Ten years ago, while in the hospital recovering from a stroke, real estate developer Irving Kalsman received visits from several rabbis who came to offer reassurance and support. Sanford Ragins, Kalsman's longtime congregational rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple, came to call, as did family friend William Cutter, a professor at Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Another visitor offered Jewish words of comfort and strength -- a female rabbinical student doing an internship at the hospital as part of HUC-JIR's chaplaincy program.
The rabbinical student's visit made a strong impact on Kalsman. And, as it happened, Kalsman's friend Cutter ran the chaplaincy program under which the visit was made possible. Kalsman and his wife, Lee, decided to create a fund to help sustain HUC-JIR's chaplaincy program and later to fund Cutter's dream of a national conference on Judaism and health.
Sadly, Kalsman passed away a week before the conference took place in March 2000, but his legacy will live on, thanks to his wife and his daughter and son-in-law, Peachy and Mark Levy, who have given $3 million to establish the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health under the auspices of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
The institute will operate out of HUC-JIR's Los Angeles campus, with Cutter as its director, and will work toward integrating Jewish practices and ideas into the areas of health and healing. Ultimately, Cutter says, the goal is to make health part of the educational and spiritual agenda within Jewish life.
Initial plans include holding public conferences, roundtables for experts and public lectures, as well as training chaplains, rabbinical students and rabbis to work with people who are ill. Cutter sees a role for the institute as a "convener" that can bring together organizations and individuals working in various facets of this field.
"There are a thousand tendrils" to the subject matter, Cutter said. Although some efforts to merge Judaism and health are already underway in the country, he says, the Kalsman and Levy families "have enabled this to be propelled by multiples."
"Bill [Cutter] planted a seed, and we're helping it grow," Mark Levy said. "There are so many possibilities to this project. It has the potential to positively affect everyone from children to the elderly."
Once the funds for the institute had been pledged, Cutter faced the challenge of determining how to spend them. To help formulate the institute's priorities, he convened a summit in March 2001, gathering 75 experts from the religious and health communities. Participants included representatives from beyond the Reform movement and several non-Jews.
Valley Beth Shalom's Rabbi Edward Feinstein, who participated in the summit, said, "Judaism has things to say about all of the facets of health care, of healing, of the formation of healers, of national policy ... and the Kalsman Institute will help us say these things and do these things."
Sally Weber, director of community programs and volunteer services for Jewish Family Service in Los Angeles, praised the summit for providing doctors, rabbis and Jewish communal professionals the opportunity to interact and exchange ideas with one another. "I really believe in the importance of these kinds of collaborations. Rabbis, doctors and social workers have so much to learn from one another but were rarely in the same spot long enough to do so."
Weber sees the field of Jewish healing as one that is growing and moving more into the mainstream, while not so long ago it was perceived as "new-agey." Like Feinstein, she notes that "Judaism has incredible resources and a lot to say" about issues of health and healing, including texts, rituals and prayers.
Feinstein notes that in addition to issues relating to those who are ill, the tradition also addresses issues relating to caregivers and healers, providing answers to such questions as "Who is the healer?" "What does it mean to be a healer?" and "What does the Jewish community have to say to doctors about their role in our lives?"
"There's a midrash that says that when you visit someone who's sick, you take away one-sixtieth of their pain. That's a marvelous idea that a community supports people when they're ill. And I've had that experience myself, so I think it's one of the most powerful ideas," Feinstein said.
Cutter, too, has had personal experience with illness and healing. His interest in this area stemmed from a heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery more than 20 years ago. "I've seen being ill from the other side of the bed. I've seen my own intimidation by the medical system. It's very hard for patients. It's not that doctors are cruel, but the system makes it impossible them to give patients the kind of time that's needed," he said.
While hospitalized, Cutter was intrigued by his visit from the hospital's chaplain, and after his stay, he spent a year observing the chaplain making rounds. Cutter subsequently offered his HUC-JIR students the opportunity to learn with him at the hospital and formalized a chaplaincy course in 1980.
"Everyone has someone in their family who's ill or will be," he said, adding that health-related experiences such as "a secret alcoholic in the family, children with disabilities or embarrassment over mental illness can cause people to feel that life's given them a bad break, that something's missing in their lives."
With the help of the Kalsman Institute, Judaism will now be in a better position to supply what's missing.