People and programmes committed to taking care of those in need
By Chandrea Serebro
Rabbi Mordechai Abraham and a woman from the Jewish community were sitting in the Linksfield Park Clinic when the manager approached him. It might sound like a bad start to a ‘A-Rabbi-walks-into-a-choose-your-own-scenario’ joke, but the only laughing part is the joy that would soon arise out of this chance encounter. The manager of the Linksfield Park Clinic approached Rabbi Abraham and asked, “Rabbi, would you like an office in the hospital?” True to form, Rabbi Abraham – who champions the needs of all people, including those struggling with addiction, the needy of the community, the sick and their families, and just generally Jews all round – jumped at the chance.
The lady witnessing the scene was blown away, and what was unfolding before her very eyes resonated with her – and not without good reason. Previously, she was forced to fly without notice to see her daughter who had taken ill suddenly in Eretz Yisroel, at the hospital in Beer Sheva, arriving late erev Shabbos. She had armed herself with a couple of challas and some grape juice to get her through Shabbos. Unbeknownst to her, though, the rabbi at the hospital was ready to answer to her needs – providing her with a place to sleep, food to eat, and a space to spend Shabbos. So inspired was she by this earlier experience that this became her dream to bring the idea back home. The hand of Hashem conspired to bring the two dreamers together, and the manager of the Linksfield Park Clinic was the messenger.
There and then, plans were made to establish a hospitality room at the Linksfield Park Clinic to cater to the community, and very quickly they acquired everything that they needed to do this. The room is what Rabbi Abraham describes as an “oasis” in the middle of what is often one’s desert, a “saviour to so many people”. Together, Rabbi Abraham and his partner in chesed decided to stock the room with the best, highest quality, and highest level of kashrut foods and supplies, with a fridge and a freezer full to the brim of every kind of food imaginable, from pastas and lasagnes to meats and kugels, yoghurts and fruit, and breads and cheeses. And they didn’t skimp.
It is there for people to use throughout the week and, of course, on Shabbos, when acquiring anything would otherwise be very difficult; all for the use of Jewish people who might arrive at the hospital without kosher food being ordered, and family members visiting and waiting for their loved ones. “It is my complete delight. I come from a Hungarian background and Hungarians love feeding people, and I’m the same.” With signs around the room telling people to use as much as they want, without the need to replenish or restock the room, all the foodstuffs, disposables, cleaning materials, and grape juice are donated by generous suppliers in the community – “ besimcha” (happily) – for people to use.
It started when Rabbi Abraham approached Moishes Butchery, and instead of getting the discount he was hoping for, he was given free range to pick off the shelves whatever the needs for the rooms might be. And every kosher establishment he approached after that – Michelos, Deejays, Tiberius, Shulas, Friends bakery, Orit’s bakery, Off the Strip, Pieworks, Kosherworld, Adam’s International, Genuine Foods, Homelys, Gelatissimo – was on board to help Rabbi Abraham and his partner in chessed achieve the “blessing” that the room has become to so many.
Because it is not only food – it is a place of respite, where you can relax, wait in peace, have a rest and sleep over if need be, and recharge your body, mind, and spirit while you wait for your family members. It has a selection of Siddurim and Tehillim books, chargers for all devices, and books and toiletries to make the visitor as comfortable as they can be. Thanks goes to an incredible team of over a dozen volunteers who are involved in preparing the food, going erev Shabbos to switch on the urn and the hot plates and warm a kugel so that anyone using the room over Shabbos can have hot food, and revisiting after Shabbos to clean up and return the room to the weekly setup – tirelessly cleaning the room up every week, and ensuring the room is stocked by shopping for the necessary supplies.
It is entirely befitting Rabbi Abraham’s approach of giving to all people. More than just the room, Rabbi Abraham goes around handing out challahs and wine to the Jewish patients in the hospital, with Tehillim and other prayers on a booklet just to spread further Shabbos cheer and chizuk (inspiration) to help people for a refuah shleimah. “The room lacks for nothing. And it is wonderful that everyone benefits in his time of need, no matter who he is.” To experience the chesed of others through this room makes it a great equaliser, a reminder to appreciate not only what you have, but also what other people can offer you.
And, in a way, this is what Steven (Shlomo Yoel) Blieden, z”l, dreamed of bringing to the world – a way to give and receive at the same time, and like Rabbi Abraham, bringing new meaning to the idea of hospitality. For many years, Steven dreamed of a hospitality programme that was so simple, yet which had so much potential. Like his own “baby”, he nurtured his vision and grew it from its root to a sophisticated process of hachnasat orchim (hospitality to guests), lovingly tweaking it until it satisfied his aim, which was to ensure that each and every person who visited the shul – whether part of the community or just a guest for the night – received a Shabbos invitation that made him feel welcomed. The point of departure for the whole idea was to make every person feel valued and wanted. It was to be a simple but anonymous programme that would prove effective. There would be two envelopes in the shul hall, one which contained the names of families wanting to host people, strangers or fellow shul members alike, at their home; and the other would contain the name of those wanting to be hosted for Shabbos or Yom Tov.
The host would take a name or names out of first envelope along with the number for the person in question, so that he would be able to call the person up personally an extend an invitation before the Wednesday of that week’s Shabbos, so that the guest would feel cared for rather than someone who was alone at shul without a meal. By taking the effort to arrange the hospitality in advance, and by personally phoning to invite them, the guest would feel expected, catered for, and welcomed at the table.
And there were secondary benefits to be had which made the project even more special, many of which were the project of Steven’s wife, Susan, but which greatly enhanced the appeal and the reach of the original idea. “It was always very important to Steven that younger couples had the opportunity to be guests at more established families within the community, and this secondary benefit became an aim for me to get on board in building on the idea. It appealed to me because it encourages socialisation in the community, and helps the younger family develop their sense of tradition. It is so simple, yet so clever. By inviting younger families into more established homes, perhaps with a more established mesorah (tradition), they could possibly serve as mentors or adoptive families to these younger families, an extra source of support and guidance to them – particularly if their own families are not advancing at the same pace as their children in their acceptance of yiddishkeit.”
It is a wonderfully positive concept – people are encouraged to break out of their comfort zones, they get to know other people, the community extends themselves out of their usual framework, newcomers are welcomed, and people feel more comfortable. Unfortunately, due to various reasons and logistical issues, Steven never got to see his baby take its first steps, and when he passed away twelve years ago, after having spoken about bringing his project to fruition all the while when he was ill, Susan was determined to revive the project of her late husband and make it happen. “I was determined to get this going, in some form, as a tribute to his bravery, tenacity, and determination to have this project reach fruition, and to create a tangible reminder of the special brand of kindness that he imprinted on the world.”
Steven was inspired by the days gone by in the old Jewish Yeoville, when a person would come to shul without plans for any meals, fervently hoping to get a Shabbos invitation – even sticking around after davening until the last person would leave, in the hope that someone would invite him home for the Shabbos meal. “After having similar experiences while travelling abroad, we came back determined that this would not happen in Yeoville, and we took it upon ourselves to try not to allow this to happen to others if we could possibly prevent it. Many a time, I found myself with surprise visitors at my table. Many a time they were elderly meshulochim (tzedakah collectors), with false or even no teeth, who had been brought home because when Steven invited he marketed my food as ‘always soft’. I think Steven meant overcooked, but that was his humour and his kindness.”
Susan succeeded in launching the project at Ohr Somayach, as part of a committed, organised team of five, who coordinate 35 families who are willing and wanting to host. “The community is teaching their kids an amazing lessons of hachnasat orchim, chesed, and how easy it actually is to do chesed by such a simple act as inviting extra people into one’s home. The visitors benefit by being validated as people who are worthy of an invitation without agenda, and what this does for self-esteem is immeasurable. And the community has become friendlier in the eyes of the broader Jewish community, and warm and welcoming.”
It is a project that has broader reach as well, and it is imperative for such projects to continue and develop further. More and more people are becoming lonely and alone through divorce, emigration, death and illness, and empty nests. “We need to build on and keep our communities thriving and together.”