When Lori Marx-Rubiner underwent a bilateral mastectomy two years ago, she lost the use of her arms for a few weeks. She couldn't brush her teeth, let alone tackle cooking dinner or driving her son to school.
The Adat Ari El community came to her rescue, bringing approximately 60 meals and even transporting her son home from school. She said the help made what could have been a depressing experience into a "transformative" one.
"My passion became to help others through their illnesses," Marx-Rubiner explained.
That passion culminated Oct. 24 at a conference she helped organize to train people on how to help the ill and disadvantaged. Hope Abandoned, Hope Redeemed: Training Volunteers for the Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim at UCLA Hillel taught 180 volunteers about bikur cholim, or visiting the sick.
Many local synagogues and Jewish organizations focus on one positive commandment, usually something that involves tikkun olam, healing the world in Hebrew. So why healing the sick and why now?
"There is a significant shortage of trained volunteers, chaplains and others to meet the needs of those in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices," according to a 2002 survey of all the hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and prisons in Southern California.
At least 20 percent of the Jewish community is over the age of 65, 10 percent live in residential care facilities and 4 percent have permanent disabilities, according to the study, "Services to Jews in Institutions." The 108-page report, written by The Jewish Federation's planning and allocations department and the Southern California Board of Rabbis, spurred the organizations to create the conference.
Bikur cholim is first alluded to in the Bible when Abraham has a circumcision and three men visit him. Commentators say that the men are actually angels to help him through his convalescence.
While there are other communal organizations that assist sick people -- like conference co-sponsors Chai Lifeline, which provides services to families with children who have chronic illnesses, and the already existing Bikur Cholim, which helps provide health services to sick people -- this is the first interdenominational, communitywide effort to recruit volunteers for the Bikur Cholim. The conference aimed to show that the mitzvah is a grass-roots affair, which involves all members of the community, young and old alike.
Sponsored by 14 community organizations, the conference expanded the traditional definition of visiting the sick in hospitals to include caring for people with disabilities, chronic or mental illnesses, the elderly and those living alone, as well as drug addicts and prison inmates. The "Institutions" study found that there are approximately 800 Los Angeles Jews in prisons throughout California.
"A lot of people think that the mitzvah of visiting the sick is a mitzvah that is incumbent on rabbis and chaplains," said Michelle Wolf, assistant director of planning and allocations for The Federation, who organized the conference with Marx-Rubiner. "But it's a mitzvah that is incumbent on all Jews, the same as giving tzedakah [charitable giving], but it is one that a lot of people don't usually do and don't feel comfortable with."
The conference also kicked off Circles of Support, an initiative to create synagogue committees to coordinate with the sick and help them with their needs, ranging from meals to child care to helping out in the house.
"Some patients are embarrassed to come forth and seek help -- some chaplains told us that some people don't want their congregational rabbi contacted," Wolf said. "Part of what we are trying to do is create a climate where it is OK to say you are sick and to have a healing process. There is a Jewish tradition that says that every visitor takes a away 1/60 of a person's illness, and there all kinds of studies that have shown the more community and spiritual support you have, the easier the healing process."
So far, five synagogues have started Circles of Support. They are Adat Ari El, Beth Chayim Chadashim, Beth Shir Sholom, Leo Baeck and the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.
The 20 sessions at Sunday's conference focused on aiding volunteers to be strong enough to help the sick.
"To be able to very warmly and graciously open ourselves up to patients takes time and practice," said Susan Corwin, Mitzvah Corps chair at University Synagogue. She attended the conference to find how to inspire and reinvigorate the volunteers of University's bikur cholim committee, which was started this summer.
"One of the first congregants I went to visit said, 'Who are you?' and I said, 'I am here representing University Synagogue, and I am here because we care about you,'" Corwin said.
"Where's the rabbi?" the patient responded.
When Corwin explained she was a member of the congregation and had brought a gift bag, the patient softened.
At the conference, Corwin learned that a volunteer should be sensitive to the patient. She said she was particularly moved by a "creating rituals" activity in the workshop, in which leader Harriet Rosen held a ball of yarn, then asked participants to think of a thought or blessing for bikur cholim. Rosen then threw the ball to them while keeping hold of a strand of yarn. Eventually the yarn formed a web across the room of all the thoughts and blessings.
"I learned that when you walk into a room doing bikur cholim, you are not just walking into the hospital room of the patient, but to the web of relationships that the patient has and that you have," Corwin said. "The impact is so different on each one of us, and the blueprint to help the patients is inside of all of us."
For more information on bikur cholim or how a synagogue can form a Circle of Support, call (323) 761-8348.