Massage and music enhance VA hospitals Shabbat services

Of all the places one could pick to attend Shabbat services, a hospital is generally not the first choice that comes to mind.

Yet, for 53-year-old Lee Erman, there's no better place of worship.

Erman, a massage therapist from Palo Alto, has been attending services at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Menlo Park since 1992. He first came across the services when he was volunteering at the hospital on a Saturday of that year.

Why has Erman continued to spend his Shabbats at the hospital?

Because to those who participate — and normally there are only about a dozen — these services are very special. As Erman says, "I come for my Shabbat. It is an important part of my life, and a place of choice."

Erman even leads the services when the rabbi is not available. He also gives massages to the patients during services.

Erman's 51-year-old wife, Esther, has been joining him at services since 1994. "This is a unique community in the Bay Area," says Esther Erman, who is a special education teacher and a writer. "It is a spiritual experience to come here. You must have patience to see how the patients progress. Each person is so large a part of what we have. It is uplifting to see the patients hold on to our faith."

The services are led by Rabbi Norman Auerbach of Foster City. Auerbach, 52, a native of San Francisco, is the Jewish chaplain for the hospital.

A former navy chaplain, Auerbach left the service in 1992 on disability. He was delighted to discover there was an opening for this position.

"I feel very fortunate to be here. My focus is on the needs of the patients," says Auerbach.

According to Auerbach, the services were started by Rabbi Harry Levenberg in the early 1980s and were held in the chapel. Now, they're held in the community room in the nursing home building at the hospital.

Each week, Auerbach brings a blue Jewish chaplain's flag displaying a Star of David and the Ten Commandments to cover the service table. He also brings a menorah, two candlesticks, a military field ark holding a field Torah, and prayer booklets he compiled.

Also helping each week is Susan Weisberg, 52, a social worker in oncology at the Stanfor Medical Center. She leads the singing. Music plays an important part in the services and Auerbach has included many of composer Debbie Friedman's songs in the prayer booklet. At a recent service, a special moment came when Sheldon Schneider, 72, played the timbrels as everyone sang "Miriam's Song."

Since this is the only Shabbat service held at the hospital (there are no Friday night services), the candles are lit first. Except for the rabbi, everyone remains seated throughout the service so that all those attending are always on the same level. During the Torah reading, the rabbi poses questions for discussion and audience participation.

Dorothy Lerner, 79, of Los Gatos comes to join her husband, George, 81, who has been a patient for 1-1/2 years. "This service is a very important experience to the residents here," says Lerner, whose daughter comes with her to holiday celebrations such as Chanukah and Passover.

"It is the best thing that has happened. It takes my husband out of his present surroundings and into the mainstream. These people care about bringing spirituality to patients."

Another attendee, Helen Campbell, 76, a retired massage therapist from San Mateo, was one of the founders of the program. "It's the togetherness feeling that's so strengthening — reading, singing and praying," she says.

Members of the community are invited to attend the services as well as holiday celebrations. For further information contact Auerbach at (650) 493-5000, ext. 64832.