Volunteers create a ‘revolution of happiness’ during coronavirus

The volunteer groups continued right until the new coronavirus guidelines from the Health Ministry were issued, with one of the last visits being a pre-Purim distribution of gift baskets.

WEARING MAHAPECHA Shel Simcha T-shirts, the volunteers assist patients young and old, of all demographics, at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem. (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
WEARING MAHAPECHA Shel Simcha T-shirts, the volunteers assist patients young and old, of all demographics, at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.
(photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
The Mahapecha Shel Simcha volunteers could be found on any given day in hospitals throughout the country with musical instruments cheering up patients. Begun five years ago as a loosely organized volunteer project, the group has solidified and since the fall is now under the auspices of the well-established Shalom LeAm organization. What began as a group of youth using a WhatsApp group to coordinate has now taken on a larger and more organized role. Today there are 1,000 volunteers throughout Israel, half of whom are in Jerusalem.
The volunteer groups continued right until the new coronavirus guidelines from the Health Ministry were issued, with one of the last visits being a pre-Purim distribution of gift baskets.
In the lead-up to Good Deeds Day on March 29, the Magazine sat down with Margalit Sharabi who heads the Jerusalem division for volunteers.
“It’s a Jewish value for people to be cared for,” she stated, “but this is not necessarily a religious thing,” she explained. Her large collection of photos from her many hospital visits shows young men, both bare-headed and wearing kippot, joining with a mix of young and old, religious and secular. The hospital, it seems, is a neutral ground and levels the playing field.
The volunteers range from age 15 to age 72.
“Some were sick themselves,” she explained. “We came to visit them and they wanted to give back and be a part of it.”
One such individual who returned to the hospital as a volunteer after recovering from an operation told Sharabi how important the group’s visit was.
“He told us that he could not even breathe,” Sharabi said, “and now he is singing with the volunteers.” She says some patients cry from joy. A coma patient, a former musician himself, although immobile, had a smile on his face as the volunteers performed at his bedside.
Shabari, who studied music, plays flute. Other musicians, both amateur and professional, play guitar, darbuka, saxophone, keyboard, violin and other instruments. All visits are arranged and coordinated with the hospital.
One of the most active volunteers is a young woman named Rachel Fastman. Born with a disability in her legs, the wheelchair-bound Fastman was a former recipient of the singing volunteers and now has become one herself.
“This is something meaningful and a reason to get up in the morning,” she confided.
She related the story of a little boy that the group was visiting whose IV became dislodged. It was painful to be reinserted, so Fastman stayed with him during the process and stuck around for the next two hours to comfort the boy. Fastman spends her time visiting other handicapped people, like herself, in ALYN Orthopedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Center. She also enjoys visiting an elderly woman in Shaare Tzedek hospital who makes requests for specific songs.
Another volunteer related a story that took place on the last visit before Yom Kippur began.
“We entered one of the rooms in the orthopedic ward and the room was empty, except for a patient,” the volunteer stated. “The patient said nobody came to visit him. He requested that we sing “Ohilah La-El,” a traditional Yom Kippur melody. Of course we responded to his request and started singing and then he suddenly started to cry. I am very sensitive and immediately felt a lump in my throat, choked and stopped singing. I turned my head aside so the other volunteers wouldn’t notice. We ended up all crying together with the patient. It felt as if our prayers were received in the best way possible.”

THE MAGAZINE joined one such visit in which members of a Bnei Akiva youth group distributed mishloach manot (Purim gift baskets) ahead of the holiday in the children’s ward of Shaare Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. The packages were offered to all children and parents, regardless of nationality. Non-Jewish parents who do not celebrate the holiday nevertheless said thank you and wished the volunteers a happy holiday.
Middle-school-age volunteers from Givat Ze’ev with Purim costumes and guitars sang holiday songs to the bedridden children. Special Purim gift packages were given to the nurses, too.
Ori, the group’s youth leader, explained the visit was part of a memorial project for Natan Chaim Atar, a 16-year-old local Bnei Akiva member who was killed in a car crash in 2017. The volunteers wrote get-well messages and Purim greetings on special stationary bearing their late classmate’s name and photo.
“It’s really important to visit sick people and make them happy,” one of the Bnei Akiva member told the Magazine.
Israeli songs familiar to the patients are typically sung, such as “Land of Israel” standards. Recently the volunteers came across an American patient injured in a sporting event and sang English pop songs for him. The group also makes an effort to recruit Arabic-speaking volunteers to perform for those patients that speak the Arabic language.
An IDF soldier who was injured in a recent terrorist attack surprised the group by asking for the guitar and then serenading the volunteers while he lay in bed.
Born in the Haifa area, Sharabi was inspired to take on the project because of her own personal experience with her late father.
“He passed away four years ago and no one came to the hospital to make him happy,” she said. “Now I see it is a dream come true.”
Sharabi’s future plans were to incorporate other volunteer groups, such as people who make balloon animals for children, medical clowns and others. A collaboration with national service members and other volunteer groups was on the horizon, as was participation in the now-postponed Jerusalem Marathon.
In a follow-up interview amid the massive closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Sharabi expressed sorrow that their work will be put on hold.
“I cannot send visitors, we cannot take the responsibility,” she said, for the health of both the patients and the volunteers. Sharabi investigated the use of video conferencing as an alternative, but noted some elderly patients are not as adept with modern technology.
“Yesterday I wanted to visit a friend with cancer, but it isn’t worth the risk, so I called her instead.” She vowed to arrange phone calls as an alternative as much as she can until the crisis subsides.
The name of the group, Mahapecha Shel Simcha (A Revolution of Happiness) is also the name of a popular Israeli song by Lior Narkis and Omar Adam. The volunteers have sung this song and other Israeli pop tunes to patients and as the group’s chosen name implies, perhaps they are creating a positive revolution through the joy they spread that will continue in the future.

For more information, visit
www.facebook.com/pg/arevolutionofhappiness


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