Visiting the sick has benefits all around, rabbi says

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For about a year, Peter Strauss of Oakland has been paying weekly visits to a 90-year-old man in a nursing home. They don’t talk much; they usually sit and quietly play dominoes.

“He beats me most of the time,” said Strauss, a member of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. “I love doing it. I keep a kippah in my car, and I put that on every time I go in, so I remember who it is that sent me.”

Strauss’ visits are a Jewish practice called bikur cholim, visiting the sick. And Strauss, who is the bikur cholim coordinator of his synagogue, took a workshop that trained him in the practice last spring.

Rabbi Miriam Senturia, the community rabbi of the Greater East Bay, will be offering an eight-part workshop, training up to 20 volunteers of all denominations in the practice, beginning March 10. The workshop, to be held in Oakland, is sponsored by Jewish Family and Children’s Services, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and the East Bay Council of Rabbis.

Senturia, who used to work at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, has long offered support to those seeking counsel during times of illness and bereavement.

Being ill is an isolating experience, the rabbi said. “When you’re ill and feeling isolated and lonely, if someone comes to visit you, it lifts your spirit.”

In fact, one Jewish teaching suggests that each visitor takes away one-sixtieth of the person’s illness.

Whether there is truth to that, the fact remains that “when someone is ill or disabled and isolated, then it’s easy to start feeling very lonely,” said Senturia. “It’s a very painful experience to be cut off from one’s community.”

Which is precisely why chatting with someone who has a friendly ear can be so comforting. “A visitor represents the caring of the whole community,” she said. “When one person comes, they come on behalf of the whole community, they represent the caring of the whole community.”

“If I can bring a little light into these people’s lives, I’m glad to do that,” said Strauss.

Jewish Family and Children’s Services keeps track of those who would appreciate visitors. They tend to be frail elderly, or young and old with chronic disabling illnesses.

There are reasons why people do not get involved with this practice, said Senturia, as illness can make many people uncomfortable. But it’s important to note that many do not fully understand what they are supposed to accomplish.

“They may think they have to go and make the person feel better,” she said, but that is not the case. They are simply there to be a caring individual.

“If a person is feeling down, that won’t stop, but they will sense some release, and some sense of caring to have someone else present.”

Senturia, who has been involved in this kind of work for years, believes that many more people would do bikur cholim if they knew they would benefit from it as well.

Visiting the sick is holy work, Senturia believes. “When you’re able to open your heart and be with someone who’s in a hard place, it’s indescribable. The potential for meaning and connection and spiritual and emotional satisfaction is very deep.”

Many people might avoid visiting the chronically ill or disabled because it brings up the fear that “this could happen to me.”

“But the other side of that is when you can find a way to go be with that person and open your heart to them, and they open their heart, you have this awesome experience of making such a difference,” she said.

As those who take the workshop will learn, there are certain things one can do to prepare for such work — but different people prefer different methods.

For some, it might be a walk in the woods. For others, it might be prayer, either a traditional one or a prayer from their heart. For another, it might be “a moment of standing or sitting quietly; just remembering why I’m here and what this is all about.” Or, people might want to save those types of rituals for after the visit.

“It’s important to do a certain kind of closure,” said Senturia. “Let go, and go back to the rest of your life, so you’re not carrying the pain with you.”

The workshop will cover a variety of topics, with some classes led by people other than Senturia. Hospital chaplains will give tips on listening skills and setting boundaries with patients. Social workers will talk about special needs for Holocaust survivors, people with dementia and those living in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.

Senturia herself will offer the Jewish perspective on related concerns, such as healing, dying, suffering, end-of-life issues, the soul and afterlife.

The workshop, which costs $50, begins on Sunday, March 10, and will meet at the office of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay in Oakland. For an application and information, call (510) 839-2900 ext. 212.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."