It happens three or four times a year. I will be sitting in my office and I receive a call from a Chaplain at a hospital or a social worker in a nursing home. Upon hearing from the family that they are Jewish, the Chaplain or social worker contacts me on their behalf. “There is a Jewish patient who would like to see a Rabbi,” they say. Am I available for a visit? The last time I got such a request I visited with the family within a few hours.
As I entered the room I was greeted by a young man about 30 years of age who introduced himself as the patient’s youngest son. The young man’s wife was at his side. Another son was standing at the foot of his father’s bed. The first son explained that his father had a stroke several days previously. Although he was initially expected to recover, things took a turn for the worse. They had made the decision to remove their father from the respirator that afternoon. As we talked, he told me his story. The parents had belonged to a synagogue when they were growing up, and both sons had celebrated their bar mitzvahs. After their bar mitzvahs the family gradually began to distance themselves from the organized Jewish community. They volunteered that their father, who according to them had an Orthodox upbringing, had not been to synagogue in many years. They themselves weren’t sure whether they wanted the presence of a rabbi, but the Chaplain was encouraging it, and they decided to allow her call me. They told me they were unsure their father would have wanted it. Perhaps also, they were embarrassed at not having a rabbi to call. I told them I thought it was a good decision. No matter how far people may stray from Judaism or the Jewish community, at times of major life moments – the birth of a child, a bar or bat mitzvah, a marriage, at time of a serious illness or impending death — people seek the guidance of a rabbi. We talked some more about their father, their relationship to him and their ordeal over the past few days. We read some psalms together and spoke about their meaning. They asked about Heaven and whether his father would see his own parents after death. I recited the prayer that a rabbi recites over a critically ill person, in Hebrew and in English.
There is an enormous need for this type of outreach, not only to people who are in hospitals, but for those who are isolated in nursing homes or people who are shut in their own homes. Sixty five percent of Jews do not belong to a synagogue and have no one to call when they are in need of spiritual help. I was aware that there are not enough rabbis to meet these needs. However, I learned how critical and urgent these needs are through my recent participation in the Jewish Community Chaplaincy Planning Steering Committee. This committee just completed a major project of developing a model of chaplaincy services for the Chicago Jewish community that is sustainable and has broad based community support. We met four times at JFS of Skokie since September pf this year. Out of our work emerged a funding proposal to develop a Jewish Community Chaplaincy program over a two year period. The program will start small and gradually expand as additional sources of funding are identified.
Why bother? After all, what is the Jewish community’s responsibility to Jews who have essentially disconnected themselves from Judaism and who no longer support Jewish institutions? That obligation was established long ago, as our parasha of this week demonstrates. If you recall, Joseph has framed Benjamin by placing a silver goblet into his saddlebag. Joseph tells his brothers that, as punishment for the crime, Benjamin will become Joseph’s slave. Judah, Benjamin’s older half brother, steps forward and offers to become Joseph’s slave in Benjamin’s stead. Upon hearing Judah’s plea on his brother’s behalf, Joseph reveals to his brothers that he is – their brother, who they once sold into slavery.
There are many reasons put forth as to why Joseph went through this elaborate ruse before revealing himself to his brothers. Some commentators say that Joseph wants to find out if the brothers felt a responsibility toward one another. One could say this was sort of a test. If they did not feel responsible for one another’s welfare, they would not survive the move to Egypt that Joseph knew they had to make. In pleading for his brother and offering himself in his place, Judah passed the test. This responsibility that one Jew has toward another is called “arevut” in Hebrew.
This principle is illustrated by the following story. A Jewish immigrant arrives on New York’s Lower East Side and desperately seeks the company of other Jews. Not knowing whom, or where, they might be, he goes out into the street and shouts in Yiddish, “Man schlogt Yiddn! – They are beating the Jews!” Several people immediately surround him and demand to know where this is happening. The man replied, “In my village in Russia; I only wanted to know whether anyone here cared.”
Jews have always felt that obligation to one another. In our Thursday morning study group we learned that the Jews of ancient Rome sent so much gold to support the Temple in Jerusalem that the Roman Senate passed a law forbidding the export of gold out of the Roman province. That sense of responsibility for one another, no matter where a Jew is in the world, has been passed down through the generations to the present day. So where there is a need – even for a Jew who has absented him or herself from the Jewish community – we make every effort to fill it. That is the Jewish way.