Making a Hospital Hospitable for Jewish Families

Dr. Steven M. Altschuler, Rabbi Sruli Fried and Dr. Noel Rosales celebrated the opening of CHOP's Kosher Pantry with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2010.

Dr. Steven M. Altschuler, Rabbi Sruli Fried and Dr. Noel Rosales celebrated the opening of CHOP’s Kosher Pantry with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2010.

Last month, hundreds of employees from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) gathered to learn about orthodox Jewish culture and practice. This lecture, which was part of the Family Centered Care Grand Rounds at CHOP, aimed at familiarizing physicians, nurses and the entire CHOP staff with the subtleties of the orthodox Jewish culture and the impact on healthcare.

The speaker, Rabbi Sruli Fried, Director of Programs and Services for the New Jersey Chapter of Chai Lifeline and Camp Simcha ,started by introducing the audience to the many flavors of Judaism from Orthodoxy to Conservatism through the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. While the food restrictions such as the requirement to eat kosher is somewhat known by the general public, others aspects of what makes the core of the orthodox Jewish identity are less well known.

Before developing the details of the cultural and religious aspects that come into play as an orthodox Jewish patient enters a Hospital, Rabbi Fried cautioned the CHOP audience on attributing any patient request to the religion of the individual. People should be seen as individuals first, he said, and as members of the Jewish community only after that.

He related the story of a nurse who after being asked by a new Jewish mother for cloth diapers, wrongly assumed that orthodox Jewish parents cannot use regular commercial diapers. This is why this talk was so important as it helped absolve misconceptions and educate healthcare workers on the real issues Orthodox patients face when they are hospitalized.

So what are these issues orthodox Jewish inpatients face? They can be many, and those will again depend on the level of observance of the patient. Orthodox Jewish men will, for example, typically avoid all contact with women. They will not shake hands and will feel uncomfortable if a female doctor offers her hand as she introduces herself. In that situation, again the individuality might trump tradition as some men might accept to shake hands so as not to embarrass the physician, while others will refrain from doing so. Rabbi Fried suggested for this specific situation that doctors and nurses should be aware of this particularity and casually ask before offering to shake hands.

Many limitations arise on the Shabbat Holiday which starts at sundown on Friday night and ends one hour after sundown on Saturday night. The start of the beginning and end of Shabbat are known to the minute and depend on the geographical location. During Shabbat, orthodox Jews do not use electricity, they do not use phones, they do not drive, and they do not cook. To visit their relative in the hospital on a Shabbat, Orthodox Jews will have to make sleeping and eating arrangements and stay close to the hospital. In addition, they are not allowed to carry anything, or push a baby stroller unless the hospital is part of an >eruv, a virtual geographic neighborhood enclosure delimited by a physical string.

Respecting these strict laws on Shabbat can be problematic for an orthodox patient. He will, for example be unable to press a button to adjust the bed inclination. He will be unable to adjust lighting in his room on Friday night. Except for an important medical reason, he will refrain from calling the nurse by pressing a button. Most likely his friends or relatives will look in the hallway for the nurse to bring her to the patient’s room.

Of course, as rigid as these Shabbat observance laws are, they no longer apply when a medical emergency arises. Rabbi Fried introduced the CHOP audience to the concept of pikuach nefesh: the strongest Jewish prohibitions disappear when a life itself or emotional well-being are at play. In these situations, all restrictions no longer apply, and orthodox Jews will take that ambulance or drive on Shabbat in a medical emergency.

As it strives to better accommodate the growing number of orthodox Jewish Orthodox patients (perhaps 20 children on a typical day), The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has developed a number of initiatives to address the specific needs of its Jewish Orthodox patients. A menu of available kosher food is available upon request. A kosher pantry (located next to CHOP’s main cafeteria) opened in 2010 to offer families a designated room where they can store, prepare and eat their food. This space also features books and practical items to help families keep up with their faith during their hospital stay. Special attention was spent by Rabbi Fried and the CHOP staff to ensure that the public spaces within the hospital would address the very specific needs of Kohanim.

We commend the staff of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for their sensitivity to the particular needs of their young Jewish patients and their families.



  1. says

    A Personal Connection

    On July 15, 2007, Gabriel Tayar z”l, a schoolmate of my son Jonathan, lost his battle with cancer. Gabriel was almost 13 years old, an age where by all rights a boy should be enjoying his final preparations for his Bar Mitzvah.

    On Shavuot this year, Gabe had to be hospitalized. When Jonathan and I visited Gabe and his family at CHOP, Gabe’s mother, Barbara Lichtman, told us about Chai Lifeline and the work that they do. They also directed us to the well equipped kosher pantry provided by Chai Lifeline.

    In a letter to me, Barbara told me more about the wonderful services Chai Lifeline provides:

    Chai Lifeline sponsored a trip to a Phillies game for sick kids and their families which incorporated meeting the Phillies. Because of the seriousness of Gabe’s condition, Rabbi Fried told me that night that Gabe was their #1 priority and if there was anything the organization can do, including arranging for him to go to Camp Simcha, it would be taken care of. Our two last Shabbat dinners together were supplied by them and Rabbi Fried’s shiva call along with the entire community here was very much appreciated.

    Chai Lifeline is a wonderful organization that provides so many wonderful services to a population that is so needy in such a complex way and does it all in such a haimesha style. They really are extraordinary.

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