Strengthening the Jewish community is Lee Rosenfield’s profession, and what he has championed all his life. In the past year, it has taken on an intensely personal relevance.
For him, as for all of us as we assess our behavior over the past year and commit to do better, core Jewish values have come to the fore: bikur cholim — caring for those in need; chesed — doing acts of loving kindness, and tikkun olam — repairing the world. He had promoted those in his consultancy business and in his capacity as chief development officer for the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. Now he was in need himself.
Last October Rosenfield’s husband Jack Fastag was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, plunging the couple and their two young children into a whirlwind of fear and tension, hospital stays and treatment sessions. Fastag, the more introverted of the two, might have chosen to keep things private, but Rosenfield says he opted to go public for two reasons: to draw the comfort and support he knew would be forthcoming for his family, and to model such openness for others.
“As a gay man, I knew that silence legitimizes ignorance and homophobia,” Rosenfield said. “The more visible and the stronger we could be, the more acceptance there is.”
In emails and blog posts, he has described the agonizing anxiety they have faced, and the wonderfully uplifting love they share. Whenever possible they have welcomed friends, family, and community members into their home and to Fastag’s hospital bedside.
“People can feel an awkwardness around illness, a kind of stigma and shame,” he said. “But there should be no shame. It is part of the human condition, and all of us will experience it at some time in our lives. I wanted to acknowledge that, to give people permission to feel that way and share that it is okay, and to model an openness they could emulate. People have shared with me how grateful they feel, how it has let them walk in their own lives with more acceptance, and more sensitivity to what others are going through.”
For those looking to offer such support, opportunities abound in the Monmouth and Greater Middlesex communities. The federation coordinates projects through its Community Impact program, under the leadership of Laura Safran. Recognizing that different people have different strengths — and weaknesses — they seek to match volunteers with the charitable activities that best suit them.
For example, its Caring Initiative provides emotional and spiritual support for those in the hospital, dealing with chronic illness, or coping with loss. Training sessions are held at various times throughout the year. They deal with such aspects as the Jewish perspective on visiting the sick, listening skills, respecting boundaries, and issues that arise for those facing the end of life.
Participants in the program are taught how to provide support in an appropriate way, and they are aided in navigating the complexity of hospital volunteer procedures.
The federation volunteers visit Jewish patients at any of the 10 hospitals in Monmouth and Greater Middlesex counties. According to its literature, “volunteers’ visits remind those in the hospital that the Jewish community cares about them and they are not alone.” The goal is to see patients at all 10 locations at least three to five days per week.
Safran cited other examples too. “Caring community members can visit seniors at an assisted living residence, help to run programs for children with special needs, deliver a hot meal or having a phone conversation with someone who’s homebound, serve food at a program for seniors or local shelter, or help to rebuild a home damaged in Hurricane Sandy.”
Giving help can also come in a very tangible way, through a physical donation. In addition to becoming a regular blood donor, one can register as a potential bone marrow donor or be considered as a kidney donor. Both gifts can make the difference between life and death.
At press time, a member of the community was in need of such help. Rabbi Cy Stanway of Temple Beth Miriam, the Reform congregation in Elberon, reached out with an appeal. The patient, he said, is someone who epitomizes this kind of generosity.
“She is a lifetime member of Hadassah and serves on the advisory board for Jewish Family Services. In 2000, she started one of the most meaningful programs our synagogue offers, Family Affair, which provided challah and homemade meals to families in need, and now provides meals for those sitting shiva and plants trees in memory of the deceased. These are just some examples of her impact on our Jewish community.”
The patient taught psychology for many years and also taught English as a second language to immigrant students and community members. “Her passion and commitment to helping those in need is far reaching,” the rabbi said. “She has made financial contributions to countless needy organizations and has given her time and energy to countless others. Assisting ShoreHouse is but one example. Their mission is to aid those with mental illness to build long-term relationships that, in turn, support in obtaining education, employment, and housing.”
A medication she has had to take for many years has caused renal disease, now in the end stage. A kidney transplant is her best option. “She has always considered herself blessed, with a full life, amazing friends, two beautiful sons, and now two amazing grandchildren,” Stanway said. “Her only wish is to continue as a vibrant figure in the lives of her children and grandchildren, and to one day see them under the chuppah.”
He summed up his appeal: “So as we approach this High Holy Day season, and we search for ways to show our friends, family, and congregants the value of mitzvot, I hope you will spread the word. We need a donor. She needs a kidney. All of us can do a mitzvah by telling others of this story. The power of your words, of your congregants’ words, spreading this need throughout their circles is immeasurable, and a tremendous mitzvah on its own. After all, we all know the greatest gifts sometimes come from the most unknown places.”