There’s a Jewish saying that if a person visits someone who’s sick, the visitor takes away 1/60 of the person’s illness. So if 60 people visit a sick person, does that mean the person will recover? That’s difficult to answer, but bikur cholim (visiting the sick) is an important mitzvah.
In “Life Support,” her recently released book on this topic, AJT columnist Rachel Stein shares her experiences as co-founder of Bikur Cholim of Atlanta, the experiences of her volunteers and her own encounters as a Jewish chaplain.
In a moving introduction, Stein, who has written eight children’s books, tells about her childhood from age 4 when her father died and her mother carried on. Growing up without a father was difficult, and she also lacked grandparents. So Stein sought out the elderly: “I found the elderly to be cute, fun people who twinkled when they laughed and exuded unconditional love.”
She also was driven to visit the ill and at 14 volunteered in a cancer hospital, “drawing immense satisfaction from bringing sunshine into the patients’ days.”
When her mother became ill, Stein was 25 and married with children with another on the way. Two hours away from her mother’s home in Philadelphia, she hoped to visit her often, but the drive was too much for her. Then a special friend named Elaine offered to take her every week.
That lasted for a month, enabling Stein to be there on the day her mother died.
“How can I ever repay you for what you did for me?” she asked Elaine.
“When someone needs help, you be there for them,” Elaine said, “and that’s how you will repay me.”
It’s obvious from reading “Life Support” that Stein has repaid Elaine many times.
She and Michele Asa started Bikur Cholim of Atlanta in the merit of Danny Miller, a 34-year-old father who had battled cancer since he was 14. A man with a positive attitude who visited and uplifted the sick, he was much beloved by the members of Congregation Beth Jacob and beyond. When he died, the society was dedicated in his memory.
Changing some names for privacy, Stein shares remarkable stories of volunteers and those they visit in her vibrant, easy-to-read style. The stories are vignettes, short but powerful.
“The Call of the Shofar” is told in the voice of Chana, a woman in a rehabilitation facility after a serious fall. On Rosh Hashanah, she waited for Rabbi G. to blow the shofar for her.
When the daughter of a patient next door saw the rabbi, she asked whether he could come into her father’s room to blow the shofar a second time. Instead, Chana, who hadn’t known that her next-door neighbor was Jewish, wheeled herself into his room. The rabbi said the blessing, and “a mighty blast filled the room.”
“Tekiyah,” whispered the elderly man in bed. His daughter gasped. In the hallway, she said that her father hadn’t been able to speak for five months since having a stroke.
There’s more to that story and many others connected to the bikur cholim society.
In the second part of the book, Stein opens a window on what it’s like to intern as a chaplain in a children’s hospital. She shares the good times and the challenges. Some of the stories are so sad, while others are uplifting and amusing.
Stein, an observant Jew, comforts and prays with everyone, mostly non-Jews, invoking the name of G-d.
In an afterword, Stein tells of the privilege of being touched by patients and families. “I feel humbled,” she writes, “to have the opportunity to walk alongside these extraordinary individuals and to continue watching their suns rise ever higher, even as they pant to the finish line.”
At the end of the book, Stein’s husband, Rabbi Reuven Stein of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission, includes a Bikur Cholim Halachic Appendix, which gives sources for the mitzvah of visiting the sick and tells how a person can fulfill it.
Life Support: Stories of My Chaplaincy and Bikur Cholim Rounds
By Rachel Stein
Israel Bookshop, 213 pages, $22.95