into place when a family registers at the hospital, they can have more peace of mind."
Hosseinof spoke to many people, including Chani Schmutter and Eva Stern, who are responsible for bikkur cholim at Hackensack University Medical Center, and formed an ad hoc committee. The idea for a "shul liaison" was born out of these discussions. Hosseinof’s ad hoc group reached out to the chesed committees of as many Orthodox synagogues as they could, asking that congregations appoint a bikkur cholim representative. In June, more than ‘0 of these came to a county-wide meeting in Teaneck and discussed how to improve services.
Hosseinof’s ideas included creating a Website, www.bikurcholimbergencounty.org, where anyone can access information about each local hospital’s facilities, along with local phone numbers to call when there is a crisis. Jaime Berger of Catalyst Design built the site pro bono. The committee also created a bikkur cholim weekend and approximately 35 rabbis agreed to participate. They will give a sermon about the new network and place fliers in their shul newsletters on Nov. 5.
As a result of the committee’s efforts, Englewood Hospital and Medical Center recently inaugurated an official observant-friendly program with help from Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood and five seniors from the Frisch School in Paramus. As part of a mitzvah project, the students decorated a hospital room and turned it into a Shabbat mini-suite. The kosher kitchen has been updated and there’s a new Shabbat entrance and a newly designated Shabbat elevator. The interfaith chapel has a special section that contains an ark with a Torah scroll that can be used for special occasions.
Rabbi Evan Kroll, the Frisch faculty member who helped the seniors paint the room, said that it was an opportunity to combine community involvement with artistic creativity and making a mitzvah. Rachel Samuels, a student from Englewood, said, "It was a honor to paint the Shabbat room, and it was also lots of fun."
Schmutter, a member of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, became involved with bikkur cholim 15 years ago when her young cousin was diagnosed with cancer and brought to Hackensack University Medical Center from Brooklyn. Observant family members had no place to stay until Dr. Michael Harris, head of pediatric oncology, and Judy Solomon, the patient representative, convinced the hospital to set up a Shabbat apartment. Now the hospital provides a house that accommodates eight adults one room for men and one for women and the bikkur cholim stocks the kosher pantry. New and improved facilities are in the works, as the hospital grows and old buildings are being demolished.
Hosseinof said, "I am so happy that the local area hospitals are hearing us. All of them have been doing so much in the last year and made such great strides to meet the community’s needs. We hope that our budding network will attract the students and other community members. We would like to create something for everyone, and we can use all the help we can get."
Arelene Eis of Teaneck lives near Holy Name Hospital and her congregation, Beth Aaron, sends visitors to patients there each Shabbat. She founded the bikkur cholim Teaneck in December ‘004 and soon after attended a bikkur cholim Coordinating Council Conference at UJA Federation in New York, where one workshop proved so inspiring, she invited the speaker to lead a workshop in Teaneck on the do’s and don’ts of visiting the sick. Now all BCT volunteers are trained before they are sent into the field.
There is a daily rotation of visitors at Holy Name; the BCT volunteers visit on Sundays through Thursdays, Chabad visits on Fridays, and Beth Aaron on Shabbat. There is a Shabbat room in the hospital, and local families also make their homes available for Sabbath-observant family members of patients at Holy Name. Also, the hospital has kosher meals available for family members as well as patients. "Thanks to the efforts of Shuli Kirschner, another Teaneck resident, and Debbie Ross, there are plans for new kosher pantries and improved overnight accommodations that will be ready sometime next year," said Eis.
Ross, a clinical software specialist at Holy Name, has been the unofficial Jewish liaison at the hospital for 15 years. She told the Standard that plans include a new Shabbat suite, a kosher pantry near the new emergency room, and one in a more central location. A Shabbat elevator will be designated within a few months and there are non-electric doors at the main entrance.
The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood has also announced plans to expand its services for observant patients. It has a Shabbat room and a kosher pantry, with kosher meals available for patients and family members if requested.
"As one of the people who has been involved with … the Jewish community in Bergen since 1973," said Ross, "I have seen incredible changes in the way all our hospitals have grown and responded to the changing needs and demographics of their patients. I am thrilled to see that a county-wide network is being put into place. Devora and her committee, as well as everyone who devotes him or herself to this worthy chesed, deserves to be recognized and applauded."