Being a hospital rabbi “is not a job, it’s a way of life”
It’s evening at the JGH, and a group of children has circled a patient-care floor in Pavilion K with greeting cards of every colour of the rainbow. Decorated with hand-drawn pictures and “get well” messages, the cards would soon bring smiles to the faces of patients.
The children are accompanied by their parents and by Rabbi Barak Nissim Hetsroni, the hospital’s Chaplain and Spiritual Advisor.
“Let’s visit room number 31,” Rabbi Hetsroni says, smiling to the group. In that room, an elderly man lies in a hospital bed, while three of his loved ones sit nearby on a window sill.
“I’ve brought in some children to visit you, like you’ve always wanted,” Rabbi Hetsroni says to the patient.
“Wow,” he replies with a breathy voice.
The children enter, forming a line at the side of his bed, and present a couple of cards to him. The man smiles, eyes watery.
“Would you like my son to play a song?” a mother asks, turning to her son, who’s wearing a guitar case like a backpack.
The man nods slowly. A rendition of “Ode to Joy” fills the room, everyone is completely silent, except for the patient, who hums along.
“Thank you, thank you,” one of his loved ones says. “We could have never expected this.”
Organizing these kinds of events is high on the list of Rabbi Hetsroni’s plans. Since taking on the role in July 2017, he has organized a number of events to engage patients, staff and families.
“My focus is on bringing in groups of students from various schools, to eventually come on a weekly basis,” he says. “To start, they’ve been coming mainly before the Jewish holidays.”
For Hanukah in December, Rabbi Hetsroni welcomed more than 300 student volunteers, including a choir. Small groups of children sang to patients, while others distributed sufganiyot, a type of donut, to patients and staff. Arts and crafts sessions were also held.
“We’ve received very positive reactions from patients, staff and families,” he says.
On the festival of Purim in March, approximately 400 gift packages were given to patients and staff by groups of volunteers. Rabbi Hetsroni organized three events for the holiday, including a Purim party, where 60 people attended.
“Slowly but surely, I’m getting to know staff from all departments,” he says. “Now when I tell them about our events, there’s a personal connection. A few staff members told me, ‘It’s the first time in my life that I came to a Purim party, because you personally invited me.’”
Although Rabbi Hetsroni often focuses on events with a Jewish theme, he notes that he tends to the needs of patients of all backgrounds. All types of clergy often visit the hospital, and the chapel (synagogue) on the sixth floor of Pavilion B welcomes staff, patients and visitors of all faiths.
Some of Rabbi Hetsroni’s other responsibilities include advising patients on spiritual matters, visiting them, working on medical ethics cases, and organizing Jewish prayer services.
“It’s not a job,” he emphasizes. “It’s a way of life. What I like most is that it’s possible for me to make changes in people’s lives,” he adds with a smile, “particularly when it could be their darkest hours—at times when they are most vulnerable.”
Visitation, in particular, comes with its challenges, he explains. “I can’t help as many people as I would ideally like to. And, no matter what you do, eventually, when a person you’ve helped passes away, it hurts.”
Rabbi Hetsroni is working on several long-term projects, including developing an app for the Department Volunteer and Pastoral Services, where requests can be made for prayer services, visitations, and more. He also plans to create and distribute brochures detailing the services that are offered and the volunteering opportunities that are available.
“I’d like to make sure every patient is aware of all of our services,” he says. “I want our services to be used as much as possible. I want people to be calling me at any given time.”