Marie Kaufman’s life has been an ongoing struggle to remain connected to Judaism.
A child survivor of the Holocaust, she was hidden by neighborhood children in France from 1942 through 1944. Kaufman’s family was broken up for its own safety — her mother lived with important townspeople, her father took refuge in a cave, and she stayed with non-Jewish families — before being reunited after the war and coming to the United States when Marie was 10.
Now a different challenge threatens to isolate Kaufman, 72, from the Jewish community she cherishes. Amyloidosis, a rare condition in which the buildup of proteins damages the nervous system and internal organs, has kept Kaufman in and out of the hospital for several months, and away from Jewish celebrations and life events, as well as from her work as president of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles.
Luckily, the Jewish community comes to her every Friday morning when she’s at Cedars-Sinai. As part of the program Shabbat Kits (shabbatkits.com), a challah roll, small bottle of grape juice, two battery-operated candles and a bracha (literally, “blessing”) card are delivered to her hospital room at no cost.
“That is so beautiful,” Kaufman exclaimed from her wheelchair on a recent Friday as Jeremie Braun, founder of the program, delivered her weekly kit. “Throughout health, unhealth, it doesn’t stop … you’re still connected to the community.”
Shabbat Kits got its start about six months ago after Braun, 35, began spending a lot of time at Cedars-Sinai to support a close family member suffering from medical problems. During one Shabbat at the hospital, he realized that there must be many other Jewish patients there who wanted to have their own Shabbat but lacked the means to celebrate in a hospital setting.
“A lot of patients there have little or no family who visit during their stay,” he said.
He spoke with the hospital’s senior rabbi and manager of the spiritual care department, Jason Weiner, who helped him find interested patients, and began the Shabbat Kits program. Michal Braun designed the kits and now coordinates volunteers. Jeremie Braun used $1,800 in donations from family and friends to fund the project and, in the beginning, put the kits together himself. Now he delivers about 50 kits to Jewish patients at Cedars-Sinai every Friday, and puts the kits together on Thursdays with the help of volunteers at his shul, Chabad of South La Cienega.
His budget is $100 per week to make the 50 packages. Braun has a deal with Schwartz Bakery to supply the challah rolls, and Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center donated the bracha cards. Braun is still searching out more donors and volunteers to expand the program to other hospitals.
The kits do more than help patients, it turns out; they help patients’ families, too. Sherrie Kramer, 66, has been supporting her husband Philip, 81, while he recovers from a subdural hematoma. Since Philip suffered a fall in February, they have spent two long stints in the hospital, first nine weeks and then another four. Sherrie has almost never left her husband’s side and has been staying with him in his hospital room.
Sherrie, who says she usually lights Shabbat candles at home, lit candles in the parking lot during her first Sabbath in the hospital, because she did not know where else it would be safe. She mentioned the experience to an acquaintance, who told her to contact the hospital staff to see what they could do. Now Braun comes to visit every week.
“Such a simple thing makes a big difference,” Sherrie said.
Despite her husband’s brain injury, she said he reached immediately for a candle in the kit. With his wife’s help, Philip turned on the candle and held it against his chest while he rested in his hospital bed.
Kaufman, who said the volunteers who deliver the Shabbat Kits make her feel like she is not lost to the medical system, hopes to recover and return to visit the now-elderly people in France who saved her life. She has visited them five times since 1996.
Until then, she said, the Shabbat Kits bring her “inspiration and hope.”