A local effort to increase volunteer visitations to patients at area hospitals attracted 120 participants to CentraState Medical Center on Feb. 9.
At the first Caring Conference sponsored by Jewish Monmouth Cares, a volunteer support initiative created by Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, experts shared tips on visiting the sick, hospital regulations, and the Jewish ethic of comforting patients.
Rabbi Michelle Pearlman, the federation’s chaplain and director of community engagement and the meeting’s prime organizer, worked with a 13-person committee chaired by Eleanor Rubin of Tinton Falls.
Pearlman challenged attendees, many of whom were clergy and/or current volunteers, to “turn their learning into action.” She urged that they go back to their congregations and communities committed to recruiting more people for bikur holim, the mitzva of visiting the sick.
Speakers also delivered dozens of useful tips about how volunteers should behave when paying a visit, as well as on how to protect themselves from becoming so involved that they neglect their own health and family.
“I’m frightened every time I approach a patient’s room,” said Cecille Allman Asekoff, director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest, and executive vice president of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains. “What helps me get over it is the recognition that I’m not there for me, but for the patient. And even if the patient is not receptive, don’t think you’re a failure; you’re a success because you are there.”
Framing it in spiritual terms, Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner said, “As a visitor, you are responsible for seeing the presence of God in the room.” Kinzbrunner, chaplain at the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset, cited a talmudic passage directing visitors to never sit at the head or foot of the bed, but in the middle. “The rabbis wanted you to recognize that you are in the middle of a battle between healing and death,” he explained.
NAJC president Rabbi Ephraim Karp told of his own daughter’s death 12 years ago. “At first, when she was in the hospital, my wife was there all the time. Eventually, the hospital offered a rotation of nurses and aides to occasionally relieve us and give us a chance to be a family outside the hospital as well as in it. We had two sons at home.”
This took place in New Jersey, where Karp had served as chaplain for the Monmouth County federation. “Ultimately, Sephardic Bikur Holim [in Oakhurst] took up the task, but one hospital staff member, Michael Thomas, a tall, balding African-American man, continued to take his turn,” said Karp. “I was so touched knowing there are people out there who don’t even know me, and they are helping to keep me from falling.” Now living in the Cleveland area, Karp is director of spiritual living at the Menorah Park Center for Senior Living.
Answering a question about what rules a lay visitor should follow, Asekoff said, “Although volunteers don’t have professional standards binding them, they should be governed by the rules of menschlichkeit.”
It also went without saying that they must abide by all laws and institutional regulations. “Never forget that confidentiality is essential in this kind of work,” said Helaine Rothman, a registered nurse and social worker at Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank.
In the keynote speech, Rabbi Shira Stern, director of education at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, recalled learning about the importance of bikur holim at her mother’s knee. “When we visited someone who was ill, we always took seats, so as to be on the same level as the bedridden patient,” she said. “We would chat a bit and remind the person that she or he was in our thoughts and not forgotten.”
Stern — who is also a trained disaster chaplain, director of the Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling in Marlboro, and a past NAJC president — said the Talmud teaches that “each visit mitigates some of the suffering, loneliness, and feelings of isolation that many of us experience when we are ill. The commandment to do this is so important that we are given explicit guidelines how to do it well.
“We are discouraged from visiting the sick where it would be a stress to the patient or cause him or her embarrassment,” cautioned Stern. “And one should not visit the sick too early in the morning or too late at night and never stay too long.”
Like many of the other presenters, Stern emphasized that bikur holim is not a one-way street. “I have found that when I am truly present, I am either filled with energy or physically exhausted, because I have given my all to the people I have met that day,” she said. “Never, however, do I feel untouched or detached.”
As the conference closed, Pearlman said, “This is only the beginning.” She urged anyone interested in learning about volunteer opportunities and future training gatherings to contact her at 732-866-4300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.