A nurse works with a Covid patient in Fullerton, Dec. 25, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Francine Orr-Los Angeles Times-Getty Images)
A nurse works with a Covid patient in Fullerton, Dec. 25, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Francine Orr-Los Angeles Times-Getty Images)

Everybody comes to the hospital. With our Jewish healing center closing, who will be there for you when it’s your turn?

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Everybody comes to the hospital. That’s one thing I sometimes tell my patients at UCSF Health, and today it’s my message to the Bay Area Jewish community.

Not everybody comes to synagogue, but everybody comes to the hospital. One of the blessings and challenges of my job as a major hospital chaplain is that I see the full cross-section of our Jewish community coming through my doors. From homeless Jews to major donors, from secular Jews to ultra-Orthodox, everybody comes to the hospital.

This June 30, the closure of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center will be a sad day for everybody. Although I’m a rabbi at UCSF, my job is to see all of the patients at Mount Zion Hospital; my job is not set up to see Jewish patients across our four campuses on demand.

That need has been served for the past 30 years here (and at other local hospitals) by BAJHC, which provided caring rabbis who are also board-certified chaplains to visit our patients and take referrals out of the hospital.

When a Jewish patient needed a visit, BAJHC would send a highly trained rabbi to meet their needs. When patients desired a continuing Jewish connection after leaving the hospital, BAJHC was there to help.

Bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is an important mitzvah that Jewish communities have cherished and prioritized since ancient times. Traditionally, Jewish communities had groups that offered such care. In recent years, BAJHC has carried this mitzvah for our community, helping to make our community righteous, helping to make us a community that fulfills our Jewish obligations.

Now there will be a void, and with it an obligation for this well-resourced Jewish community to visit our sick.

The majority of Bay Area Jews are unaffiliated with a synagogue and do not have a congregational rabbi to visit them — but they come to the hospital, because everybody comes to the hospital.

RELATED: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center to shut down after 31 years

Some need Vidui, the ritual of absolution before death, and either don’t know how or are physically unable to recite it themselves.

Some face challenging and consequential medical decisions and need a perspective versed in Jewish tradition and ethics.

Some are far from home, as UCSF accepts patients from all over California and neighboring states who have specialized medical needs.

For many, hospitalization is a life-changing experience that becomes a time of spiritual searching and seeking. It is not uncommon for Jews with little prior Jewish practice to become more interested in Judaism while in the hospital.

Everybody comes to the hospital, including those who aren’t seen at synagogue.

I remember an alcoholic and drug-addicted Jewish patient in a hospital emergency room who knew she was staring down death if she continued using. She reached out to Judaism, through me, as a lifeline, a way of structuring her life anew around meeting her needs in healthful rather than deadly ways. She had not talked to a rabbi in decades.

I was able to provide emergent spiritual care as she lay there waiting to be examined, and I referred her to BAJHC for continuing rabbinic care in the hope that it would help her live.

I remember another patient with chronic illness who needed ongoing spiritual support, whereas I only have the capacity to support people during their hospitalization. I referred him to BAJHC, where he received the care he needed.

Rabbi Eric Wiess, CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, speaking at a BAHJC event in 2015. (Photo/Courtesy Weiss)
Rabbi Eric Weiss, CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, speaking at a BAJHC event in 2015. (Photo/Courtesy Weiss)

It is profoundly troubling, operationally and morally, to think that our well-resourced community will now have a void where BAJHC used to be. Who in our community will care for our spiritually neediest? Whose loving hand will reach out to Jews who have no one else?

Isn’t there anyone?

If moral appeals aren’t enough, consider the times all of us have heard Jewish leaders, donors and foundations scratching their heads wondering why unaffiliated Jews don’t affiliate. We don’t realize it’s we ourselves in the Jewish establishment who have been pushing them away, and this is yet another such case.

BAJHC’s closure is a sad day for Bay Area Jewry. Risking shortsightedness and insularity, we have given short shrift to all those Jews who come through my hospital’s doors but don’t come through other Jewish doors.

Can it really be true that no one will care for them, even as donors and foundations ponder how to reach them?

I call our well-resourced community to moral and sensible action.

I don’t believe, and I invite you not to believe, that the Bay Area Jewish community cannot find the funds to visit our sick.

We must now pick up the pieces of holiness that were shattered when BAJHC was forced to close, and build a new organized structure that will meet our community’s religious obligation to visit our sick — and that will help with our community’s long-term sustainability, too. Everybody will benefit.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Jeremy D. Sher
Rabbi Jeremy D. Sher

Rabbi Jeremy Sher is a hospital chaplain in San Francisco and runs Jewish programs for the San Francisco Night Ministry. He lives in Oakland. Contact him at [email protected].