‘Ours is a modest community project, nothing grandiose, but meaningful to us.’
So says Judy Gray, an active member of the Ramot Zion community in Jerusalem’s
French Hill neighborhood and, like many of the members, a veteran American
“We wanted to do something to better the lives of people in
the broader community and thereby strengthen ourselves as a
She was serving as co-chair of the Ramot Zion Hessed
Hessed and its better-known sister tzedaka defy translation.
Tzedaka relates to giving away money, but isn’t exactly “charity,” nor
“philanthropy.” Hessed is usually translated as loving-kindness, an expression
rarely used in everyday speech. Other translations or explanations I’ve found
include “sensitive concern,” “compassion,” and “free will giving out of love, a
gift without expectation of return.”
The French Hill residents wanted to
increase their good deeds and sought a project that would be nearby.
Sunday afternoon, I find Gray stacking games and puzzles on a cart, in the
rehabilitation department of Hadassah-University Medical Center on Mount Scopus.
Anyone who has visited a loved one in a hospital rehab department knows that the
mornings are occupied with strenuous therapy – physical, occupational, speech –
and that the afternoons can be long and dreary. Recovery from strokes,
accidents, terror attacks can take many months, and the increments of
improvement are small. Visits from family and friends help, but over a long
period, conversation often becomes stilted, visiting children turn
So twice a week, five volunteers at a time from Ramot Zion and
the neighborhood Nechama Hadassah chapter stop by Mount Scopus to set out books
and games, a magazine corner, and a beauty corner with cosmetics.
it doesn’t look like much. Then, presto, what was minutes before a bleak,
nofrills eating area is transformed into a lively clubhouse.
depressed builder who has fallen from a roof is engaged in a fish puzzle with
his young children. Another family is playing dominoes.
An elderly woman
whom no one has come to visit is choosing a magazine. Gray has printed signs in
Hebrew, Russian and Arabic, using computer translations and checking with
patients. One of the volunteers makes a regular foray to east Jerusalem to pick
up Arabic periodicals. The games and puzzles have been donated from private
The volunteers have named their hessed activities Project
Eynat, in memory of Eynat Levy, a young woman in the community who was killed in
a car crash. Levy, as it turns out, was studying physiotherapy at Ben-Gurion
University in Beersheba, but she did her practical training in this very
department. Her mom, Judy Levy, is a co-coordinator of the project.
volunteers, not the games, are the key to the changed atmosphere. They have
learned to engage the patients and to practice what Gray calls “compassionate
How do they know what to do? That’s where another hessed
organization comes in. An NGO called Haverut specializes in making the
connection between groups like the French Hill volunteers and the health-care
facilities that need them, and provides training.
Haverut was created by
Rachel Fox Ettun, a family therapist. Although “haverut” means friendship in
Hebrew, the last syllable echoes the name of Ettun’s daughter Ruth, who died at
the age of 11.
Jerusalem being a small town, I remember Ruth. This
beautiful, dark-eyed girl with braids had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis
when she was an infant. I was impressed with how her parents made her life as
normal as possible despite the relentless progression of her
Because she was often restricted to her home, they turned her
room into a little clubhouse, full of books, films and music amid the medical
When Ruth was seven, she was interviewed on TV for a program
on CF. Breathing with difficulty, she told sick children that it was a waste of
effort to feel sorry for yourself.
“That just makes you sad,” Ruth said.
“I try to think happy thoughts.”
At the age of eight, she was
hospitalized and clearly losing her battle, sedated against the pain. Children’s
Hospital in St. Louis accepted her for a lung transplant, but despite cashing in
all their assets, her parents couldn’t pay the $800,000 it would cost. They had
to explain this to Ruth.
“Is it like buying a coat? If it’s too
expensive, we just can’t have it?” she asked. Friends heard of the Ettuns’
disappointment, and along with members of her father’s paratrooper unit, got
together and sought donations so she could have the surgery. That’s when I met
“Sometimes I think God made a mistake when He gave me CF – that I’m
not strong enough to cope,” she said. “Then I think again and realize he did
give me strength that other kids don’t have.”
Three years later, despite
the transplant, she succumbed to the disease. Inspired by her daughter’s
strength and experienced in caring for the sick in hospitals, Ettun created
Haverut to perpetuate her daughter’s memory and to help cope with her own
THAT’S THE special characteristic of hessed. Though it’s
given without expectation of reward, those on the giving side are indeed
The benefits of volunteering, it turns out, go beyond good
feeling. A review of recent research in the field by the Washington-based
Corporation for National and Community Service maintains that volunteers have
lower mortality rates, greater functional ability and even lower rates of
depression in later life than those who don’t volunteer. A longitudinal study,
carried out coincidentally in the same department where Ramot Zion members are
volunteering, came up with the same results. For Jerusalem residents born
1920-21, volunteering was correlated with longer life, even more effective than
continuing at a paid job beyond age 70.
The American researchers asked
whether volunteering actually led to improved health, or whether healthy people
were simply more likely to volunteer. “While it is undoubtedly the case that
better health leads to continued volunteering, these studies demonstrate that
volunteering also leads to improved physical and mental health,” they wrote.
“Thus they are part of a self-reinforcing cycle.”
According to the
studies, volunteers watch much less TV than non-volunteers and take fewer
afternoon naps, two habits that are not correlated positively with good
In Israel, there are a remarkable 26,000 nonprofit organizations
of all sizes and interests. In these days of economic challenge, many are
seeking volunteers. As we approach Shavuot, a holiday that emphasizes the value
of hessed through reading the Book of Ruth, we should explore opportunities to
chip in. It’s good for our health.The author is a Jerusalem writer who
focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel
director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of
America. The views in her columns are her own.