Hospice brings together Arabs and Jews

In a sunlit, tan-stone building on the dividing line of this divided city, Arabs and Jews come to live out the final days of their lives.

The St. Louis Hospital, a hospice, is a rarity in Jerusalem — a place where the city’s mistrustful residents come together in an atmosphere free of political tensions.

“This feels like an oasis in the middle of craziness, which is ironic, because all these people are sick,” said Tammy Einstein, an art therapist at the hospital.

It’s not that the hospital has suddenly made best friends out of wary Arabs and Jews. But in the last days of their lives, the facility’s patients and their families find themselves on equal ground, getting a rare glimpse of each other’s worlds.

“We aren’t a peace organization. We are here to work,” Einstein said. “When people talk to me [about politics] I try to keep it on a human level — isn’t it a tragedy that we have to lose more people in this fabulous city?”

The hospice faces the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City on one side and the predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem on another.

Founded by a French philanthropist, the 146-year-old institution has 50 patients, around half of them Jews — including many Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union — and a quarter Arab. The rest are mostly foreigners who lived in Jerusalem and wanted to spend their last days in the holy city, including nuns who once tended to patients in St. Louis.

Inside, white-clad doctors and nurses speak Arabic and Hebrew among themselves, while communicating to each other in English. On a recent day, three elderly patients sat around a Russian-language television. The sunlit hospital smelled of clean linen and faintly of bleach. Colorful paintings were taped over the faded paint on the walls.

Many of the hospice’s residents sat in wheelchairs in a sunny corridor on the hospice’s second floor, gathered in twos and threes. Many were attached to machines and barely spoke. Others gave lively greetings to staff.

While most patients were unable to communicate, their families freely interacted. Two women wearing Muslim headscarves stood in a corridor as a Russian Israeli woman with dyed red hair pushed an elderly woman in a wheelchair. A nurse suddenly swooped by. “Good day,” she said in broken Russian to the elderly woman, who smiled back in return.

“Illness is intimate. We see something else in each other,” said Sister Monika, the German nun who has run the hospice for the past nine years.

Volatile Mideast politics, including the struggle for control of Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israelis, a key issue in peace talks, are left at the door.

In much of Israel, Jews and Arabs rarely socialize together though they often come into contact. The city’s hospitals are among the few places with mixed staffs and where patients find themselves face to face.

A 45-year-old Arab woman who visits her 86-year-old mother, and who asked not to be named, said she rarely interacts with Jewish Jerusalemites, except in the hospital. She’s not close friends with any of the Jewish families, but they are good neighbors in the hospice, she said.

“We say hello to each other and nod, we ask about each other. But in the end, I’m here because I want to care for my mother. And they are here for the same reason, to care for their ill,” she said.

Adina Marx, a Jewish Jerusalem resident who visits her husband in the hospice, said the hospital staff has made her family feel welcome by respecting Jewish dietary laws.

“I don’t know who is a nun and who is not. They keep kosher here. They respect Passover,” she said. “They honor people’s beliefs.”