Delivering holiday happiness to hospital patients

When Dafna and Steve Simon’s son Zachary got sick at age 16, the Santa Rosa family was determined to stay strong throughout his three-month hospitalization.

Zachary, who has Down syndrome, had suddenly been discovered to have a condition that could cause serious spinal damage. He had surgery at the Stanford University Medical Center, then was transferred to the UCSF Medical Center for rehab. 

“It was an incredibly stressful time for us. We were in shock at the turn of events, and we don’t really have family nearby for support,” recalls Dafna, three years later. “This was right before Rosh Hashanah. And it just felt so lonely, especially over the holidays, to be in the hospital, cut off from everybody.”

Plastic seder plate in the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center’s Passover envelope

Normally the family would have attended High Holy Day services at Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati. But stuck in San Francisco to be with Zachary, she remembers thinking “How are we going to do this?”

Enter the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, a 22-year-old organization dedicated to providing Jewish spiritual care to those living with illness, to those caring for the ill and to the bereaved.

The Simons had never heard of the center’s “holiday in an envelope” program — until one day Zachary received a large, cheerful, hand-painted envelope. Inside were materials that would allow the family to celebrate Rosh Hashanah right there in his hospital room: Posters with pictures of apples, honey-scented lip balm (as hospital rules didn’t allow for the actual foods), battery-operated “candles,” a handmade book of prayers, a small shofar, holiday cards and more.

The family decorated the room together. “It really just made us feel connected at that moment,” Dafna says. “The knowledge that there were people out there who cared enough to put that stuff together for us, even though they didn’t know who we were … that definitely gave us a feeling of holiday cheer.”

What began in 2008 as a service designed to help hospital-bound Jews who couldn’t make it to shul during the High Holy Days has grown into a program that will help roughly 150 patients at 26 local hospitals celebrate Passover this week. The hospitals range from the South Peninsula to Santa Rosa.

Rabbis and other BAJHC staff work closely with hospital chaplains of different faiths, who deliver the envelopes — decorated primarily by young volunteers — to patients who have noted that they are Jewish when they check in.

The results of the service are multi-faceted: conversations about wellness and community take place, strong interfaith relationships are forged, and the envelopes create goodwill in the community at large in addition to helping the patients and their families.

Rabbis with chaplaincy experience, such as the BAJHC’s Natan Fenner, have written prayerbooks and Passover haggadahs that include essays, poems and Torah portions that can be of comfort to someone in the hospital. The text often addresses the feelings of isolation and loneliness that are common in the hospital, says Gail Kolthoff, the executive assistant at the BAJHC.

She and Fenner also have put together a Passover shopping list for hospitals, and have worked closely with food service staff members so they can provide an appropriate seder meal.

Kolthoff helps coordinate almost every aspect of the program. She works with the religious schools that bring in groups of kids to help decorate envelopes, and she purchases the items to put in the envelopes. It’s the little things that can help lift someone’s spirits, she says — the seder plate included in the Passover envelope may be plastic, but a large cloth napkin that can class up a hospital bed meal tray makes a world of difference.

Kolthoff says she goes so far as to lie down while going through the contents of an envelope, to test how different objects might be usable to someone who’s confined to a hospital bed.

“The more ribbon I can use [in packaging the envelope’s contents] the happier I am,” she says. The fact that children decorate the envelopes plays into that. “When you’re feeling isolated, who wouldn’t want a piece of art done by a child to hang on the wall?”

“If you’re Jewish and you end up in the hospital during Passover or the High Holy Days, chances are it’s not elective surgery,” says Rabbi Eric Weiss, CEO of the BAJHC. “Regardless of if you’re secular or how observant you are on a day-to-day basis, there’s a vulnerability that I think comes from being in the hospital that tends to bring a spiritual hunger to the forefront for a lot of people. It’s a desire to be recognized for who you are in a medical setting that can otherwise feel very anonymous.”

Rabbi Elliot Kukla delivers “Passover in an envelope” to Susan Leeds, program coordinator of the chaplain program at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

Weiss says he hears from patients who have received envelopes that just having something to put on display — a makeshift Chanukah menorah, for example — lends a human element to their experience. Visitors who might feel awkward or not know what to say to a seriously ill loved one can strike up a conversation about the decorations, which often include a poster of a j. holiday edition cover.

The program also helps chaplains — who might be responsible for many people at a large hospital — to engage on a more personal level with each patient.

Paula Shatkin, the community social worker who does chaplaincy work for Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopol, says there’s nothing quite like watching a patient receive an envelope from the BAJHC.

“People are so moved, and it’s so incredibly moving to see that reaction,” Shatkin says. “I think there are plenty of people in the hospital who really don’t have much of a support system, and to feel in that moment like your community knows where you are, that your community is watching out for you, really has nothing to do with how observant you are.”

Weiss says he also hears frequently from chaplains who are not Jewish, who talk about how rewarding it is when the envelopes help them to better connect and build trust with a Jewish patient.

Rabbi Elliot Kukla, who’s been on staff at the BAJHC for five years and was previously a chaplain at UCSF’s Department of Psychiatry, puts together the special prayer and poem booklets included in holiday envelopes for patients in psychiatric units. Some 26 envelopes will be delivered to these patients around the Bay Area in the days ahead of Passover.

In addition to addressing the loneliness of being in the hospital, Kukla says, part of his goal with these patients is to address the stigma of mental illness.

“In addition to the isolation, there’s often a sense of not wanting to share where they are, feeling scared about the impact that would have on their communities,” Kukla explains. “Sometimes that might mean they’re not getting visitors, or that their own rabbi wouldn’t know where they were or what they were going through. This component of the program is ideally a kind of anonymous way to get some companionship — when they receive that envelope from the chaplain, they get connected to the Jewish community without having to reach out.”

Some of the prayers in the book he puts together “speak to the fact that in Jewish tradition, in the Bible, there are lot of characters who have struggled with their emotional state,” says the rabbi. “The idea is to break down the stigma both by being a proxy of the community, and by sharing with people that they’re really not alone in their emotional distress and suffering.”

Since going through their son’s ordeal three years ago, the Simons have made sure to tell their friends about the BAJHC and the envelope program. One year after Zachary was discharged from the hospital, they held a healing ceremony during a Shabbat service at Ner Shalom. Among the attendees was Kukla, whom they’d gotten to know over the previous year.

“He and the healing center had been such a huge support for us,” says Dafna. “And this was a way to mark the time that had passed … We tried to focus on the journey of it [rather than the painful memories]. You know, ‘That was then, and now, we’re healing.’”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.