From bleakness to brightness

We stand vigil by our mother's bedside, accompanying her through this ordeal, hoping for some spark of alertness.

nurse hospital art 88 (photo credit: )
nurse hospital art 88
(photo credit: )
I'm sitting in a hospital room on the sixth floor neurology ward at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem where my 91-year-old mother, a 12-year resident of Jerusalem, is in a coma. Mom suffered a "post stroke epileptic seizure" two weeks ago and has been unconscious ever since. After grabbing the first flight to Israel, I've joined my three siblings who live here. We stand vigil by our mother's bedside accompanying her through this ordeal, hoping for some spark of alertness. As I soon learn, we too are accompanied by those who will help us endure this difficult period. Beyond all the talented doctors and nurses of this renowned medical facility and all their hi-tech healing gadgetry are the "hessed people" who frequent this place. In my mind, these purveyors of hessed are what the entire world of philanthropy rests upon, and over the past two weeks, they have helped to sustain us through trying times indeed. It all began just hours after I arrived in Israel on the first Friday afternoon in January. We went immediately to Hadassah Hospital and checked into the new Ein Kerem Hotel adjoining Hadassah for Shabbat. Every hospital in America should have such a convenient and comfortable resting place for visitors. Next stop was Hadassah's Chagall windows synagogue for Friday night services. More than 100 people attended, including patients - some in wheelchairs and others with intravenous fluid bags connected to them - as well as some medical staff and many patients' relatives. We all were united through illness, and we all prayed for the same thing: healing for our loved ones or ourselves. When services ended, the rabbi announced that everyone was invited for Kiddush and Shabbat dinner. As I entered a conference room transformed into a dining hall, I watched as a team of six young yeshiva students and two rabbis made final preparations for an elaborate dinner. But before dinner began, the food crew assembled more than 125 take-away meals for everyone wishing to eat a Shabbat meal in their hospital room. Those of us who stayed for the communal meal - about 85 people - enjoyed a very warm, friendly and tasty meal. When I inquired who was responsible for this act of hessed, I was told that a wealthy local Satmar Hassid funds it. His hessed project has been serving approximately 500 meals every Shabbat for about four years. I don't know who this benevolent fellow is, but after experiencing his wonderful work, he's now one of my "hessed heroes." Another new hessed hero is 22-year-old Eli, a New Yorker studying for a year at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He and several fellow students come to Hadassah each weekend to prepare and serve all these Shabbat meals. In his brief spare time over Shabbat, he visits the sick throughout the hospital. I joined Eli late Friday night to visit some really sick kids. He brightened up everyone he met - the young patients, their parents and all the nurses. I joined in, joking with some ill Israeli kids, teaching them a few English words, and eliciting some smiles. Eli comes to Hadassah every single Shabbat, entirely on a volunteer basis, to help ease the pain for others and bring some joy to people. He doesn't rest for a moment in his hessed work. AS SHABBAT ended and the week progressed, I'm amazed at the other hessed people who appear from nowhere. So far I've met Eliza, a volunteer from Ezer Mizion which, among other things, provides more than 500 lunches specifically for hospital visitors - not patients - in four Jerusalem hospitals. But it's not just food that Eliza and her cohorts deliver; most importantly, she brings a smile, concern for her clientele, and warm wishes for good health - a "refua shleyma," as is the custom here. She's one of dozens of Ezer Mizion volunteers who typically each spend one day a week supplying meals to hospital visitors. Representatives that I've met from another hessed organization - Agudat Sha'arey Marpeh - do likewise, although they come mid-morning and mid-afternoon with generous pastries and juice drinks. Hesed is contagious here. Just two beds over from my mom, a lovely middle-aged immigrant couple from South Africa are watching over their 39-year-old daughter Rachel, also in a coma. Suffering from a rare disease that causes inoperable tumors in her brain, the doctors can do no more than monitor her condition and ease the pain. I have become friends with her parents - Reuven and Nechama - over the past days as we share in mutual consternation and concern. I ask Reuven his daughter's full name in Hebrew - Rachel bat Nechama - and say that I'll pray for her. He asks me my mother's name. I tell him it's Zippora bat Basya. He says he'll pray for her as well. We help to sustain each other with these small acts of hessed. AS MY friend Eve Harow, a former Los Angeleno who has lived in Efrat for many years told me, "This is where Israel really shines - the hessed department." Indeed it does. The hessed of these remarkable people and the goodness and warmth they bestow upon strangers here at Hadassah Hospital are truly some of the greatest acts of charity I've ever experienced. They make us feel like we're one unified Jewish people, caring together and sharing the heavy burdens together. They raise us from bleakness to brightness, from sadness to cheerfulness, and from despair to hope. So as my siblings and I wait each day and pray for our mother to awaken, our strength is renewed and our spirits uplifted by these magnanimous angels of hessed here in this remarkable city of Jerusalem. The writer is director of marketing and communications at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, a $700-million charitable fund that supports non-profit programs throughout Los Angeles, the United States and Israel. He is a frequent visitor to Jerusalem.