Life Support: Stories of My Chaplaincy and Bikur Cholim Rounds by Rachel Stein, 213 pages, (Lakewood, New Jersey: 2016), published by Israel Bookshop
“What do you mean you won’t do a baptism?” asked a nurse. “All of the other chaplains do!” Rachel Stein, working in a hospital with mostly non-Jewish patients, whom she prayed with and comforted, was put on the spot many times because she is Jewish. That didn’t keep her from completing the chaplaincy training. Now Rebbetzin Stein has written a book about her experiences as the co-founder of Bikur Cholim of Atlanta and as a Jewish chaplain.
In her moving introduction, Rachel, who has written eight children’s books, tells about losing her father at age four and how difficult it was to grow up without a father and grandparents. Rachel says she sought out the elderly. “I found the elderly to be cute, fun people who twinkled when they laughed and exuded unconditional love.” She was also so driven to visit the ill that at the age of 14 she volunteered in a cancer hospital, “drawing immense satisfaction from bringing sunshine into the patients’ days.”
When her mother became ill, Rachel was 25, married, had young children at home and was pregnant. Living two hours away from her mother’s home in Philadelphia, she hoped to visit often, but the drive was too much for her. Then a special friend, Elaine, offered to take her every week. This lasted for a month, enabling Rachel to be there on the day that her mother’s soul left this world.
“How can I ever repay you for what you did for me?” Rachel asked Elaine.
“When someone needs help, you be there for them,” said Elaine. “And that’s how you will repay me.” It’s obvious from reading Life Support that Rachel has repaid Elaine many times.
There was no organized bikur cholim society when Rachel and Michele Asa started one in Atlanta in the merit of a refuah sheilamah for Danny Miller, a father, aged 34, battling cancer. Everyone loved Danny and he loved them. Each morning he woke up to a sign in his bedroom: “Hello, G-d. It’s me, Dan Miller, reporting for service.”
Even while enduring chemotherapy, Danny did mitzvos for others, especially bikur cholim. With his warm smile and sunny disposition, he uplifted the sick. He also had a thirst for Torah. He arranged to learn with several chavrusos and was “…determined to master as much Torah as he could.” Later, everyone who visited Danny knew that he yearned to hear a new thought in Torah.
One day, Rachel received a call from his devoted wife. “We’re asking the community to come over today,” she said softly. “Danny wants to say goodbye.” Rachel writes about the day throngs of people came to the Miller’s house to tell Danny how much he meant to them and their children. “A minyan many times over formed around him, and our community experienced a second Yom Kippur.”
When Danny Miller passed away, the Bikur Cholim of Atlanta was dedicated in his memory.
Changing names for privacy, Rachel, in her vibrant, easy-to-read style, shares remarkable stories of volunteers and those they visit. The stories are vignettes – short but powerful. She takes the reader along with middle-school girls who spontaneously dance and sing at a nursing home. “I can still see the smiles of the girls as they locked eyes with their elderly friends,” writes Rachel. Titles of other vignettes about volunteers include: “Two Men on a Mission,” “The Perk Lady,” “A Southern Belle,” “Shidduch Services” and “A Pastrami Sandwich on Rye.”
One story, which Rachel titles, “The Call of the Shofar” is told in the voice of Chana, a woman in a rehabilitation facility after a serious fall. On Rosh Hashanah, Chana waited for Rabbi G. to blow shofar for her.R.M. Grossblatt