Rabbi hopes to revive mitzvah of visiting the sick

"Once upon a time people used to [visit the sick] when they lived in smaller communities," says Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. "After shul, people would go to hospitals and nursing homes to visit.

"My desire is to get this mitzvah up and running."

According to tradition, God visited Abraham at Mamre as he was recovering from his circumcision. And it is written in Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 14a), "Just as God visited the sick, so too, you should visit the sick."

A great proponent of this teaching, Kelman believes that too few Jews accept this mitzvah.

That's why, like a Jew practicing the mitzvah of bikur cholim (visiting the sick), Kelman is attempting to cure this ailment by breathing life into an old book.

Entitled "Give Me Your Hand," the book was published 10 years ago and written by Jane Handler and Kim Hetherington. It was a tribute to cancer victim Tina Lorris, a member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Handler and Hetherington, who were both friends of Lorris, helped her through the dying process and wrote the book as a way to educate Jews on their obligations of visiting the sick.

Kelman, with a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, has now reissued the book with new material he has written. Among the updates he's included are healing prayers and practical advice for visiting patients struggling with AIDS, Alzheimer's disease and cancer.

In addition, Kelman has edited the book so that it now includes tips from doctors and nurses.

The goal is to educate his own congregation, as well as other Jews around the world.

Although Kelman isn't certain why this mandate fell out of favor, he says that the loss of neighborhoods and the difficulty of the mitzvah are two possible reasons.

"We are obligated to visit strangers in our community that we barely know," Kelman says. "Most of us are uncomfortable with that idea. But for a stranger to visit one in the hospital is a wonderful thing."

Kelman recalls his own mother-in-law dying in the hospital. It was fall, near Rosh Hashanah, and a gentleman from Chabad entered her room and asked if she had heard the call of the shofar. She had not. The stranger blew the ram's horn in her hospital room.

The reissued book will be distributed free to all members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the University of Judaism.

In addition, the book is also available on IBM and Macintosh disk.

Rabbis are encouraged to add to it and reprint from it in order to meet their congregations' specific needs.

To help other Jews perform bikur cholim, "Give Me Your Hand" offers specific and practical advice, in addition to explaining the imperative of the Jewish tradition.

There is even a checklist of do's and don'ts for visitors. For example, on the initial visit, "Do call or write a note before coming if you do not know the patient well," and "Do enter the room with something to talk about that will interest the patient."

On the other side, the book says, "Don't be afraid of doing something wrong," "Don't wear a depressed face" and "Don't wear perfume or shaving lotion, as illness often heightens a person's sense of smell."

Other checklist advice includes hints on appropriate times to visit, listening, prayer, touching the sick person and tending to tangible needs.

In his own community, Kelman is attempting to recreate a "neighborhood feeling" among congregants that will make bikur cholim less awkward.

He recently led two study sessions on the topic. But rather than mailing "Give Me Your Hand" to each of his congregants, which Kelman admits would be easier, he's dividing Netivot Shalom into "regions." Members of the congregation will drop off the book to other members in their areas.

"This is a first step in getting to know each other," Kelman says. "This makes it easier to do the mitzvah of bikur cholim when someone gets ill in your part of the world."