Healing our societal abyss

There is a large population of Israelis who helped to build this land who are in great need, and this problem has not been addressed.

A Haredi boy blocks the exit at the IDF's Jerusalem recruiting office, November 2017 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A Haredi boy blocks the exit at the IDF's Jerusalem recruiting office, November 2017
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
For most of us in Israel, it is the best of times. But for some, it is the worst of times.
Visit an emergency room and witness bed after bed occupied by an elderly person in pain, in crisis and very much alone. Today, it may be a Holocaust survivor or resident of a senior care home. Tomorrow it may be you or me.
There is a large population of Israelis who helped to build this land who are in great need, and this problem has not been addressed. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have children and grandchildren who will rush to their side.
Many families are separated by thousands of miles, divorce, death and dire circumstances beyond their control.
In Jerusalem hospitals’ oncology and hematology departments, which are all too familiar to me, I have witnessed elderly patients receiving chemotherapy who are unable to find someone to help them get to a bathroom, or to get them a cup of tea when they are feeling faint and unable to get the attention of a nurse. In the emergency rooms, the elderly who are alone are unable to request that their needs be addressed.
Friends who volunteer in Jerusalem’s hospitals recount these situations with great frustration.
Most of us realize that every patient needs an advocate in the hospital setting, be it a family member, friend, or paid employee. But residents of care facilities, nursing homes, and those living on their own often fall through the cracks. They become ill, ambulances are called and take the patient to a hospital with no one to stay by their side. It is a cruel twist of fate that needs addressing.
In another sphere of Israeli society there is a massive source of volunteers who have not been mobilized. The haredi world, with its yeshivot and midrashot, generally fight to stop the conscription of their students to the IDF.
This has created an animosity among the bulk of Israeli society and has become a political back-and-forth which regularly threatens to bring down the government.
But how could these same rabbis and religious parties justify refusing the conscription of their students to help the elderly? If this was not an option but a requirement, there could be a massive benefit to all.
One might presume that the National Service program already exists and hence this discussion is unnecessary.
However, that program is voluntary and even when one selects to work in a hospital, it is to assist the nursing staff and perform the tasks that they require.
This is not a position which directly assists lone patients. A hospital department is fortunate to have one such person assigned to them. It is far from sufficient. National Service participants have dozens of options for volunteer work in different spheres.
A new program to train these young adults to become medical advocates for the elderly could begin with social workers assigning each youth to a specific lone senior. They could then be responsible for visiting the elderly person daily, for trips to doctors, for keeping medical records, and seeing that prescriptions are ordered, filled and taken by the patients. They could be on call for their patient and be trained to assist them in the hospital setting.
Imagine an elderly patient, alone in a hospital, who needs assistance to get out of bed. They are told to push the button for help. They are sometimes so disoriented from their condition, from medications, sedatives and sometimes from dementia, that they do not remember that there is a button at all.
They are frightened to be in a strange place, and without family support they are totally alone. There is no one to help them get a drink or to hold their hand.
A young trained advocate could change all of that.
This program, once developed, should be geared toward any lone individual facing serious medical treatments, regardless of their age. Facing chemotherapy and radiation alone is untenable. Training young adults to assist those facing these challenges would be of tremendous value.
Charity and loving-kindness are not simply the stuff that one studies in a religious text. To be of any real value, these concepts must be applied. What religious political leader could face his constituency if he were to oppose such a plan? On the flip side of the religious world are the secular Israelis who are livid that one segment of Israel’s population receives a “free pass” when it comes to serving the country. This divide between the religious sects and secular sects of society is serious. Finding areas where the religious can participate in the lives of their fellow citizens with positive interactions is a key to defusing the potential explosion.
Not to be omitted from this equation, the Arab youth are also reaping the benefits of living in the only real democracy in the Middle East. Most of them know how much better their lives are in Israel than they would be in Gaza or in Palestinian-controlled areas. For those Arabs, there needs to be a parallel program for them to be of value to their brothers and sisters in need. For those willing to assist the elderly who are not of their own communities (i.e. Arab helping Jew and vice versa), an even greater benefit would come to Israel’s currently polarized populations.
In much the same way that the military is critical to Israel’s survival, so is the necessity for a positive form of service among those who have been told to resist wearing that uniform. Whether it be Arab or haredi Jew, the situation is similar. It is not acceptable for a country of eight million people to allow some to serve and others to receive benefits without participating.
The truth that we will all be old one day, comes to us eventually. Whether fate will, on that day, have us alone on a hospital trolley or with a caring person by our side, must be addressed now by those of conscience. Let the haredi world have the courage and foresight to lead by example. Tikun olam (repairing the world) needs to begin right here and now.
The writer is a member of the Jerusalem Press Club, and a life-long activist for pro-Israel and international Jewish affairs. She is the 2018 recipient of the “StandWithUs” – Israel Leadership Award.