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Conference encourages visits to the sick
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Conference encourages visits to the sick

Federations, agencies aim to create a cadre of ‘caring’ volunteers

Leaders of a conference aimed at creating a corps of caring volunteers are, from left, Rabbi David Glicksman, Cantor Lee Coopersmith, Rabbi Shira Stern, Cecille Allman Asekoff, Rabbi Leslie Bergson, and Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner. 
Leaders of a conference aimed at creating a corps of caring volunteers are, from left, Rabbi David Glicksman, Cantor Lee Coopersmith, Rabbi Shira Stern, Cecille Allman Asekoff, Rabbi Leslie Bergson, and Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner. 

In an initiative to create a “caring community,” about 50 volunteers and professionals gathered at the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset to learn about visiting and comforting the sick.

Speakers and workshops at the Oct. 22 program focused on creating a cadre of volunteers to do the mitzva of bikur holim, or visiting the sick, to complement the work of professionals. 

“A volunteer is the eyes and ears of the professionals,” said Cecille Allman Asekoff, director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “If they hear or see anything, they can go back to the rabbi, professional, or caretaker.”

Asekoff, also executive vice president of the national Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains, said the “grand plan” was to join all participants “in a world of caring communities” involving professionals and synagogue leaders of all denominations “regardless of geographic boundaries and differences” to help one another. 

Lori Bernard, caring initiative coordinator for the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, said the conference was in support of efforts to expand a nascent initiative already launched in Monmouth County, and local established groups such as the Bikur Cholim of Raritan Valley in Middlesex.

“We want to expand it to visiting the Jewish patients and eventually to nursing homes and visiting people where they live,” said Bernard.

In addition to the Wilf campus, the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest, and the Heart of NJ federation, the program was cosponsored by Jewish Family Service of Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties; Atlantic Health System; and Barnabas Health.

The program featured a keynote address by Rabbi Shira Stern, a longtime chaplain and director of the Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling in Marlboro. Workshops were conducted by Cantor Lee Coopersmith, chaplain with the JFS of SHW and at Ohr Tikvah Jewish Healing Services; Rabbi David Glicksman, former Wilf chaplain; and Rabbi Leslie Bergson, chaplain at Life Choice Hospice in Manasquan.

The speakers explored the stages of grief and bereavement and how to listen and interpret a patient’s needs and establish boundaries.

Stern, a Reform rabbi, has served as a hospital, hospice, and long-term care facility chaplain. “You need to bring yourself into the room,” she said. “For many people the thing they overwhelmingly feel and fear is isolation.” 

Each patient, she said, should be treated like “a living, breathing document” whose individual suffering is recognized. “By sitting down and talking to someone, you’ve accomplished 90 percent of bikur holim,” said Stern.

Glicksman, an Orthodox rabbi, said chaplains must be aware of the personal boundaries of each patient — for example, when a Jewish chaplain visits a Catholic patient, or when a female rabbi visits a hasidic patient.

Coopersmith, who often visits Jewish residents in nursing homes with few other Jews, invites non-Jews to join in holiday festivities. One such facility recently erected a sukka for the first time. Coppersmith said 35 people — many non-Jews — joined in Sukkot rituals.

“It gives the Jewish residents a chance to say, ‘This is my holiday,’” she said.

Coopersmith also visits Jewish inmates at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton. There she conducts Shabbat services, which she finds “extremely rewarding.” 

“I think it’s a real mitzva to visit these people as religious volunteers,” said Coopersmith. “I don’t know what these people did and I don’t want to know. But as you can imagine if they’re doing 25 years to life, it’s not for stealing a candy bar.” 

Caroline Seidner of Metuchen, who has been caring for her stroke-disabled mother for 11 years, said she attended the program because she wants to help others without the family resources she has had.

“There are a lot of people without any support at all,” she said. “They’re without family, are sick, or Holocaust survivors. I really think we have to help each other. There is a real need not being filled.”

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