A Glimpse through the Microcosm of Tel HaShomer Hospital
This article appears in the CCAR Journal, edited by Rabbi Edwin Goldberg.
In 1913 Rachel Blustein wrote her famous poem, “The Hospital.” She had tuberculosis, and hospitals were primitive. When I share this poem with my patients now, they feel that she is shining a light on their odyssey into another world:
The Hospital1 Rachel Blustein An island inhabited by strange beings In uniforms . . . An island forgotten from God’s heart’s seeing Forever on and on. Their time is different from time’s passage in other places. One hour in here, is a hundred and twenty minutes passing At the very least, this pace. And if you try to speak in their ears Of other lives that could be found, They will laugh bitterly and say in their heart with tears: “That’s the imagination of those who are safe and sound.”
RABBI JUDITH EDELMAN-GREEN (J09) is an innovative, creative, and visionary Jewish educator and chaplain. She has initiated and led programs that break down societal barriers and stereotypes while bridging the wide divide that separates the different religious streams of Judaism and the State of Israel. Her upcoming book is The Well of Compassion.
If the poetess Rachel could be shown around Tel HaShomer, the largest hospital in the Middle East, she might be blown away by certain changes. The biggest change, I would suggest, is that roughly half of the staff, doctors, nurses, and auxiliary staff are Arab. Some are Christians, some are Muslims. Similarly, the patients reflect the makeup of Israeli society: ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, every shade in between, religious Muslims, secular Muslims, Druze, Christian Arabs, and immigrants from every country and ethnic background. (In the Beer Sheva medical training program, new interns are sent to Bedouin settlements to hold the hands of women in labor before they are trained medically.) In Tel HaShomer, in the Tel Aviv area, you will encounter a religious nurse wearing a wig and long sleeves who takes care of a religious Muslim with deep care and compassion. And vice versa. Are hospitals the only place where the population of Israel meets? No, not at all, but perhaps it is the most productive and beneficial space. The web of education of Arabs as nurses, doctors, and pharmacists has raised their status to an equitable one.
Is there prejudice despite this amazing and miraculous microcosm? Let’s go a little deeper into the positives and the negatives. Starting with the positives, in my work as a chaplain, called livui ruchani here (“spiritual accompaniment”), there are no barriers. Today a very religious Orthodox Sephardi woman cried to me that she had fallen in her ill husband’s room, and she hesitated to ring the bell for help because she didn’t want to bother the nurses. I listened to her pain over her husband’s illness. She had been supporting him for three months, she had never taken space for herself, and she was grateful for the hour of listening that I gave her. As she wept, I looked deeply into her eyes, one of them with stitches and colored black and blue from the fall. She talked about how she missed having a real Shabbat at home, how her adult children were running the family business, raising children, and could not spell her time and duties at the hospital. She had collapsed from exhaustion. The hour with me (this was the second time) was the only space that she had ever given herself through the duration of hospitalization. It was Erev Purim. I asked her why she thought the name of the Holy One is not mentioned in the M’gillah, and yet, in Tractate M’gillah, there is a discussion about its supreme holiness. She was intrigued. I said gently, “The actual name of God is not mentioned, but godliness is shining and profound in the M’gillah. A simple woman, who had never taken space for herself, a beauty queen, someone who did what she was told by Mordecai, grew into her own power and courage. She risked everything to face the difficult situation of her people; she risked herself to save them. She asked other women to fast and pray with her, and then she spoke up for the brave change that was needed. Her holiness, her godliness, her bravery, and change indeed was written down for the generations and touches us today.” She grasped my hands with new tears of joy. She said that Esther had given her the courage that she needed. I was told by the head nurse that after our talk, this woman took her first break at home for a few days to rest and recover.
I have worked with religious Christians and sung Christmas Carols to them on Christmas Eve, I have invoked Allah together with a religious Druze man who was dying. He was a prize-winning educator who knew Jewish texts from being a scholar and was a student of Aristotle and of quantum physics. We did a guided meditation of the night sky, of the energy of the universe and how he would join Allah there, but his energy would remain for his children and theirs. Palestinian patients from the Palestinian Authority are treated at Tel HaShomer. Recently I connected deeply with a woman named Achlam (Dream), who was having her second bone marrow transplant. She shared her life wisdom with me, and I gave her prayer beads and was one of her only visitors because there was a wave of illness in Bethlehem and she was in isolation. Therefore, on the personal level with patients, there is no barrier, but rather spiritual and loving healing.
Hundreds of Palestinians are treated at Tel HaShomer, as well as Gazans and people from neighboring countries. My colleague, Shira Shohami, who works in the acute cancer wards, visits her patients in their homes and works to get them permissions. She is a chaplain (milavah ruchanit) in the oncology wards. She has taken it upon herself to be the “go to” person for Palestinians on her ward. Care for Palestinian children began in the children’s hospital and carried into the oncology department. The Palestinian Authority and Israel both pay the medical expenses of the patient after extensive applications. Shira is connected to the Doctors for Human Rights organization and many other volunteer organizations. There are volunteers who drive patients from the checkpoints to the hospital to save them taxi fare, if they are able to sit up. This is called, “On the Way to Health.” If a patient cannot sit up, an ambulance is provided. Only one visitor per patient is allowed and must receive permission from the IDF. There are two Arab social workers who help with the process. Shira, through her connections with all the volunteer organizations, is involved in caring for every aspect of care. She will seek out wheelchairs. Since the visitors cannot go home during the hospital stay, she turns to Arab cooks to prepare homemade meals for the patients during their hospital stays. (This just shows how similar Jews and Arabs are; all families aim to bring homemade food to make the hospital stay more human.) Shira will pay a bereavement visit to relatives across the Green Line who have lost a family member. Sometimes the children of patients arrive in Israel to visit and Shira will connect them to an organization that takes the children for a fun day to the sea. Many residents of the territories near see the sea. She visits, comforts, and supports in the name of the oncology department. There is a hostel at Tel HaShomer called Beit Shimon where families can sleep, use washing machines, and take showers.
I have done similar work for those who are medical tourists or new immigrants. I might make their favorite recipes and bring them “their” ethnic food. I learned how to make a kosher version of a Romanian soup, and have provided my favorite Indian food for tourists from India. Or it might be a kugel for a Holocaust survivor suffering from dementia and pining for “home.” CCAR members who joined the field trip to Tel HaShomer to learn about livui ruchani met a thirty-five-year-old widower who was holding his five-year-old daughter. I had accompanied the family during the last two years, as the mother faced her departure from this world. Like Shira, I went beyond my duties to support her during her journey. She wanted “one more sunset,” so I took her to the sea near her house and we watched the sunset and faced the twilight of her life. We faced her parting from her children while she shared how she hoped to die and what she wished for her children’s future. The CCAR group of rabbis listened to stories of how I brought a harp player to play to this patient, Yaara, a week before her death. It opened her heart and made her call out for her husband and to express her love for him in a profound way. Yaara’s mother was broken, depleted, and could not fathom losing her young daughter. I took her to the swimming pool at Tel HaShomer and supported her as she floated. She reported that she had some temporary relief. She was Yemenite and religious, another thread in the tapestry of Israeli society. Shira’s and my stories show that we will go beyond to support and accompany people; yes, in un-Orthodox ways. A CCAR rabbi asked me, “What about professional boundaries?” Yes, she is right, but if love and care can heal the soul as it takes off into the sunset, I will cross the line.
In the microcosm of Israeli society while each blend and support and work shoulder to shoulder, perfect harmony goes into dissonance sometimes. We did a staff trip to the Sea of Galilee, and I was saddened to see that at a party at the swimming pool, people ate, swam, and partied within their ethnic groups. Perhaps it was the languages—Amharic, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew—that made that more comfortable? As I am the only spiritual caregiver for my two departments, I didn’t have a natural social group, so I ate with those from Ethiopia, danced with everyone, swam with the Russians, and partied with the doctors and nurses. Yes, it did build connections for later, but not in perfect harmony. During a flare-up with the Gazan border in May 2021, I found one of the head nurses weeping. “I’m here for you.” I said, “What’s wrong?” She sobbed and shared that she was down to half the staff because the Arab nurses couldn’t leave their villages for fear of local violence (not from Jews). “Without the Arab staff, we cannot function.” During that time, I chose the patients with Arab names because they had no visitors. Their relatives also could not leave the villages. I went from room to room bringing a listening ear. Many people said to me, “We all share one God. “I answered, “Hamdililah, Praise be God.”
What is unique about this work as a Reform rabbi who grew up in NOFTY in Madison, Wisconsin? Debbie Friedman was my song leader growing up. I went to Herzl Camp and had conclaves and retreats at OSRUI. The first thing I bring is my lack of dogma; I can listen as an empty vessel without judging. I bring my 1960s Black and White together. My deep feminism, without using any slogans, can help me to help a weeping woman who is in the process of becoming a widow to find her courage and space in the world. I am not afraid to sing with or without a guitar in order to comfort my patients. I am not afraid to touch. My training at HUC-JIR/ Jerusalem in the Israeli program gives me access to Hebrew poetry, literature, Bialik, Amichai, Wallach, Rachel, Leah Goldberg, and all of our sacred sources that I have used in so many situations.
The text that I will bring so much depends on the patient. If someone says, “Do you think I might even . . . die?” I might bring Psalm 23 and look with them what it feels like to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Are they alone? Who is walking with them, supporting them? What are the advantages of facing death face to face? It can reduce the fear and anxiety to work on the aspect that everything in life is temporary, like the flowers and the trees. What is eternal for them? Is it a book, a song, a creation, a student of a student, a child, or a redeemed social condition? How would they like to part? How can they say loving goodbyes? What would they need for a peaceful, calm transition? What is memory? How would they like to be remembered? Would they like to write letters or blessings? Illness and death are great connectors. To quote my teacher and Rabbi, Yehoyada Amir, “We enter a time of holiness together.”
In fact, illness, aging, change, and death are universal—something shared by all cultures. It is a great equalizer. In my work in Tel HaShomer as a spiritual caregiver, I am in awe of the unity, collective efforts, and shoulder-to-shoulder work of people from all walks of life, and all ethnic groups working as a mosaic of Israeli society. Rachel the poetess might walk the halls, in awe, and with a glimmer of hope. If coexistence can happen in the most challenging of institutions, then maybe it can happen throughout.
1. Emma Shamba Ayalon translated the poem from Hebrew.