December 14, 2006
Healing community rises from life-threatening illness
One out of eight women develop the disease over a lifetime, and the older a woman is, the higher her risk. From age 40 to 49, one in 68 women get the disease; from 50 to 59, one in 37; and from 60 to 69, one in 26. Approximately 213,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year, and approximately 41,000 will die.
To make matters worse, Jewish women have a slightly higher incidence of the disease. But no matter how low a risk factor you may have -- no family members with breast cancer, you had your children before the age of 35 and eat healthily -- the disease will strike some of the best of us.
Enter Rabbi Carla Howard. Howard had a busy schedule as the executive director and co-founder of Jewish Hospice Project Los Angeles, the first Jewish hospice service in the city that offered spiritual care for the dying. She was on faculty at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, held workshops throughout the city on hospice care for lay people and professionals, taught at area seminaries for rabbinical and chaplaincy students and oversaw care of more than 600 hospice patients and their families.
But on Oct. 29, 2005 -- Howard's birthday -- all that changed. On that day, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and told by her doctors to slow down.
For someone used to being energized by being out in the world, Howard had a hard time swallowing her doctors' orders. It became clear, however, after visiting with a sick patient soon after her diagnosis, she had no other choice.
"The last person I saw was a 54-year-old woman dying of breast cancer," Howard recalled the other day while making a hasty lunch. "I thought, 'OK, I can take a little break. Maybe I need to pull my energy in, see if I can make this go in a different direction.' I'm so used to pouring a lot out, now I had to rally my energy for my own healing. It was a big change for me."
Howard started chemo/radiation treatment; she lost her hair and her energy. A good day meant a walk around the park with the dog; a bad day meant staying in bed all day.
She stayed close to home, close to her bed. Often she was unable to eat or cook. She was thankful for her students, friends and family who came by every evening with armloads of food. Although distressed by her condition, her husband and daughter perked up with every new meal.
As she lay in bed, Howard longed for a community of people like herself, who needed spiritual care for what ailed them. She envisioned a place for a multidisciplinary approach to healing.
The space, of course, had to be in a beautiful urban setting -- an oasis, a grove -- where people could come together to paint, to plant flowers, to pray. There would be meditation rooms, dance and art studios and a garden where people could sit and stare out into space.
Meanwhile, while she was in treatment, the Jewish Hospice Project closed, which freed Howard to create a new venture: the Jewish Healing Center of Los Angeles.
To start, she organized Rfa'einu, a series of nine healing services at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles for men and women facing serious illnesses or other spiritual challenges, as well as for their family and friends. The first healing service took place this past October. Though the topic was breast cancer, everyone was welcomed. "Rfa'ein, or heal us, is a call to God to bring wholeness to those in pain," Howard said.
Sixty participants gathered to chant powerful prayers of healing, with chants drawn from various Jewish texts and liturgy. After the prayers, they spent some time sitting in silence. Participants then broke into smaller groups of four and five and shared their stories.
Dr. Susan Love, who wrote "Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book," the bible on breast cancer, was the evening's guest speaker, lecturing on the state of the art in breast cancer research. The service ended with a healing circle.
Sandra Braun, Temple Beth Am vice president for adult and family planning, hadn't planned to stay. She intended to check in and then be on her way. Before she knew it, she was joining in the chanting. "It fixes you," Braun said, trying to articulate how the service had moved her. "I'd never been involved in meditation or spiritual prayer before. It was a really powerful feeling being in a room with so many people who needed healing. [The prayers] came flowing out; you repeated them over and over, and everyone was doing it together.
"Afterward, I felt free. I felt on a different plane spiritually, emotionally and physically," she said. "I think everyone felt the same thing."
Braun attended the November healing service on the role of stress, the environment and diet on serious illness, with guest speaker Dr. Soram Singh Khalsa. Braun plans to attend the third service on Dec. 18, as well, which will be a meditative healing service of light for the Chanukah season. She has pledged to support Howard in creating a permanent space for her new mission.
Since her original diagnosis, Howard has completed treatment and her prognosis is good. She is currently concentrating on opening the Jewish Healing Center, which is now incorporated as a nonprofit.
She is confident that if she envisions a community of healing, it will come. But life has not been easy. This year on Yom Kippur, Howard's older brother was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He died six weeks later on her birthday.